Canada and the US: Global Laggards?

So, the chastisers become the chastisees.

In an odd coincidence of timing, the US and Canada both came in for significant critique from senior UN actors on separate issues today. The US was on the business end of a statement statement from experts at the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the grand jury acquittals in the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called out Canada for its particularly poor performance on climate change in an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge released today. Neither is a sight one would not have expected even a decade ago, but both incidents suggest that the two countries have, in their own way, fallen far behind on on issues of global significance, and are hearing about it from the key representatives of the international community.

Now that the US and China have come to an agreement on carbon reductions, Canada is almost completely isolated among developed nations, with only perhaps Australia for company. Even among developing nations the tide is shifting—Saudi Arabia is reportedly looking to invest $109 billion in solar energy by 2032, with significant investments coming online by 2020. While Canada’s energy policy is inevitably a function of domestic politics rather than international policy, should the message sink in that Canada’s really on an island, pressure may finally begin to build in earnest for that to change. We’ll never be a leader on climate change, but I’m not sure how comfortable Canadians will be with the country a complete outlier on the issue.

Meanwhile, the US’ apparent inability to even bring to trial two separate high-profile cases in which unarmed black citizens were killed by officers under questionable conditions prompted a group of UN special rapporteurs to say, in effect, that the country is unable to fairly deal with issues of race, excessive use of force by police, and the confluence of the two. In the eyes of the rest of the world, as Elias Groll points out at Foreign Policy, the cases seem to represent serious human rights violations, the kind of the thing the US routinely criticizes others for, but rarely hears about itself.

Again, the public criticism is unlikely to change much of anything directly, but as in the Canadian example, that’s likely not the goal. Rather, the purpose in both cases is to make normative claims on both the targets, Canada and the US, (and on the audience, the rest of the world) as to what acceptable policy in both cases would look like. The more such cases are made, the more the targets must, at a minimum, defend their actions as either being within the mainstream, or else as a function of extraordinary domestic conditions. Alternative responses, whether to deny the subtance of the criticisms, dispute the legitimacy of the criticizers, or simply ignore the critiques become increasingly untenable over the long term.

The other interesting dimension concerns the contemporary distribution of power—both hard and soft—globally. Admittedly, these are just two data points, but both are suggestive at once of the decline both nations have experienced in terms of international reputation in recent years, and the increasing willingness on the part of the rest of the world to speak their minds. We’ve come a long way from the days of the US as literal superpower, and Canada as a moral superpower in global politics.

(I know, I know. No more blogging during the dissertation, I said. But the world is so interesting! This one is short, at least.)

photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via photopin cc

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