The world isn’t watching, and that’s just fine

Jens Stoltenberg

Who is this man? Only the leader of one of the world's most successful countries...*

“Harper enhances Canada’s leadership role in the world”, a headline in Friday’s Ottawa Citizen said.

“Grits want Harper to push Canada’s place on world stage”, was the headline of an article Meagan Fitzpatrick wrote in Tuesday’s Vancouver Sun.

But does the rest of the world see Canada as having a leadership role in the world? Do we have a starring role on the world stage?

And even if the answer to both questions is “no”, is that necessarily a bad thing?

A review of a few major foreign newspapers suggests that Canada is just one of many supporting actors on the world stage.

For example, the Sydney Morning Herald published only two stories specifically about Canada in the past week. One, in its Saturday, Sept. 25 edition, was titled “Canada delays athletes heading to Delhi”.  This comes three days after “Hurricane Igor hits Canada”.

The paper’s only other coverage of Canadian events this month: four stories about Hurricane Earl, two stories about drug arrests, one story titled “Canada court frees four detained Tamils”, and one about Canadian assistance to Pakistan. So, from an Australian point of view, Canada is a country that merits attention once every few days.

How about the New York Times? Given the closer proximity to Canada and the volume of Canada-U.S. trade, surely they must have more coverage of Canadian affairs?

Hardly. The Times’ Canada page only lists four stories so far this month: one about G-8/G-20 summit expenses, one about cycling, one about Bell Canada’s takeover of CTV, and a passing mention of Canada in relation to the Commonwealth Games. That’s it.

So what about the Financial Times, the prestigious newspaper read by the who’s who of London’s business world?

Again, just four mentions so far this month: one about the gun registry vote, one about Canada’s nuclear power business being in limbo, one about rising interest rates, and one about BHP Billiton’s possible takeover of Saskatchewan’s Potash Corporation.

The Economist‘s “Americas” page? Nada. Zilch. Nothing at all about Canada there this week.

Now, before you start to feel bad about the world paying so little attention to Canada, think about this: journalists love bad news. That’s why The Economist passed over boring old Canada in favour of murder and mayhem in Colombia, political turmoil in Venezuela, and a mayoral candidate in Lima, the capital of Peru, who promises to be honest (unlike, say, one of the country’s former presidents, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence for murder, bodily harm, kidnapping, embezzlement, etc.)

Indeed, being a prominent country doesn’t guarantee a high quality of life.

A worldwide public opinion study carried out between 2004 and 2007 asked people to rate how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of “1” to “10”. Based on a rating of “8” or higher, the list of the countries with the most contented citizens was a Who’s Who of countries that play only a supporting role at best on the world stage: Switzerland (74%), Norway (74%), Finland (73%), Canada (66%), New Zealand (66%) and Sweden (66%).

Countries with a bigger role of the world stage didn’t fare as well. Sixty percent of Britons were solidly satisfied with their lives, which looked pretty good compared to the findings from the United States (53%), Germany (51%), Spain (48%), Japan (46%), France (44%) or Italy (36%).

These findings date back before the 2008 financial crisis, from which Canada has emerged less scathed, so far.

Imagine how much wider the gap between Canada and the U.K., the U.S. and Spain must be now.

Less noteworthy countries also dominated the U.N.’s latest Human Development Index.

The top performer here was Norway, a country whose prime minister — a fellow by the name of Jens Stoltenberg — is so unknown after five years in office that he could probably walk from one end of Polo Park to the other on the last shopping day before Christmas  without being recognized.

The other countries in the Top Five: Australia (then led by the only modestly well-known Kevin Rudd), Iceland (led for most of 2009 by the obscure Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir), Canada, and Ireland (led by Brian Cowen, yet another not so well known figure on the world stage).

There are many factors that make some countries more desirable places to live than others, but having a prominent role on the world stage doesn’t seem to be one of them.

In fact, being a smaller, less noticeable country might be more of a blessing. Smaller countries are less likely to surround their leaders with air-tight security (it wasn’t until the 2008 financial crisis that Iceland’s prime minister even began traveling with a professional bodyguard), and can use the resources that they don’t have tied up in various global responsibilities to deal with domestic quality of life issues.

If Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff hope for the day when the international press will give them daily coverage, that is their prerogative. The quality of life for the rest of us, however, might be better served by Canadian governments focusing on practical things they can do at home to improve our quality of life than by getting caught up in visions of grandeur on the world stage.

* – In case you haven’t guessed it by now, the man shown above is Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to The world isn’t watching, and that’s just fine

  1. Brian says:

    Yup!

    I don’t think we should close Foreign Affairs tomorrow, and I do think both our own interests and our own values can be served by pursuing a few selected policies aggressively beyond our border. But even so, I’d far rather see Canada try to do that on a few well-chosen regional stages – like, say, the Caribbean basin, East Africa, or the circumpolar region. Better that than wasting our time pissing in the wind with delusional rhetoric about global dominance.

    Oddly enough, focusing on a few key skills, goals and regions when it comes to ‘optional’ foreign policy is actually more helpful to our allies, too, since they know there’s someone taking the lead in one place, and know in advance that we’re not up for the job in another.

  2. unclebob says:

    I wonder what the result might be if that same world opinion survey question were asked to compare a range of thirty or so communities all within Canada?

    One to ten how satisfied are you in Winnipeg? OK lets see how that stacks up with Summerside or Swift Current or London?

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    Good idea — I would love to see the results of a comparative survey of the quality of life in each of Canada’s largest cities.

    Getting a robust sample in each city, though, would cost big bucks.

  4. TRex says:

    For what it’s worth the May 31/2010 issue of Macleans (pg40-pg44) has an interesting article. Some comparisons made are, “How Smart Is Your City”, “Canada’s Most Cultured Cities”, “Canada’s Most Socially Engaged Cities.”

    Spoiler Alert: Montreal sucks!

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