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Jun 13, 2017

Canada needs more of the world

June 13, 2017

Rethinking the nation state in the 21st century

The next 50 years will see new global challenges arise – largely driven by technological, demographic and environmental change. We have already begun to see these trends manifest themselves in areas such as cyber-warfare, mass migration and rising rates of poverty and inequality.

In light of these emerging global challenges, Canada should build upon its inherent strengths facilitating collaboration to play a leadership role. In so doing, however, we would have to accept an evolving role for the Nation State, which would require the transfer of authority to super- and sub-national bodies and non-governmental organizations and the creation of new meta-institutions. The result has the potential to redefine global capacity for concerted action.

The accelerating rate of change is a continual challenge. While the post-war world order was created to manage protracted economic and military conflicts, it assumed a pace of change that provided the delays necessary for bureaucratic decision-making.

There has been some progress on the global stage – for example, the United Nations agreed to eight Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which gave way to 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets in 2015. However, the capacity of any government to improve the state of its people remains significantly constrained. International organizations can no longer deliver the effective mechanisms for collective action they once promised, and interdependence thus makes it imperative to develop new forms of collaboration.

To address any of the major challenges we face will require concerted action of a higher order than we have ever seen before. The response to these post-modern challenges necessitates a fundamental rethinking of the Nation State that will lead to institutional replacements and reforms at national and international levels of government.

A strong foundation

Canada’s federal architecture and history of collaboration leaves us well-positioned to address these emerging challenges. Our brand of highly-decentralized federalism has always required the involvement of multiple orders of government reaching beyond the Constitutional division of powers. Trade agreements require provincial consent for implementation. Closing military bases, nominally a federal responsibility, requires consultation with provincial governments. Regulating emissions, a provincial responsibility, likewise benefits from federal cooperation and has recently seen an increased tendency toward consultation with Indigenous peoples and municipal actors.

Canada’s recent history also reflects an ability to participate in innovative and informal meta-institutions in response to contemporary policy challenges. To carry out negotiations surrounding the Canada/US Free Trade and North American Free Trade Agreements or the UN Conventions on Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, Canada created Sector Advisory Groups on International Trade and International Trade Advisory Committees. These groups involved provincial and municipal governments, as well as NGOs in our international delegations, reaching out to civil society in a way that was distinct from approaches in other countries.

Admitting sub-national governments like New Brunswick and Québec to participate in meetings of la Francophonie or involving provinces in our negotiating strategies in developing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union are innovations that reflect Canada’s position as a post-modern Nation State. Similarly, the recent involvement of Indigenous leaders in First Ministers’ Conferences reflects a logical response to recent legal decisions and has contributed important perspectives to governmental decision-making.

We must redouble these efforts to go beyond the traditional processes of policy development within the state. Our mission could be to manifest a new model of international behavior and international meta-institutions that instruct other countries on how to move beyond the Nation State.

Let us look at some recent theoretical approaches to the challenges of the post-modern world and how to successfully adapt to them. In each case, the ways in which Canada can address change and adapt our formal and informal institutions to alter the way the world and all constituent countries behave will be highlighted.

The “Inescapable Trilemma”

Dani Rodrik helps us to make sense of the changes facing the Nation State. In his 2011 book, The Globalization Paradox, Rodrik points to the existence of overwhelming forces simultaneously pushing us to deal with economic integration, the exigencies of the Nation State as we have known it, and the requirements of democratic politics. This “Inescapable Trilemma” is an underdetermined system in which it is possible to solve two and only two of the three challenges.

In Rodrik’s world, the inexorable march of economic integration and the supremacy of democratic politics will necessitate the breakdown of the integrity of the Nation State. However, if the pressures of dealing with economic integration and democratic politics challenge the Nation State, then the adaptation of that entity must respect some of the fundamental principles and overriding objectives of the Nation State.

World order 2.0

One possible solution to Rodrik’s trilemma can be found in the writings of Richard N. Haass. In his 2016 book, A World in Disarray and his recent discussions of World Order 2.0 in Foreign Affairs, Haass implicitly suggests moving past the Nation State to abandon its protections and prerogatives to focus instead on what he terms “sovereign obligation.” This concept is more outward-looking than “sovereign responsibility” – the obligations of a government toward its own citizenry – focusing instead on duties owed to other countries. In this context, consider Canada’s continuing efforts to promote nuclear non-proliferation, creating obligations on states to not further enhance their destructive capacities.

Haass also points to the Paris Declaration climate agreement as an example of the post-Nation State world in which sovereign obligations are modelled as aspirational commitments, leaving each country to independently determine how it will achieve the agreed upon ends. Canada served as a model in this negotiation, crafting its delegation’s final position through the active involvement of provincial Premiers, Indigenous leaders, municipal officials and NGOs.

Another such meta-institution steeped in Canadian influence is the G20. Canada advocated for the creation of this forum after recognizing that the G7/8 lacked inclusiveness and the capability to commit the necessary actors to several relevant projects. The subsequent creation of this meta-institution has provided a space for leaders to discuss issues of global import. This is the kind of institutional innovation that Canada should aim for as the signature of our future.

Imagine working to address the threats to our democracy posed by cyber-hacking not by denying an attack’s existence, bemoaning its occurrence or sanctioning its perpetrators, but rather by trying to negotiate a commitment through a Convention or Treaty on the appropriate behaviour of signatories to respect democratic processes in each other’s domain. Treaties already exist regulating activities in and the weaponization of Outer Space. Why can’t we have a Treaty on the non-Weaponization of Cyberspace?

Consider also the collective action requirements of addressing such protracted policy challenges as the response to global refugee flows or the emergence of a new pandemic. While both may be consistent with this Canadian notion of the Nation State beyond the Westphalian understanding of national sovereignty, it is also consistent with the creation of new institutional structures to reflect the disseminated power relations of the mid-21st century. It is worth noting, however, that these examples are all inconsistent with the Brexit conception of a disjointed Europe or the Trumpian notion of American isolationism and protectionism.

The second half of the 20th century was marked by American leadership in the development of the post-war world order. However, the next phase may well require middle-level countries like Canada, Norway, Australia or Japan to play greater international leadership roles in the evolution of new institutions of collaboration and coordination that can redefine the role of the Nation State.

The age of acceleration

As Thomas Friedman has noted in his Thank You for Being Late (2016), regardless of individual institutional reforms, contemporary state success will depend on the paradoxical ability to become faster and fairer but also slower at the same time. Countries and institutions will have to face accelerations in the market, technological advances and the demands of Mother Nature with issues like the environment and climate change. Yet countries will also have to learn to become “radically inclusive” – both of people and ideas – to survive and adapt to a changing world order.

Canada’s readiness to address these challenges highlights that it is indeed a post-Westphalian Nation State with an underlying fundamental principle of openness and community.  We understand the value of innovation and dynamism and the need to be nimble, to adapt and to react quickly. We understand the strength that comes from diversity and different points of view and to an identity that is changed by the immigrants who settle here.

The infrastructure of international institutions like the UN and its agencies, the EU, NAFTA and other regional multi-lateral organizations were governance innovations of the last century. Just as Canada has developed meta-institutions to facilitate national governance through collaborations between federal/provincial governments, Indigenous peoples and NGOs to deal with domestic and international challenges, the world will also have to find or create meta-institutions to manage inter-state negotiations.

Yes, the world needs more Canada. But to be successful, Canada needs more of the world.

Our country was forged in the crucible of competition and conflict among English, French and First Nations. It has subsequently evolved through periodic bursts of openness and immigration. We may well be destined to be the model of the Nation State in the World Order 2.0 that not only builds on those strengths but showcases the way for others to build new meta-institutions that can promote collaboration while addressing the challenges of this world in disarray.

Such informal institutions may include organizations similar to the old “Non-Aligned Movement” of the Cold War period. They may also involve regional and sectoral collaborations of countries with aligned objectives reflected in traditional trade agreements, while simultaneously incorporating new determinants of international exchange such as intellectual property or trade and competition law – building on examples like CETA.

The informal approach of the Arctic Council, a uniquely Canadian idea, is a non-binding collaboration of countries with an aligned interest in the sustainability of the Arctic region. If we could use such informal information-based institutions and expand this format to allow for meaningful collaboration in the halls of power, then Canada could serve as a prototypical state in the age of accelerations.


Commitments require Nation States but delivery requires communities. The legitimacy of state-level decision-making allows for concerted action but the way to actually deliver on these actions is by all actors – state and non-state – collaborating to solve domestic challenges and international negotiations. Canada’s delegations to the Conference of the Parties (COP) at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) since COP5 in Berlin have involved NGOs. The road to Rio for the Earth Summit in 1992 was littered with Canadians like Maurice Strong. Paris at COP 21 was an exemplar of involving sub-national agreements in international negotiations. Perhaps the COP 45 of the UNFCCC will be held in Toronto and we will see the fruition of Canada as the exemplar of the new Nation State and the development of meta-institutions that provide for concerted action.

Yes, the world needs more Canada. But to be successful, Canada needs more of the world.

And by exemplifying new models of international behaviour and meta-institutions directed toward the interdependence of the contemporary world, Canada can serve as a beacon advocating for increased collaboration and concerted action.

As Canada marks its 150th birthday this year, Canadians have a historic opportunity not only to celebrate a century and a half of accomplishments, but also to look forward to what we can achieve in the future. The Mowat Centre is releasing a series of short written pieces and video interviews that look ahead and present a variety of bold, potentially transformative policy ideas.

More Bold Ideas


Mel Cappe

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