Barring a massive surprise, the upcoming United States presidential election will be a rematch of sorts: eighty-one-year-old Joe Biden, this time as the Democratic incumbent, versus seventy-eight-year-old Donald Trump, the former incumbent and now the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. If polling is correct, a plurality of voters in most key states prefer the latter. The betting markets point to a coin toss: Trump’s chance of re-election is slightly ahead of Biden’s, with variations depending on any third-party candidates.
Most Canadians are stunned by Trump’s continuing allure. The Biden administration has made historic legislative breakthroughs, while keeping the U.S. economy as steady as possible under the circumstances. Meanwhile, Trump has been hit with ninety-one criminal counts in four separate indictments, with the charges ranging from bookkeeping fraud to conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. Accordingly, Election Day could yield some first-class political bizarreries — including the (distant) possibility of a candidate winning the presidency while sitting behind bars or a scenario in which a re-elected president issues himself a pardon (or two).
On a deeper level, the prevailing feeling is one of trepidation. A second Trump presidency would be defined by politics and policies far more radical than the original Make America Great Again version — a kind of turbocharged assault on the existing rules of the game at home and abroad. This is a nightmare that keeps U.S. friends and allies awake at night, and Canada is no exception. It’s this prospect that Kim Richard Nossal addresses in Canada Alone: Navigating the Post-American World. Acknowledging that “crystal ball–gazing is always hazardous (if not downright foolhardy)” and that “the tea leaves and other auguries available to the chatterati are at best unclear,” Nossal, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University, nevertheless does what good planners must do, which is to evaluate future risks and to identify developments that might deviate from current — and usually wishful — thinking.
While keeping in mind the inherent limitations of such exercises, Nossal succeeds in dispelling any remaining complacency about the stakes, scale, and possible effects at play. His title hints at the author’s main message. Trump 2.0 would intensify a relative decline in American power, in turn dissolving “the geostrategic West in contemporary global politics.” Left alone with a much-changed neighbour, Canada would face wrenching decisions.
How did we get here? Over eight decades since 1945, successive governments in Ottawa have taken Washington’s leadership for granted. The rest of the West has done the same. International crises came and went, and sometimes came and stayed, but the White House, backed by Congress, continued to invest in the same general portfolio of multilateral institutions, security cooperation, and economic openness — the pillars of the “American world.” Nossal’s term effectively underscores both the relative military and economic power of the U.S. and the ideological glue that once made the international order “truly hegemonic,” in the sense that a single country’s vision was “dominant, widely accepted, and not challenged.” In other words, Western governments and their citizens willingly ceded aspects of their sovereignty to America, however deep their misgivings about the system’s hypocrisy, unfairness, and inequality.
Of course, those days are gone. A global shift in wealth and economic power away from the West and toward “the rest” means the U.S. faces much stronger and more aggressive near-peer competitors. Under Xi Jinping, China has challenged American interests everywhere from the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to Africa, where Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments and digital technologies have received a particularly warm welcome. In Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation is waging a “forever war” against NATO alongside a war of conquest against Ukraine. Worse, in these and other conflicts, the prevailing sympathies of the global South seem to lie with the West’s rivals.
Structural elements aside, there is no doubt that from 2017 to 2021, with Trump sitting behind the Resolute Desk, the U.S. yielded power and leadership, committing a rare form of geopolitical “cession” or abdication. Nossal’s overview is a familiar but instructive story of the adverse effects of the forty-fifth president’s toddler approach to diplomacy, managerial incompetence, and deep ideological hostility to “globalist” institutions as well as to efforts to mitigate the climate catastrophe. On top of this disruptive turn on the international stage came a gift that keeps giving to autocrats everywhere: the campaign against American democracy.
Nossal never goes so far as to call Trump a fascist: “We need to reserve the f‑word for when real fascist leaders and a real fascist movement appear in the United States,” he writes, citing Tom Nichols in The Atlantic (who has since changed his mind). If that moment indeed comes, the blame will lie with the Republican Party for having colluded with America First diehards. Certainly, one could argue American democracy has been in crisis for decades, as both major parties contributed to abuses of executive power and voting practices. Yet what we have now is a full-blown anti-democratic, illiberal, authoritarian, and racist movement that denies the legitimacy of opponents, including the media and the civil service; encourages mass violence and mass deportation of immigrants; and, in some cases, openly longs for an “American Caesar.” In this context, Trump 2.0 would be the coup de grâce. We can tell what it would be like from the expressed preferences of people waiting to occupy key positions in the presidential cabinet. We can also see it in the plans and programs of Trumpist think tanks. As an illustration, a few of those organizations have been working to identify a cadre of radicals who could start filling middle management jobs in 2025. We are talking about a labour force of thousands, if not tens of thousands, keen to take on the so‑called deep state: Congress, the Department of Justice, governors, and anyone or anything standing in the president’s way.
In foreign policy, the effect of Trump 2.0 would be a long jump into a “post-American era.” In Europe, the flow of U.S. aid to Kyiv would probably stop, and the talk of Washington’s withdrawal from NATO would begin in earnest. Already there’s increased clamour for “European strategic autonomy” or, as the German government prefers to label it, “European sovereignty.” The war in Ukraine has sparked significant military spending across the continent — along with the realization that the American security guarantee is a fickle thing. In the western Pacific, governments in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan would find themselves adrift and therefore forced to accommodate China’s demand for regional hegemony. Other U.S. allies and partners in the region would find themselves in the same predicament, with Taiwan possibly suffering the same fate as Ukraine.
Overall, Nossal sees the world moving to “multipolarity” and, more specifically, to “quadripolarity”: technical terms for an international system in which power is concentrated not in two poles, as in the Cold War, or in one, as right after it, but in several, as in the run‑up to the First and Second World Wars.
Here at home, Nossal notices other echoes of the early twentieth century. However, while Canada was then part of the mightiest of empires, the Canada of the post-American era would be both alone and lonely. On this point, Nossal is very clear: with “fewer tables to have a seat at, and fewer clubs with like-minded friends,” we’d find ourselves “stuck as little more than a geostrategic appendage of the United States — possibly the only one if an America First administration successfully manages to alienate its allies in Europe and the western Pacific.”
How could a “vassal state,” to use the scholar Archibald MacMechan’s old phrase, possibly manage? The cross-border effects that Trump 1.0 generated and that Trump 2.0 would surely exacerbate include isomorphic processes, such as the imitation of American political rhetoric and ideas, as during the 2022 Freedom Convoy in Ottawa and the backlash against it; the rise of anti-Americanism in Canada and of anti-Canadian sentiment in the U.S.; the proliferation of intergovernmental disputes in trade and other areas; and the weakening of the sprawling binational networks made up of federal, state, and provincial officials.
The immediate challenge for Canada is to “Trump-proof” its foreign policy. The “all-hands-on-deck” approach followed by the government of Justin Trudeau in the first eighteen months of Trump 1.0 — mobilizing as many diplomatic and political assets as possible to protect and project Canadian interests in the U.S. — is a good one, according to Nossal, and should be expanded. More important, however, is for Ottawa to articulate its long-term objectives and to develop policies for a world that is coming, not a world that is going. To that end, Nossal recommends a federal royal commission.
In 1982, Pierre Trudeau appointed the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, commonly called the Macdonald Commission after its chair, Donald S. Macdonald. With a large staff and a dozen commissioners said to represent diverse segments of society, the body pursued its extensive mandate with vigour for three years, ultimately producing a three-volume report, accompanied by seventy-two volumes of bespoke academic research. Today’s version would likely cost less money and time, but the chief benefits of assigning this policy review to a royal commission would be the same: a good degree of independence from Parliament, the cabinet, and the public service, plus greater freedom to sift through inconvenient truths and undiplomatic policy ideas.
The Macdonald Commission’s landmark recommendation was comprehensive free trade with the U.S., a proposal that triggered an all‑out policy shift in national economic development. That shift will now require a rethink, if only because fewer and fewer Americans are buying into “Buy North American.” Here, too, we have a possible model associated with the Trudeau père years. In 1971, a president made the radical move to suspend the convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold, adding threats to restrict trade with allies and partners unless they agreed to Washington’s terms. This was the “Nixon shock.” Ottawa responded with the “third option,” government-speak for expanding and diversifying trade with an eye toward Europe and Japan.
Nossal’s view, which is also the received view, is that Canada’s geography renders the third option impossible in practice. History indeed bears this out; no government has ever succeeded in implementing any version of this strategy. However, a post-American world could render third-option thinking not only respectable but also responsible again. Here it is worth recalling that the original third option was essentially a call for building state and national capacity, not simply stronger ties with the rest of the world. As a cabinet memo put it back then, “Canada can pursue a comprehensive, long-term strategy to develop and strengthen the Canadian economy and other aspects of its national life and in the process to reduce the present Canadian vulnerability.” Decades later, Keynesian policy prescriptions are back, driving everything from Biden’s climate deal to workshops on the return of the warfare state.
Regardless of one’s position on Trump’s political future, royal commissions, or the history of foreign policy ideas, it’s clear that the Canadian government and Canadians need to engage in more conversations about our place on the continent and beyond. Political leaders stand to benefit from consulting new types of expertise as well as listening to voices questioning fundamental tenets of the country’s approach to foreign policy. The public at large must also be better prepared to reflect on Canada’s future. Being Canadian in a post-American world will involve hard choices, and the better informed we all are, the more success we will have in navigating through the perilous challenges ahead.
Srdjan Vucetic is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.