Back to the Past? Canada and a Not-So-New World

Keynote address to the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States (ACSUS), Montréal, 14 November 2019


Let me begin by thanking Chris Kirkey and the Centre for the Study of Canada at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, the sponsors of this ACSUS lunch, for asking me to speak to you today on Canada and the new world of world politics in which we find ourselves.

How can we conceptualize that world? As Chris said in his very kind introduction, he had suggested when we talked about today’s topic that I might want to draw inspiration from Stanley Kramer’s classic 1963 movie, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” – the far-too-many mads underscoring just how crazy it is. But I am not sure that we should draw much inspiration from this movie. For Kramer’s “mads” weren’t about the insanity of the world — but about the madcap adventures that the star-studded cast got up to trying to find Smiler Grogan’s money. And there is nothing particularly madcap about the world today.

Perhaps a more appropriate inspiration was another cultural icon from my childhood: Bizarro World, or Htrae (Earth spelled backwards). Dedicated readers of DC Comics will remember that Bizarro World is the cube-shaped world where the watchword of the inhabitants is: “Us do opposite of all Earthly things” — beginning with always misusing declensions and conjugations and usually leaving out the definite article — because everything on Bizarro World is inverted.

Superman fans will remember that there are inverted versions of all the characters, beginning with Bizarro No. 1, the inverted Superman. There is Bizarro Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen. Even Mister Mxyzptlk, or Mxy for short, has a Bizarro version: Mister Kltpzyxm (Mxyzptlk spelled backwards).

It is very tempting to see the present president of the United States as a kind of Bizarro POTUS — someone who thinks, and says, and does the opposite of what we expect a US president to think, and say, and do.

For we just don’t expect a US president to behave as bizarrely as Donald J. Trump has done in his international diplomacy. We just don’t expect the US president to be so impetuous and non-strategic in foreign and defence policy; to be so aggressively ignorant about how the global capitalist economy works, or to be so glibly dismissive of America’s friends and allies, but so star-struck by America’s adversaries.

But here’s the problem: while Mr Trump might be a Bizarro POTUS, the world that is evolving is not at all a Bizarro World. One of the consequences of having such a bizarre individual as president is that it muddies how we interpret other changes in global politics that are unfolding during Mr Trump’s presidency — changes that are occurring quite independently of the president.

These transformative elements include:

  • the continuing rise of China as a great power, which under President Xi Jinping is increasingly assertive and increasingly arrogant;
  • the continuing challenges of a revanchist Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin, as eager as ever to disrupt the dominance and unity of the West;
  • the continuing stresses on European politics from the interrelated challenges of destabilization on its southern, eastern and southeastern marches, a growing nativism, and the on-going saga that is Brexit.

And, most importantly:

  • the continuing trends in American politics that Mr Trump was a symptom and a reflection of, rather than the cause of: a weariness about global military engagement; a propensity towards protectionism that seems as evergreen as ever; and a skepticism about multilateralism and multilateral institutions.

Many of the key elements of the transformation of global politics we are seeing today would have unfolded had the 2016 elections gone the other way.

However, what having a Bizarro POTUS in the White House does is to accelerate many of the changes we are seeing.

Indeed, it could well be that Henry Kissinger was right when he remarked in 2018 that Donald Trump was “one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and force it to give up its old pretenses” (adding cattily that “it doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this…”).[1]

But if Mr Trump might be auguring the arrival of a new era in global politics, we should ask how much is new, and how much is old.

President Trump might be new — in the sense of never-seen-before — but there are number of aspects of the “old” world of world politics that we are seeing re-emerging —rising nationalism, growing nativism, increasing protectionism; the re-emergence of great-power rivalry; an increasing fragmentation of the globalized economy; and the evanescence of the institutions, assumptions, and practices that we had grown increasingly used to since the end of the Cold War thirty years ago.

To capture this mix of old and new, I was tempted to use the purposely paradoxical phrase that Victor Davis Hanson used to describe the emerging world order after the Global Financial Crisis. In a National Review piece published in 2010 — this was before he had gone full MAGA-Trumpista[2] — Hanson argued that we were seeing what he called the “new old world order” — to stress that the so-called “new world order” that had been ushered in with the end of the Cold War was breaking apart, with countries, as he put it, “returning to the ancient passions, rivalries, and differences of past centuries.”[3]

However, the problem is that the “new old world” is not as fully the old world that Hanson paints. One can look back to the past to see some of the elements re-emerging, but there are too many new elements — think of the emergence of information warfare, for example — to be comfortable with the idea that it is all about the re-emergence of the past.

That is why I prefer the formulation of the late Carl Jacobsen of Carleton University. In 1993, Jacobsen penned a trenchant critique of the “New World Order” — capitalized, of course — that was then in the making.

He called it the “not-so-new” world, arguing that deeply embedded in the new world order were elements of the “old” that were asserting themselves, with the possible consequence that the new world would, as he put it, “degenerate into something drearily familiar,” marked by the “tribal ethnocentrism and the politics of fear and exclusion” so deeply associated with older world orders.[4]

In my view Jacobsen’s “not-so-new” conveys more accurately the idea that there is a new world, to be sure, but we need to recognize the longer-term impacts of the old.

This is particularly true, I want to argue, for any consideration of how Canada must go about navigating this not-so-new world — with apologies to Lloyd Axworthy.[5]

And here, it seems to me, we need to go back to the past.

Some of you will suspect, correctly, that my title today is a purposeful counter-echo of John Mearsheimer’s “Back to the Future,” an article published in 1990, before the Soviet Union was even wound down.[6] That piece still makes for interesting reading thirty years on.

But his title — back to the future — didn’t make a whole lot of sense, either then or now. To be sure, it was a good riff on the very successful and popular Back to the Future film series about the adventures of Marty McFly — the first one in 1985 and the second in 1989. (The final film in the trilogy was released in May 1990, around the time when the summer issue of International Security with Mearsheimer’s article was published.)

It certainly wouldn’t have been as trendy, but Mearsheimer might as well have called his piece “back to the past,” for he was in essence encouraging us to look backwards to think about the likely consequences of the end of the Cold War — still very much a work in progress when he was writing that article.

I too think we need to look backwards to see some of the outlines of the world that is unfolding today, and what implications that has for Canada and Canadian foreign and defence policy.

I want to focus on one development — the most important development, I would argue. And that is what can be called the “Trump cession” — the process of ceding US leadership in global politics.

The stresses that have been placed on the American-led alliance system that was so central to how Canadians conceived of their grand strategy after the Second World War have been significant. And while the American state apparatus tries hard to work around what Daniel Drezner has so aptly called America’s “toddler-in-chief,”[7] and keep that alliance system chugging along, the reality is that there is only so much stress that an institution can take before it breaks.

Already we are seeing evidence that the West as a whole is straining under the stress of a president who sees America’s alliances as little more than protection rackets. Trump’s casual dismissal of America’s allies across both the Pacific and the Atlantic, his easy abandonment of allies like the Kurds, his willingness to cede American power and leadership in a range of different contexts – these developments all point to a system under stress.

While American allies everywhere have been stressed by the “America First” inclinations of President Trump, it is in the transatlantic context that we can see clear indications of fractures in the system.

The most recent indication are the remarks of President Emmanuel Macron of France to The Economist in early November 2019. Under Trump, Macron claimed, the US was “turning its back” on Europe, putting NATO “on the edge of a precipice.” “Pour moi,” he said, “c’est la mort cérébrale de l’OTAN” — for me, it is the brain death of NATO.[8]

While Macron was widely criticized for not being “helpful,” he was just saying out loud what many other Europeans have been worrying about. As early as May 2017, just months after Trump’s inauguration, Angela Merkel observed that “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over… And so all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”[9]

One of Merkel’s potential successors as chancellor, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, put it this way in November 2019: NATO is and will remain the anchor of European security. But it is also clear that Europe must increase its own complementary ability to act.”[10]

Across the Pacific, a similar logic is playing out. While the Trump administration is seeking to decouple the United States from China, and disrupt the symbiotic economic links that have increasingly bound the two great powers over the last thirty years, it has been no less careless with its Western allies across the Pacific.

In short, as Richard Fadden put it in his address accepting his Vimy Award in November 2019, the West has become increasingly dysfunctional as a result of what he diplomatically called a “much restrained US approach to leadership.”[11]

The logical implications of the Trump cession for Canada are drastic, since American leadership has been central to how Canadians think about the world and their place in it.

Unfortunately, however, Canadians have been slow to recognize the impact of these changes.

Canada’s 2017 defence paper, Strong, Secure, Engaged, is a nice example.[12] That paper says what every formal statement of Canadian defence policy before it has said. The defence papers published in 1964, 1971, 1987, 1994, 2005, and 2008 all claimed Canada’s place in the world centred on three elements: defence of the homeland, defence of North America, and engagement beyond North America — even if they might have used different words and catch-phrases.

But Strong, Secure, Engaged simply doesn’t begin to address the Trump cession and its implications for Canada in the 2020s. On the contrary: it is written as though American leadership is going to continue uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

But the Trump cession is real. Its origins might have preceded Mr Trump, though he has acted as an accelerator. But I would suggest that its manifestations will outlast his presidency, whether that presidency ends soon, or in 2020, or sometime after that.

And to get some sense of the kind of world that Canada will face, it seems to me that we might want to go a little further back in the past — before the post-Cold War era; before the Cold War; even before the Second World War vaulted the US into a position of global leadership — in other words all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

That world was a world of many powers. The US might have been a great power, but it exercised little of the leadership in world politics that Americans showed after 1945. It might have been a great power, but it was an ordinary great power — not at all exceptional, except perhaps in the minds of Americans themselves.

Are we seeing such a world re-emerging in the 2020s? If the US returns to being an ordinary great power, it is likely that European countries will forge an increasingly independent role — perhaps tightening the bonds of political integration in response to the withdrawal of the US.

In the Asia Pacific, the present friends and allies of the US are likely to have to grapple with the rise of China as a dominant power with a dramatically reduced American footprint.

And in such a world, Canada will have a much diminished role. We blithely call ourselves an Atlantic nation and a Pacific nation (and an Arctic nation), but our reality is rather different.

We are not now, and will not be in the 2020s, a Pacific player. We simply do not have the will to spend what needs to be spent on projecting Canada across the Pacific.

Our links to Europe might be strong, but those links have for the last 75 years been forged in a fundamentally North Atlantic context — in other words, involving both the US and Europe.

Thus, if that North Atlantic link frays, Canada’s links with Europe will fray too. Now, Scott Gilmour of Maclean’s can encourage Canadians, as he did in October 2019, to abandon what he characterized as the sinking American ship. He recommends that we Canadians “Trump-proof” our foreign policy by forging new and deeper alignments with Europe.[13]

But that’s simply not going to happen. Geopolitics doesn’t work like that. Geopolitically, Canada remains firmly rooted — by its geography, its history, its economy, and its politics — deeply within North America.

And that suggests that if we are indeed going back to that distant past, Canadians in the 2020s will find themselves in the same geostrategic location that they were in a century ago: with the United States in North America. But in this not-so-new world, Canadians will not even have membership in the British Empire to leaven that solitude with the United States. We really will be all alone in North America.

And unfortunately Canadians are not at all prepared for the changes underway. It is not a particularly original way to end my remarks this afternoon, but let me conclude by agreeing with observers like Roland Paris, Richard Fadden, and Colin Robertson, and others besides: we need to start having a national conversation about navigating this not-so-new world.[14]


[1] Nicole Goodkind, “Henry Kissinger: The world is in a ‘very grave period’ and Trump could mark ‘end of an era,’” Newsweek, 20 July 2018,

[2] Victor Davis Hanson, The Case for Trump (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[3] Victor Davis Hanson, “The new old world order,” National Review, 2 September 2019,

[4] C.G. Jacobsen, “Myths, politics and the not-so-new world order,” Journal of Peace Research 30, no. 3 (1993): 241–50, quotation at 241,

[5] Lloyd Axworthy, Navigating a New World: Canada’s Global Future (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2003).

[6] John J. Mearsheimer, “Back to the future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War,” International Security 15, no. 1 (Summer 1990), 5–56,

[7] Daniel W. Drezner, The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2020).

[8] “Assessing Emmanuel Macron’s apocalyptic vision,” The Economist, 7 November 2019,; for the transcript of Macron’s comments in French, see

[9] Jon Henley, “Angela Merkel: EU cannot completely rely on US and Britain any more,” The Guardian, 28 May 2017,

[10] Adam Taylor, “Macron says NATO has suffered ‘brain death.’ Merkel rejects that assessment as ‘drastic,’” Washington Post, 7 November 2019,

[11] Richard Fadden, “2020 and beyond: Where does Canada fit?”, Vimy Award Acceptance Speech, CDA Institute, Ottawa, 12 November 2019,

[12] Canada, Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy (Ottawa: 2017),

[13] Scott Gilmour, “The U.S. is sinking. Maybe it’s time for Canada to jump ship,” Maclean’s, 30 October 2019,

[14] See, for example, Roland Paris, “With tectonic international shifts, our foreign affairs strategy shouldn’t be an afterthought,” Globe and Mail, 6 October 2019;; Richard Fadden, “2020 and beyond: Where does Canada fit?”, Vimy Award Acceptance Speech, CDA Institute, Ottawa, 12 November 2019,; Colin Robertson, “Positioning Canada in a messy world,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, May 2019,

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