Sometimes a view from the top can provide clarity on the ground.
That’s what Canada’s acting Consul General Louise Blais says occurred when she served as her country’s ambassador and deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, just after leaving her post in Atlanta in 2017.
Now, she’s back for a six-month stint in the Southeast, armed with lessons about how to enact international integration in a particular part of the world, at a time when the momentum toward globalization can no longer be taken for granted.
The pandemic, she says, has at once underscored how connected we all are while leaving us isolated and looking to our nation states, not just the international system, for assurance and stability.
This has produced fragmentation at the global level that will be hard to overcome, even as multilateral institutions grow even more vital for tackling the pandemic.
Canada and the U.S., she said, should start to see their relationship with a realist’s lens, deepening their partnership at a time of increasing dissonance in visions for global governance among great powers.
“The Canada-U.S. relationship matters more than ever, because the world is not getting gentler. The world is getting harsher. And as much as we were trying to meet the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, the fact of the matter is there are areas that we’re actually going the other way,” Ms. Blais told Global Atlanta in an interview.
With COVID-19 revealing the vulnerability of global supply chains, now is the time to strengthen what she calls the “North American platform” — the regional economic integration that proponents of the recently revamped North American Free Trade Agreement have often cited as fostered joint competitiveness versus other regions of the world, especially Asia.
“The fact of the matter is we live in a world where it is not inconceivable that we’re going to have some major disruptions to supply chains. These are global supply chains that we have spent the past 20 years building. And now all of a sudden we’re realizing that they’re good, but they’re not the end-all and be-all. We’re realizing that we’re depending on other nations for other certain crucial materials and products,” Ms. Blais said.
Seeing potential disruptions like a subsequent pandemic or a ship blocking the Panama Canal as it recently did the Suez means preparing differently, doubling down on what has worked regionally while staying open to partnerships.
“We have to build some redundancies, I think, in the North America sphere for supply chains — not to let go of the old system, but to make sure that we can weather some of the storms that may or may not come. Either way, we don’t lose,” she said. “Canada learned, for example, that maybe we should be having vaccine production capability and we don’t, so now we’re building it back to some degree. I think the time spent at the U.N. has really helped me appreciate some of the great trends that may be coming our way, so there’s a bit of a broader view.”
The U.N. also has a way of distilling alliances, she says, as votes tell a more clearcut story of influence than some countries would like to show.
At the same time, the headline focus on the powerful U.N. Security Council obscures the complexity of behind-the-scenes dealmaking and the utility of the U.N. General Assembly. While it has “no teeth” without the ability to impose sanctions, the drumbeat of “constant consensus-building resolutions” move global conversations forward, even if at a snail’s pace.
Ms. Blais’s time on the UNICEF board showed a more human side of things: how the “U.N. apparatus” engenders tangible peace by addressing root causes of poverty in certain regions that could spiral into conflict, in addition to simply meeting the baseline needs of children and families.
“If we didn’t have a UNICEF, we would have millions more kids who would die every year, wouldn’t get vaccinated wouldn’t get educated,” she said. COVID-19 has only served to illuminate inequalities further.
Bringing It Back ‘Home’
These global sensibilities have colored a U.S.-Canada relationship that during the Trump administration was preoccupied by trade tensions. Even post-USMCA (or CUSMA as the trade deal is known in Canada) under President Joe Biden, not all has snapped back to the pre-Trump “normal.”
But the recent virtual summit between Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has widened the view of relations at a time when the United States is seeming to list toward heavier government intervention in the economy to tackle pivotal issues, Ms. Blais said.
Ms. Blais hopes to enlist Southern state governors and other actors who will be key to tackling new bilateral priorities like climate change, pandemic prevention, managing the Great Lakes and many other issues. Georgia, she acknowledged, is even more important to the political conversation than during her last period, which ended in 2017.
“I see my role, during the time that I’m here, as understanding and leveraging more where the states can play into this because this is a federally organized roadmap, but the states and the cities are hugely important in the relationship,” she said, noting the outsized role of diplomats in driving these conversations. “I think we have a we have to play that piece of bringing the states along into that bigger umbrella, because there’s a lot that can be done.”
Ironically, the physical separation of the pandemic has made it a bit easier to connect with political leaders outside Atlanta, she said. Weeks ago, she held virtual meetings with leaders in Mississippi, which is considering putting a trade office in Canada like the one Georgia has been operating for decades.
For all her experience with the high-altitude view of global trends, not everything has changed: Just like last time, much of the work in economic development and beyond will be done down in the trenches of day-to-day diplomacy.
“At the end of the day, we’re all local.”
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.