Can multilateral cooperation keep the international order going with the most powerful country acting as dead weight? Canada is adopting a broad foreign policy posture that presumes the answer is yes. With the US taking a hard line in NAFTA negotiations and seeing the bilateral relationship in “win-lose” terms, upholding a broader international system in which both economics and security are viewed in terms of mutual benefits will become even more important than before.

Fortunately, Canada is not alone in seeking to buttress the international order while distancing itself from the direction being taken by Washington. This was most strikingly demonstrated by the isolation of the US at this year’s G7 and G20 summits, particularly on the crucial issues of trade openness and climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a Munich election rally on May 28 that “we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

A crucial task for Canada, and other countries whose economic and security objectives are tied to and based around the liberal international order, is to ensure this emerging multilateral consensus lasts. There are many who believe that only the US is capable of leading the global order and fostering cooperation, particularly at the level of ideas and ideals. To prove them wrong, the rest of the world must make full use and reinforce the centrality of key forums like the G20, UN and WTO. For better or worse, these are the organizations we have, and it is most effective to work through the existing patterns of cooperation and the diplomatic networks centred around them.

At this early stage, there are encouraging signs. France and Germany have come together on EU reform even as the Brexit saga drags on. China has thrown its weight behind the basic principles of nondiscrimination in trade and the referral of disputes to legal mechanisms before resorting to conflict and retaliation, with Xi Jinping warning against protectionism and trade wars at the World Economic Forum at Davos. It’s not so long ago that China’s support for the international order was seen as the biggest question mark in international politics, but while Xi might not agree with liberal notions of human rights and democracy, he understands that China’s interests and ambitions are best served by global stability and an open trade regime.

Further afield, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership did not collapse the trade agreement, although it had started as an American geopolitical initiative to increase economic integration with its Asia-Pacific allies. The remaining 11 countries, including Canada, agreed in May to move ahead with the agreement without the US.

Still, the US remains the world’s largest economy and sole military superpower, and pretending it doesn’t exist is not a viable approach. As the recent standoff with North Korea demonstrates, the US can be incredibly disruptive out of little more than executive incompetence.

The US has long been notably absent from important global treaties such as the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Reluctance, resistance and absenteeism from the US could make international initiatives and agreements less effective. It is easy to see how this could frustrate efforts to combat tax evasion, carbon emissions or other areas where the US has a large impact and those opting out can gain an advantage. But that does not mean international cooperation is doomed. After all, the US has long been notably absent from important global treaties like the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, a broad global consensus on the purposes they embodied meant that American nonparticipation discredited the US, rather than the agreements. Furthermore, there are good reasons to believe that the Trump administration is more interested in disengaging, rather than actively disrupting the existing order.

The mantra of “America first” actually reflects a belief that the US has overextended itself in pursuing global leadership and that it has incurred excessive costs through expansive foreign policy goals. This suggests that the Trump administration’s main inclination is to simply neglect the international roles the country can and should play. But American withdrawal from the international stage doesn’t necessarily mean disaster as long as an international consensus can be pulled together around collective economic and security interests. For example, as the State Department and other diplomatic resources in the US are weakened, countries like Canada can step into this gap to broker cooperation and solutions on a range of global problems from poverty to nuclear proliferation.

It would be another story entirely if Washington actually began to act disruptively, for instance by inducing countries to pull out of multilateral agreements or by inhibiting efforts by other countries to cooperate without American participation. But to dismantle the underlying institutional system takes active intervention, quite the opposite of the isolationist tendencies inside the US that helped Trump win the presidency. And so, while this danger cannot be dismissed, it is unlikely.

A more delicate balancing act will be between the necessity of the US-Canada bilateral relationship and the Trudeau government’s determination to chart a “sovereign course” in international politics. A previous crisis of the international order, which split NATO over the unilateral use of American power in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is an example of the tension that could result. The greatest pressure from the US will be in areas that directly resonate in American domestic politics, as we are starting to see on trade. If matters deteriorate on this front, diversified economic relations with Europe and Asia can only help, although in the short term it’s unrealistic to see them as substitutes.

Overall, the good news is that Canada isn’t alone in striving to uphold an open, multilateral international order. A renewed multilateral system that is pluralistic, yet based on common rules, could in some ways be an improvement upon an international order that is often seen as an American system serving American goals. The international order has the potential to be more stable, inclusive and legitimate if it is collectively led.

We should welcome the day when the lights in the White House come back on and the US is ready to play a constructive global role again. Until then, a concerted effort to maintain a stable, cooperative and open international order among the many other countries that rely on it is the best bet.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Avivi Aharon.

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Colin Chia
Colin Chia is a doctoral student in the Department of Government at Cornell University and a graduate fellow at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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