The captured scene of Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson quietly conferring on the actions of Donald Trump created its own sensation, but in many ways served as a microcosm of current global tensions. It was an unfortunately timed incident that nevertheless exposed inevitable realities.
The nature of power in a world of nation states is growing ever more precarious and divided, as “strong” power seeks ascendancy over “soft” power advocates. Only three years ago, new research emerged examining the 30 soft power nations and their growing effect on global influence. Canada was one of those 30. Yes, there were Russia, Syria and North Korea, who flaunted military might and followed autocratic tendencies. But “soft power” nations were on the rise, collaborating, tackling serious issues like climate change, refugees, gender and social inequality, and the pursuit of a safer planet. But that was just as Donald Trump was emerging as president and all those best laid plans fell into disarray.
In the world of soft power nations, power itself was becoming more diffuse, capable of transcending a world of global boundaries and carving new channels of influence. The 30 soft power nations sought to navigate this more unpredictable world by working together to fashion a more interconnected reality.
It was all predicated by the belief that hard power nations could no longer influence their own outcomes at will by going rogue and using brute force to get their way. But that’s not what happened. In a short time of only three years, America itself, the great architect of global institutions, security collaborations and quarterback of the global financial world, opted to become master of its own fate under the mantra of making America great again. It became a direct challenge to the soft power nations, some of whom were caught talking about the American president in the candid filming during last week’s NATO summit.
What would professor Joseph Nye think now of his “soft power” term he created three decades ago and which maintained that “power with others can be more effective than power over others?” America is now choosing to go it alone, in the process alienating allies and infusing divisions around the globe. Brexit provides a clear air of unpredictability on the global stage, but it has been America’s recalibrating of its own international influence that has turned such unpredictability into something more dangerous.
All this has become more apparent as a result of the Mueller Report and impeachment proceedings in America. Leaving the politics of it all aside, the story that is emerging is one of the world’s number one superpower more comfortable with hard power rulers than with traditional soft power allies. The revelation of the president’s preference for collaborating more with Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkey than with NATO, the United Nations, or even its neighbours is more like some alternate reality than what was built following the end of the Second World War. The rebalancing of power towards softer ends has been turned on its head and it remains a far more difficult and dangerous world to navigate.
America endured a milder about-face a century ago, when President Warren Harding pulled back on Woodrow Wilson’s preference for being globally engaged and leading a League of Nations towards a more peaceful world. Harding engineered a disengagement with his own “America first” policy the soon resulted in World War Two. America wasn’t the cause of that conflict but had become its enabler through its lack of attention to international responsibility.
We could now be on a parallel track, as Trump’s America pulls out of decades-long trade partnerships, security alliances and assistance for the developing world. Along the way, he has alienated the nation’s traditional friends: Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Britain, Japan, South Korea, and numerous others.
Uncertainty is now everywhere and one emerging reality is becoming clearer: hard power is back and it’s disrupting the world order in unpredictable ways. Soft power nations are, for the moment, reeling from the effects and seeking to recapture their initiative. The sudden and volatile geopolitical shifts have left the world in a more dangerous place – a world in which soft power must pull together in order to pull back from the edge of global anarchy.
Canada’s role in all this isn’t so much crucial as it is needed. Trudeau’s captured dialogue on the American president, while unfortunate, nevertheless revealed how all the softer powers feel these days and its likely they communicate about along endless channels by more private means. The secret is to stay together and pursue policies on climate change, economic fairness, shared security, and democratic reform. Should that coalition itself pull apart, the world will become the Wild West and all bets will be off.