Fri 19 Oct 2012
The Travers Debates – Ottawa October 16, 2012
“Be it resolved that that the future of the United States is brighter than Canada’s”
Allan R. Gregg on the negative side of the resolution
For the better part of modern history, the facts have supported my worthy opponent’s side of the resolution.
Fueled by a revolutionary fever and personified by the most impressive generation of political leaders on record, within two Centuries, the United States literally modernized the world. Its worship of enterprise, initiative and individualism was buttressed by an unwavering belief that theirs was the “Shining City on the Hill” that would provide a beacon for the world to follow. This ethos of exceptionalism gave America an unshakable confidence and focus to pursue its destiny; and created a resilience that allowed them to weather a Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars – growing ever stronger with each encounter of adversity.
Canada’s beginnings were more modest. Founded in counter-revolutionary roots, our leaders tended to be more pragmatic, than idealistic or inspirational. Still, in the face of vast and inhospitable terrain, all the while living in the shadow of the most powerful and militaristic nation in civilization, we were able to build one of the most prosperous and generous countries in the world. Absent a unified founding myth or heroes, we nonetheless developed our own unique national personae; one focused not on “might and right” but on an ability and willingness to accommodate and even value differences. In strong contrast to the US, we view immigration not as a problem to be managed, but as a national asset; the NDP are not vilified as dangerous socialists but Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; and the BQ are not branded as seditious traitors but – for good or ill – the legitimate government of the second largest region in the land. Far from signs of blandness or weakness, as we look towards the future, our ability to accommodate differentness and find compromise with otherwise opponents, now serves us well.
In contrast, I will argue tonight that the very culture that made the United States not just the most powerful, but the best country in the World, now serves them poorly.
America’s future is clouded not by the fact that they are on some kind of death spiral of decline, but – as Fareed Zakaria noted – by the rise of everyone else.
Moreover, in Thomas Friedman’s flattened world where everyone has access to same educational curriculum, information and invention, values and culture matter more than ever. Futures are formed by what you do with this knowledge, rather than in the past where fortunes were determined by whether you possessed, and could make others pay for it.
Being the alpha dog, winning every race and leading the World is in America’s DNA. Now as the world is starting to catch up, there are increasing signs that the United States is suffering from post-Hegemonic Stress Syndrome.
The most obvious manifestation of this is how core values that once unified and set the course for the United States now set them apart and leaves them rudderless. The sacred pursuit of individualism now makes America one of the most inequitable nations in the world. Disparities between rich and poor, divisions along ideological and religious lines have lead to the demise of political compromise and the erosion of what has been called “the vital center”. As a consequence, what was once the most vibrant political system in the World is now virtually paralyzed; and the most dynamic enterprise on the planet is now functionally ungovernable.
In the same way, America’s blind faith that it is destined to lead, now makes it nearly impossible for them to fit in or to follow. This sense of exceptionalism justifies unilateralism and leaves them increasingly isolated in an ever-more connected world. This same fear also makes it impossible for their leaders to disengage from almost a trillion dollars in military commitments, choking off expenditures that otherwise might be applied for much needed social programs and infrastructure or making more friends in the world.
Even the ingenuity and innovation that marked American enterprise is now being perverted by their inability to grapple with the prospects of decline. While still a relative powerhouse in patent filings, as a proportion of GDP, the United is now only ranked 5th – behind New Zealand. As a percent of total R&D spending they rank 10th – behind the likes of Poland and Ukraine. In fact, protecting copyright appears to be more important than creating it; as much vaunted examples of US ingenuity – such as Apple – now spend more on litigation than research and development. Instead of creating a $2,000 car – such as the Tata in India – the best and the brightest seemed to be more consumed with developing more derivative products that generate individual fortunes but no national wealth.
It isn’t by chance that Canada has fared better in the post-meltdown period of 2007-8. In the same way that we have no qualms about – and there is no protest against – things such as limits on election expenses, our more collectivist impulse lead us to regulate our financial service sector. In fact, the very absence of an unassailable national ideology means that compromise is not only possible, it is also still highly valued in Canada. Could you image a leading Conservative leader in the United States deliberating avoiding a divisive dust up over an issue such as abortion, because it would be a diversion away from more pressing national matters?
And as a middle power, we have always known that co-operation – rather than conflict – serves our interests on the international stage. Consequently, Canada fits more easily into our interconnected, flatten world and has the potential to be a friend to all nations. And because of the value we place on our multicultural make-up, we are now positioned to harness our ethnic Diaspora as ambassadors to expand trade between their new and former homelands.
No one disputes that there are forces shaping and changing the patterns of power in the world, and few would dismiss the great threats that these changes pose to the status quo. What is at issue now, is how well equipped nations are to adapt to adversity and how resilient their culture is when it is time to rise up to those changes. Compared to the United States, I have to say, Canada’s future looks very bright.
Canada never has been – nor has ever sought to be – a world military or even an economic leader. But as a nation, we do see ourselves as moral leaders. And this is more than just vanity or hubris.
This is how the world can see us as well.
A welcoming home to the displaced and those seeking a better life; a stable country whose policies are rooted in common sense rather than the cult of personality or ideological zeal; and if not a world leader, certainly a nation with the potential to lead by example.
This isn’t a portrait that generates much chest thumping; but it also is one that requires no saber rattling.
We have flourished in the shadow of the most powerful nation the world has ever known. And while we share a continent, we have steadfastly stood an independent ground and reveled in our differences.
It is difficult and nearly impossible for America to learn from others because – as a world leader – they believe no one has anything to teach them. We have looked into the mirror of America, learned from their mistakes and adapted accordingly. And at the end of the day it is that resilience – and humility – that will propel Canada forward … and hold America back.