Race to the White House: Implications for Canada and Global Order
With the US presidential election just two months away, one thing is worth recalling: Regardless of which candidate emerges victorious, the pre-Trump international order will not be restored. Canadian policymakers should adopt a long-term mindset and plan accordingly.
A second Trump term in the White House could produce several different foreign policy outcomes. On the one hand, it could lead to an untethered and unhinged presidency that generates added disorder and instability internationally. Alternatively, a newly re-elected Trump could seek some sort of accommodation with Russia in order to focus on the China challenge. Whether this would result in a “Yalta-type” global order rooted in spheres of influence is debatable, given the level of international integration and universality of sovereign statehood in today’s world. But it would undoubtedly pose an existential challenge to the nominally liberal character of the West and accelerate the descent of interstate relations into a competition for raw power.
A Joe Biden victory, for its part, would probably lead to a sterner and more vocal American posture vis-à-vis Russia, as well as a stance toward China that is as equally combative as that of the current Trump administration. In fact, the partial reinvigoration of American alliances that would occur under a Biden presidency is likely to increase Beijing’s sense of insecurity and further entrench rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. This would reframe the liberal international order as being based on US-centric alliances; the potential for a truly global liberal order will not return, given Russia and China’s refusal to settle for second-tier status in the pantheon of great powers. Moscow and Beijing now both see Washington as the primary threat to their security – a perception that cannot be altered by a simple change in the occupant of the White House.
[T]he partial reinvigoration of American alliances that would occur under a Biden presidency is likely to increase Beijing’s sense of insecurity and further entrench rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. This would reframe the liberal international order as being based on US-centric alliances; the potential for a truly global liberal order will not return, given Russia and China’s refusal to settle for second-tier status in the pantheon of great powers.
The next decade will be turbulent. The consensus heading into the 2016 presidential election was that – irrespective of the winner – the United States would adopt a more assertive posture toward potential adversaries than was the case under the Obama administration. This trend appears likely to be repeated in the 2020 election and could occur again in 2024 if someone like Sen. Tom Cotton enters the White House. The US is not yet fully conscious of the limitations of its relative decline and remains intent on retaining its position of global pre-eminence, while China has yet to develop the strength to launch a full-scale challenge against American power in the Western Pacific. This stands to heighten threat perceptions and raises the risk of accidental miscalculations with grave consequences.
China’s growing assertiveness in several geographic theatres could be the result of a strategy designed to craft an environment favourable to its interests before other Asian countries close their power gap with Beijing over the coming decades. In this sense, China is hedging against the possibility that it, too, is on a medium-to-long-term trajectory of relative decline in the Asia-Pacific region. This is not entirely dissimilar from Russia’s strategy of attempting to craft and secure membership in a new global great power condominium, in part by adopting a more assertive and rejectionist posture in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Global uncertainty is driven by more than a fragile balance of power and resurgent great power rivalry. The very notion of the West as a geopolitical construct – rather than as a civilization – is a relatively recent phenomenon, having taken its fullest form during the Cold War. It has therefore become heavily tied to American hegemony and the transatlantic alliance. However, the conditions that sustained Washington’s overwhelming dominance of the global capitalist system through the first several decades of the Cold War – which were the basis of broadly shared wealth within American society and fuelled the attractiveness of the American model – are not returning. This, among other factors, has produced a slow but steady rift between the two poles of the transatlantic community, which inevitably drives the multipolarization of global politics.
Over the coming years, efforts aimed at enhancing transatlantic cooperation – which, in any event, are not a panacea for today’s complex challenges of global order – should be interpreted as attempts by Washington to preserve its global primacy and strengthen its hand in its contests with Moscow and Beijing, not as potential for genuinely resurrecting “the West” as a coherent unit. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last decade may appear to have provided a wayward NATO with a renewed sense of purpose, but this only serves to highlight the alliance’s fragility, hinging on Europe’s continued security dependence on the United States rather than a perfect alignment of strategic aims between Washington and Brussels.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last decade may appear to have provided a wayward NATO with a renewed sense of purpose, but this only serves to highlight the alliance’s fragility, hinging on Europe’s continued security dependence on the United States rather than a perfect alignment of strategic aims between Washington and Brussels.
The decline of “the West” and broader challenges to global multilateralism have unmoored the anchors that have underwritten Canada’s relatively stable and secure international position in the postwar era. What is more, the foundations of Canada’s relationship with the United States are increasingly uncertain, even as the global geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting toward a Eurasian supercontinent marked by Europe’s slow consolidation, Russia’s pivot to the east, rising Asian economies, and ambitious infrastructure and connectivity initiatives backed by China and other powers. Canada therefore finds itself increasingly alone in the world.
The US presidential election this fall will thus be taking place in the context of challenges not only for Canada-US trade and diplomacy, but also for Canada’s global strategy writ large. Regardless of the result, transformative structural trends have been initiated in global affairs that show little sign of abating and that will directly affect Canadian security and prosperity. Canada must look beyond its increasingly inward-looking southern neighbour, identify its own unique interests and foreign policy priorities, and devise a long-term strategy for confronting a complex and uncertain world.