'The poison seeps over:' With Trump presidency, Canada must think for itself

Photo: Boris Kasimov

The election of Donald Trump has caused considerable concern among Canadians and people around the world. Irvin Studin, a renowned international policy thinker, believes the Trump presidency demands that Canada awake from its slumber and consider more seriously its long-term role in the world. The capricious new occupant of the Oval Office is a symptom of a great power in decline, Studin told Ricochet in a recent interview, and Canada should seize the moment, poaching the best and brightest from the U.S. and strengthening our relationships with other world powers.

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Studin is the president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine. He helped write Canada’s 2004 national security policy, as well as Australia’s 2006 national counter-terrorism policy. Currently he is a visiting professor at the Université du Québec à Montreal.

Ricochet met with Studin on Jan. 24, before he gave a presentation at UQAM on the impact Trump’s presidency might have on Canada.

Ricochet: How do you think Canada will be affected by a Trump presidency?

The positive spin of the Trump presidency is that it gives us impetus to really start to imagine our own strategic destiny.

Irvin Studin: The pressure will be ferocious and constant and coming from a very capricious source. I think Canada will need to up its game” and we need to think for ourselves. Thinking for ourselves is not a beating of the chest, narcissistic self-reflection, or pious declarations. It is really building up the strategic bulwark that allows us to think for ourselves long-term about the future of this country — if we want to, of course. We can just as easily fold to the American adventure and believe that we are one.

What do you mean by that?

I think Canada is a different animal politically and strategically than the U.S. We have probably a different vocation in this century. The positive spin of the Trump presidency is that it gives us impetus to really start to imagine our own strategic destiny — cultural, political, demographic, academic, scientific, business institutions that allow us to really play at a higher level, but also to resist pressures that we find unattractive because we have different judgments. We see the world differently, we certainly have a different political tradition, and we can often come to different conclusions, often, better conclusions.

What do you think the Trump presidency is a sign of?

It’s certainly a symptom of the long-term decline of the United States. It’s probably not accidental. The U.S. has been in decline after a very short moment of victory in the Cold War, but I have come to the determination that it is not the winner of the Cold War. The winner was China. Who won between Gorbachev and Reagan? Deng Xiaoping.

China is looking the strongest and the wisest — not the most democratic but that’s less material in understanding what’s going on in that part of the world right now. America has led the charge, in many cases chest beating, and what they’ve misunderstood is that the Cold War victory was an opportunity to lead, but with the imperative of staying humble, not to dictate to the world or presume that they’re better or that they are on God’s side.

The U.S. twisted Winston Churchill’s aphorism that “democracy is the worst system, except for all the others” and declared that democracy is the best thing since sliced bread. Well, it’s obviously not. It produced Donald Trump, it produced many other mistakes, it has an inability to think long-term and to deliver many results on an ongoing basis. It’s quite unstable because of the electoral process, but it allows for feedback to power, which is essential and which the Chinese and Russian systems don’t have in sufficient quantities. To draw the conclusion that democracy is the paragon of human arrangements is an American conceit.

Are you saying that we should be looking outside of North America for political inspiration?

Typical Canadian strategic thinking looks to the U.S. Have we nothing to learn from the Chinese, the Singaporeans? They’ve been learning from us for 30 years. They send delegations here in droves. Our educational systems need to be much more ambitious.

What do you think the Canadian strategy should be in dealing with Trump?

So far, the government in Ottawa has been quite prudent. They’re trying to build relationships, to give briefings to the new officials in Washington, to make it plain that Canada is a productive partner, an important partner, economically indispensable, that we’re not problematic…. All very rational things. But we still need to think of our own long-term strategy.

And how exactly would we go about undertaking such a strategy?

The first one is a bit of a ruthless strategy, but I’ve been recommending it for a while to both the federal and provincial governments. We should be picking off Americans, the best and the brightest, left, right, and centre to move to Canada. Other countries do it quietly all the time. Americans certainly peeled off huge numbers of talented people over the 20th century through the misery of those countries and what they had to offer them. Think of their Nobel Prize winners alone. In contrast, we receive very few Americans even though they’re at our borders.

We have to be wary of mimicking — consciously or unconsciously — of aping the American experience, as if we’re part of it.

The second thing is what I call a national languages strategy for the country. This is, of course, long term. We need to make sure that the population across the board is at least bilingual and even trilingual, and that way we’re covered domestically, but we need young people who can engage internationally in commerce and culture centres of the world. Right now, we have none of that. A 17 per cent bilingualism rate is way too low.

The third thing we need to keep in mind are our borders. This century we have four borders. We have the U.S., we have the Arctic that’s melting so we have a Russian border in the north, we have China that’s back in the centre of international affairs, and we have Europe. We need to have a quadratic type of strategy of developing very deep relationships with all these borders.

Countries get historically crushed if they have too many bad relationships with too many big countries. And we can’t presume that America has got our back for the entire century and that they’ll always be our allies if outside pressures appear. We have to fend for ourselves and we need deep relationships with the U.S., China, Russia and Europe, and that will allow us to spread ourselves beyond the American gravity, which is always sucking us down.

The pressure will be big, but our government is reasonably well equipped. So far, they are making the right sounds and tactical moves, but we’ll have to wait and see if they have the right mindset. I’m hopeful.

Is the Canadian government actively working to woo American citizens?

No, they’re not. Neither are provincial governments. We don’t do it because we’re strategically lazy. Life is good, so why have that edge? Why seduce the very best when you have hundreds of thousands of people who want to come here anyways? But you need to work hard to attract the best. Americans have huge numbers of wonderful people, and I’m not just talking about Canadian diaspora, I’m talking about top business people, scientists, etc. This is a great time to turn to them, but this needs to be done in person and through a marketing campaign.

When it comes to foreign policy, are there certain areas that you’re particularly worried about?

I think that within the next year the sharpest point of conflict will likely be Ukraine theatre, and this has less to do with the behaviour of the U.S. and Russia and more to do with chaos in Ukraine. If Ukraine collapses, that will radicalize Russia, radicalize the West, and it could send us on a course of confrontation, which could be catastrophic for Europe, North America, for Russia, and of course for Ukraine.

The Conservative Party still needs to find its way. Kevin O’Leary is not that direction.

The second thing to watch out for is what happens in the South China Sea, between the U.S. and China. If the U.S. gets into war with a great power like China or Russia, then there is every prospect of a North American city being bombed. I know it doesn’t strike us as your daily bread for concern, but in their strategic thinking it’s obvious and with their military sophistication it’s not that big of a deal, so that should sober us. I’m not sure it would sober a capricious presidency so that’s the main thing to worry about.

Is there a danger of the kind of intolerant, anti-immigrant rhetoric that reaped benefits for Trump seeping into our Canadian political landscape?

Not to the same extent. There is, for now, greater moderation and less megaphone politics here. But, again, we are enveloped by American discourse, on Twitter, Facebook, TV and radio. Even in Canadian military academies where I’ve taught, the curriculum is largely American.

We’re not American. Trump is not our president.

We need to stick to our own discourse, create it, solidify it. The immigrant experience is a different one in Canada, the federal experience is different, the two nations (French Canada and English Canada) are different, our Aboriginal reality is different, our territory and our borders are different. We have different political and strategic projects. We need to focus on that.

There will be huge populist pressure against that. Unfortunately, there are segments in a lot of the political parties that knowingly cultivate that, instead of trying to correct it. We need to have the courage to say, “This is a red line. Canada has these principles and we’re not going there.”

I’m non-partisan, but for now, I think, the current government is very prudent. I must commend them for that. The Conservative Party still needs to find its way. Kevin O’Leary is not that direction. But there’s huge amounts of talent in that movement and it will find its way. We have to be wary of mimicking — consciously or unconsciously — of aping the American experience, as if we’re part of it. We’re not American. Trump is not our president.

A lot of people, both in the U.S. and here, are worried about the treatment of marginalized communities, human rights, and whether all this signals the eventual demise of the U.S. Is it as bad as it looks?

It’s bad. The U.S. will not be a country forever, but it will still be an important country this century. Will it still have the same borders by the end of the century? Who knows? Countries change borders often, including the U.S. Canada will probably have somewhat different borders by the end of the century, if we’re around by the end of the century.

Islamophobia in the States has reached the point where I don’t want to see what the government reaction would be if there’s a major terrorist attack in a major American city.

But, in terms of majority-minority relations, the main thing that worries me is the trend that we’ve seen since 9/11.Trump is just the peak of this angst in America, but it’s been growing for a while. Islamophobia in the States has reached the point where I don’t want to see what the government reaction would be if there’s a major terrorist attack in a major American city like New York, Chicago, L.A, or Washington. I think it will be much more disproportionate than was the case after September 11th.

I’m worried domestically, because we can see the prospect of anti-Muslim pogroms. You already see soft manifestations of that, one-offs here and there, but really in a hysterical way and lubricated by the government, by rhetoric, maybe even policy.

The Mexican case is more peculiar because the U.S. can’t live without Mexican labour so they’re going to have to come to some sort of agreement with Mexico.

I worry that Muslims will be affected the most. It’s been brewing for a while now. There’s a facility in the language, a militancy, putting huge swaths of people in the same basket, vilification, etc. There’s a thunderstorm waiting with the next terrorist attack.

We, as a country, must resist that. We’ve been good so far, but the poison seeps over. We’ll need to focus on thinking for ourselves, but we need to create the mechanisms that allow us to do that. Otherwise we’re just saying that, but we’ll actually be speaking the same language.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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