A mission to defend the rules-based international order

As President, I will lend support to a vibrant network of members through 15 city chapters across Canada.

by | Nov 27, 2018

It’s an honour to be named President of Canada’s oldest foreign relations thinktank. I’ve been grateful for the positive response to the announcement.

But the appointment has come at a price. I have chosen to resign from the Foreign Service to take up this position. This blog entry is my attempt to explain why I did so.

As a diplomat serving overseas, I was able to experience something that seems quite abstract to most Canadians: the international order. What is the international order? It’s a system of rules that the vast majority of countries agree on, and which shapes what we consider legitimate or illegitimate behaviour by these same countries.

Of course, countries are still able to break the rules, and regularly do. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was clearly illegal – the Administration of George W. Bush did not secure a mandate from the Security Council for the use of force – but the U.S. invaded anyway. The importance of the international order is that it shapes how other countries respond. Most nations stayed out of the coalition that the U.S. tried to assemble, and it was left holding the bag during the Iraqi civil war that ensued.

I served in Iraq in the first two years after Saddam Hussein fell, as the Canadian government’s lone observer to the failed U.S. effort. When I then served in Kandahar five years later, I could see what a tangible difference it made for Canada, the U.S. and our NATO allies to have a clear, legal, UN mandate for the effort to rebuild that country. The effort to bring stability to Afghanistan was as elusive as for Iraq, but the international community showed up for the effort and we were united in our goal to help the Afghan people recover from the chaos that had engulfed their country.

I also saw the tangible effects of the international order in Venezuela. Canada’s foreign policy places great emphasis on the defence of human rights, and so our embassy led efforts to highlight the international norms that Venezuela had embraced in signing the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the many related treaties.

These norms affected how the government of President Nicolas Maduro acted in 2014, when I first arrived in Caracas amid the massive pro-democracy protests led by Venezuelan university students that year. Yes, the Venezuelan government threw thousands of students and opposition politicians in jail for their views. But they felt compelled to justify their actions by inventing stories. One of the most outlandish was the claim by the team prosecuting opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez that he had passed “subliminal messages” calling for violence, since there was nothing of the sort in his actual statements. When a government ties itself in pretzels like this to justify the naked exercise of force, it reveals that it is heeding the constraints of international opinion.

But by the time I left Venezuela in 2017, the Maduro government was markedly less interested in what the international community had to say. In 2016 they had violated their own constitution by avoiding a referendum that would very likely have removed Maduro from power. Then when the legislature protested, they threatened to shut it down. Forced by fresh waves of protests to back down, they replaced the constitution with a set of rules that allowed Maduro to do as he pleases.

To be honest, I didn’t expect a government to get away with this virtual coup d’état in country with such a long and proud history of democracy. But it did.

In the brazenness of the Maduro government, I saw a new defiance to the rules-based international order. And in the year since I left Venezuela we have seen similar brazenness by other authoritarian regimes. Worse, we now see leaders of the countries that helped write the rules of the international order openly question those rules. Candidate Trump openly embraced torture during the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and his statements since taken office have similarly emboldened authoritarian rulers everywhere.

The international order is now in flux. It’s a dangerous time for Canada, a country that has benefitted tremendously from the stability that order has afforded. For decades we have been able to reconcile the values that unite us as a nation with the interests we have in trading and collaborating with other countries.

We can’t afford to see the rules-based international order give way to some Hobbesian system where we have to choose between prosperity and security, and where all countries are impoverished by an avoidable race to the bottom.

Neither can we leave it to our elected leaders, or their public servants, to stand up for the rules-based international order alone. The storm now gathering in international politics will impose some painful choices on Canada. The Canadian public needs to contribute to the decisions our government will take, and the government needs the Canadian public on board as it navigates these turbulent waters.

Luckily for Canada, we already have an organization that was set up for this very purpose. When a previous storm gathered across the world in the 1920s and 1930s, many Canadians were tempted to turn away and stay home. Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden set up the Canadian Institute for International Affairs to counteract this isolationism. The CIIA helped Canadians unite behind an assertive foreign policy, and Canada emerged in the 1940s as one of the most influential countries in writing the rules for the postwar international order.

The CIIA has since become the CIC. But its mandate remains the same, and its network of chapters across the nation offers a platform for thousands of Canadians to learn about the threats we face and to have their say. You can help by joining in the debate, whether by becoming a member, attending an event, and contributing opinions online. If any of this prompts an opinion, share it with us on Twitter at @thecic and @benrowswell, on Facebook at @canadianinternationalcouncil.

This is the mission the CIC can play for our nation in these difficult times. I’m grateful for the opportunity to join this organization, and take on this mission.


Ben Rowswell

Ben Rowswell was appointed President and Research Director of the Canadian International Council on November 19, 2018.

Ben has 25 years of experience as a practitioner of international relations. He earned his expertise in international security serving with the United Nations in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, as Canada’s first diplomatic envoy to Baghdad, Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and as the head of the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar at the height of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Ben has advised top levels of government on international strategy in the Privy Council Office during the tenures of Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, and at the Washington DC Center for Strategic and International Studies from 2003 to 2004.

But his abiding passion is the defence of human rights and democracy. He established the Democracy Unit of Global Affairs Canada, worked closely with human rights movements as a political officer in the Canadian Embassy to Egypt, and most recently as Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017.

Throughout his career, Ben has sought to engage citizens in the practice of international relations. After a fellowship at Stanford University that introduced him to the powerful role that individuals can play in global affairs, he pioneered the practice of digital diplomacy at Global Affairs Canada. This same passion led him to join Farhaan Ladhani in founding software startup called Betterplace, which tailors opportunities for citizens to engage in civic action through a mobile app.