Talking with some folks who were in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach, with some viewing it as self-serving. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.
Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.
It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.
Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.
But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.
Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?
We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.
These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.