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‘It hasn’t yet hit us’: Foreign policy expert Kim Nossal on rethinking Canada’s place in the world

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The Hub was recently in dialogue with Kim Nossal, one of Canada’s leading foreign policy scholars and author of the new book Canada Alone: Navigating the Post-American World, about the evolving geopolitical order and the need for Canadians to “rethink our position in the world.”

The following is an excerpt of the longer conversation with Sean Speer, The Hub’s editor-at-large.

The world has changed and Canada needs to wake up

SEAN SPEER: If one accepts the premise that Canada needs to reinvest in its defence, diplomacy, and foreign policy capacities in the face of an evolving geopolitical order, how do you persuade Canadians after decades of being socialized that we don’t need to concern ourselves with these types of questions?

KIM NOSSAL: Therein lies the significant difficulty for Canadian leaders, and indeed, for Canadians themselves. During that period of American dominance and leadership, Canadians were extraordinarily lucky in the sense that we were able to avoid the necessity of confronting the nastiness of world politics, because not only were we protected by two oceans, and an inhospitable area to our north, but also, of course, the Americans. So we very much got into the habit of not having to worry about international politics.

Now, we’ve got a radically different situation. But it’s not clear to me that Canadians have been able to, in a sense, rethink our position in the world because it hasn’t yet hit us, to put it bluntly. And because it hasn’t hit us, as Canadians, it also hasn’t hit the people that we send to Ottawa for governance. Our governors, in a sense, look like us and they think like we do, as far as this is concerned.

From that point of view, there’s a real problem. We really have to be hit and hit hard. The way we were, for example, during the summer of 1914, or the way that we were hit on Labour Day weekend in 1939. So all of a sudden, in a sense, wake up to the changing geostrategic order.

Our foreign policy is too self-indulgent

SEAN SPEER: One of the limits, it seems to me, to a reinvigorated foreign and defence policy is that so many in Ottawa’s political class seem more interested in provincial and local issues than they do federal powers. What can be done to overcome what you’ve described as “Canada’s purely performative foreign policy?”

KIM NOSSAL: Well, this is a criticism that Canadian governments have been subjected to for far longer than just simply the Trudeau government—although Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy has been even more performative than those of the Harper government before him or the Martin government before that. The real concern here is that Canadian foreign policy has developed this tendency to be focused much more on, in a sense, what impact it’s going to have on Canadians and on Canadian politics than the impact on the international system, which is really what foreign policy should be all about. In that sense, the various moves and initiatives that Canadian governments have taken seem to be designed essentially to make Canadians feel good about themselves, rather than to have an actual impact out there. Not in every area, but there tends to be a tendency to want to perform for Canadians rather than to perform for the world.

Listen to Kim Nossal’s full interview with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer on the audio player below or on your favourite podcast app. 

If you enjoy Hub Dialogues, be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page:

‘The search for authenticity is a dead end’: Three key insights from Tara Isabella Burton’s Hub Dialogue

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The idea of “self-making” has long been part of the culture—particularly in North America, but has it changed in the internet age? Are we socialized to see ourselves as works of arts to be painted according to whomever or whatever we want to be? And where does this instinct come from? Is “self-making” a sign of the religious impulse manifesting itself in the secular world?

The Hub spoke with Tara Isabella Burton about her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, in which she outlines the idea of self-making, including its causes, consequences, and what it might tell us about contemporary culture.

1. Self-making involves treating ourselves as “a work of art”

“Self-making obviously has many facets. But I think the thing that unites all of the self-makers in my book is this idea that one’s own life, one’s identity, is something that the human being has not just the right, but maybe even the obligation, to shape like a work of art. That both our public persona and our destiny exist for us to choose and to shape. I argue in the book that this is a quintessentially modern idea. We see it, particularly from the Renaissance onwards, as the genesis of this sense that there are some people, special people, who have the right or the authority to choose their own destiny. We have since seen this idea transform over the centuries into what I argue is the kind of ideology today. This is just how we are all in the miasma of culture in 2023 in which we are trained to think about our own lives.”

2. The religious impulse doesn’t disappear—it just redefines the “sacred”

“I want to push back against the language of secularism because I think that perhaps a more precise way of framing the argument I want to make is that the sense of religion has moved from orthodox  (lowercase “o”), traditionally understood, organized religion, to something a little bit more diffuse and self-directed. I don’t think we’re living in necessarily a secular age…I think the major change is this sort of divinization of elements of human desire, in particular, the human will, human wanting, as constitutive of who we really are. So from the Renaissance onwards, we see these sorts of cultural shifts.

We see these sorts of outcroppings culturally with the idea that the self is a self-maker, the self, who controls his destiny—and it is usually him, at least until the 20th century—that this is a kind of spiritual, magical power. Often the language of magic is really front and centre…so the idea is less that sort of secularism. The very simple version, or perhaps too simplistic version, is in the absence of the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchies, people create their own destinies. I think the slightly more complicated version of that argument is that the act of creation—the act of human beings wanting something and going for it—is increasingly understood as the most sacred part of ourselves, one might say, the thing that makes us us. So it’s a relocation of the divine and divine authority from something out there to within the human creative spirit.”

3. The search for authenticity is a dead end

“I think all forms of kind of public presentation of ourselves tell the story of ourselves over and over, whether it’s through the clothing that we choose, whether it’s through the words we choose, are the accents we cultivate. I think that the idea that there is some kind of true, untrammeled, authentic self that can be expressed through these potentially artificial or willed means, that the act of choosing how we present ourselves publicly is somehow a conduit to the true expression within—that itself is the modern ideal. The idea that there’s this internal emotional ‘us,’ and then there’s this outside persona. And yet the persona is something that we can choose. I don’t think any of us can get out of that cultural assumption. So I think the search for authenticity is a dead end.”

Listen to Tara Isabelle Burton’s full interview with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer on the audio player below or on your favourite podcast app. 

If you enjoy Hub Dialogues, be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page: