If, like me, you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, there were some things you could be sure of.
Russia was powerful and menacing. China was mysterious, but “red” was definitely “bad.” Japan and Germany couldn’t be trusted. Britain was tradition-bound and stolid, all “keep calm and carry on.” The United States saw itself as the world’s champion of freedom (even while struggling to allow the descendants of its slaves to vote).
But now, for many Canadians, a reliable postwar world order that lasted decades has been replaced by a sweeping uncertainty. It’s become a lot harder to predict how the world’s most powerful countries will pursue their economic interests, act on or ignore our challenges as a planet or deal with the plight of the world’s most destitute. Military alliances seem less reliable, more negotiable.
This struck me as I was going through our latest Abacus Data polling, which highlights that Canadians don’t much like today’s leadership in China, Russia or the U.S. — the biggest economies and most militarized countries in the world. And they’re not so keen on the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, either.
Russia might be economically weak today, but still seems to be malevolent. The modern focus is on sowing division around the world, rather than building an empire, and hackers are the weapon of choice, rather than nukes. But it’s hard to imagine a Russian leader in decades as unpopular in Canada as President Vladimir Putin is today. Only seven per cent like Putin; 57 per cent don’t.
After the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda became dramatically clear, Canadians started to take a second look at China for a more globalist point of view about trade and climate and development issues. Briefly, Canadians felt China was a better example of global leadership and more committed to peace around the world compared to Trump’s America.
But today, China’s leadership is broadly mistrusted, with 10 times as many people registering a negative view of President Xi Jinping (52 per cent) as those registering a positive one (five per cent).
In less than four years, Canadians have watched the U.S. transform dramatically, and worryingly. The U.S. may have led the expansion of free trade, but has now decided its interests lie in protectionism. Having built defence alliances to serve its needs, Trump publicly abuses his country’s partners and dismisses the value of collective security. In the grip of a health and economic crisis, the current White House occupant stumbles and preens and points fingers. He doesn’t shock us as much anymore, but the realization so many Americans are tempted to give him another four years on the job does. Three in four Canadians don’t like Trump — the first impression he made on Canadians stuck.
"Canadians don’t much like today’s leadership in China, Russia or the U.S. — the biggest economies and most militarized countries in the world. And they’re not so keen on the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, either."
Millions of Canadians trace their roots to Great Britain. Their monarch is our monarch, we share a parliamentary system and we share a lot of customs. Up until recently, we might have thought we share a common instinct not to run with scissors when it comes to our political choices. But Brexit took many Canadians by surprise, and Johnson’s election hasn’t done anything to calm the worry that the U.K. might be caught up in what seems like an epidemic of riskier political choice. Canadians are tepid to cool about Johnson: 18 per cent say they like him; 27 per cent say they don’t.
Each of these findings is about individual leaders, not their countries as a whole. But each of these key players in the world that affects Canada is pursuing policy directions ranging from unsettling to deeply worrying.
We can be excused for wondering if the whole idea of “world order” has become an anachronism — if the new normal is a state of perpetual upheaval, as opinions form quickly and travel fast, anger brews by the hour and change seems appealing because people don’t think of what might be lost, but focus instead on what might feel good.
For any middle power such as Canada, these circumstances heighten anxiety and pose crucial questions. Will trade agreements be honoured? Can we rely on military alliances? Do we need to worry more about our sovereignty in the North? Will international tribunals be able to resolve differences and disputes?
Because of our cultural tendencies, Canada may be more deeply affected by the seemingly chronic disruption in the geopolitical landscape. Our democratic compass is set on “peace, order and good government,” and it’s no accident — it’s a reflection of what we prize. But from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Johnson, Trump to Putin, Xi to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the world seems hell-bent on disorder, or sometimes just hell-bound.
The pressures building up in the pandemic-afflicted world, coupled with the growing climate crisis, might offer the best and most urgent argument for a collective approach the likes of which we’ve never seen.
But the leaders in many of the countries that are vital to such an approach are running in the opposite direction.
Despite soaring unemployment, debt and health worries, Canadians are more likely to say the country is heading in the right direction than they were only a few months ago. But asked about the rest of the world, they see more going wrong than going right.
Is there anything Canadians are hoping for to restore some predictability to the world? To start with, 78 per cent would prefer to see Joe Biden in the White House next year. There are very few political choices that find such widespread consensus.