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For a world in gloom, a new torchbearer

Shift in thought

At a gathering of hand-wringing world leaders in Switzerland, Canada’s new prime minister was all palms up, offering advice on how openness and fearlessness can help solve global challenges.

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    Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a session called Global Shapers on Pluralism, in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 21. Trudeau is attending the World Economic Forum where political, business and social leaders gather to discuss world agendas.
    Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press via AP
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Angela Merkel certainly deserved Time magazine’s designation of her as Person of the Year in 2015. The German chancellor has been a wise leader for Europe’s challenges (Russia, Greece, the euro, and migrants). But in 2016 another national leader, fresh on the world stage, has set an equally admirable tone about dealing with global challenges, which are currently creating an air of gloom. In fact, he was selected as the keynote speaker for this week’s gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada only since November, exudes a youthful idealism about solving problems, preferring to see light where others see dark. This is not simply his own personal optimism, perhaps derived from his famous father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Rather, as he told leaders in Davos, “I think people are open to not choosing to live in constant fear.”

Last year, he discovered Canadians are very receptive to endorsing that choice. His Liberal Party enjoyed a surprise election victory, recovering from years of losses. And he quickly made a mark on the world by promising to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. He has also been invited for an official state visit to the White House in March, the first such visit of a Canadian leader in nearly two decades.

The visit will be well timed to influence the American presidential campaign, in which candidates are competing on how well they can rip apart their opponents or create fear around issues such as migrants and inequality. Mr. Trudeau chose not to take that political path during his campaign. His advice at Davos to other democratic leaders: “Once you get elected through dividing people it becomes very hard to govern responsibly for everyone.”

Canada itself is divided on one thing. It wants to be a global citizen on climate change, but its economy is highly dependent on selling fossil fuels. With oil prices sinking, Trudeau has chosen to highlight Canada’s nonmaterial strengths. He told potential investors at Davos that Canada should be known more for its “resourcefulness” than its natural resources.

The key resource, he says, is Canada’s ability to embrace its ethnic diversity, a quality he says is an engine of invention. “It generates creativity that helps change the world. We know this in Canada,” he said.

He considers Canada to be a nontraditional leader in other ways. He explained it this way in a recent New York Times interview: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values – openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.”

Those qualities were worth highlighting at Davos because of the meeting’s main focus: how to master the “fourth industrial revolution,” or the effect of intelligent technology on society and business. Trudeau was chosen as keynote speaker, says Klaus Schwab, the German economist who presides over Davos, because “I couldn’t imagine anybody who could represent more the world which will come out of this fourth industrial revolution.”

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