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Janice Stein, founder and director of the Munk School of Global Affairs
Janice Stein. Photo by Christopher Wahl

A Global Affair

Armed with $80 million in new funding, the Munk School aims to become one of the top international relations programs in the world

These days, Janice Stein’s world is turning a little faster than usual. The Munk School of Global Affairs, of which she is founder and director, has received a funding infusion of unearthly proportions: $35 million from its original benefactor, gold mining executive Peter Munk, with an additional $25 million from the federal government; this follows an equal commitment from the provincial government in 2008.

Such robust investments are intended to vault the Munk School into the top ranks of international-relations programs, enabling it to take its place alongside the London School of Economics and Political Science, Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

To be sure, money will help attract visiting experts to the Munk School, sponsor partnerships and new degree programs, support top-flight research and enable the construction of a new facility. All good things, of course. But what about the fact that, unlike its rivals, the Munk School is located in a young, sparsely populated country, far from the traditional seats of world power? Some might see this as a weakness: not Stein.

“This school is a little different and you can see that in its name – it’s Global Affairs, not International Relations,” says Stein, an affable expert on conflict resolution and the Middle East who’s become an academic celebrity, in part due to her parallel career as a television commentator. As she sees it, the word “international” implies a collection of static land masses, some of which matter more than the others. “Global,” by contrast, encompasses a more 21st-century vision: one in which power is diffusing; in which economies are increasingly interconnected; in which groups of people live within countries but are not necessarily defined by them; and where polar ice, fresh water and fibre optics are as strategically important as land.

Currently, the world’s best schools of international relations are superb centres of research and policy analysis that regularly play host to the most significant thinkers in the field. Under the heavy weight of their histories, however, Stein says some of these institutions are struggling to adjust to new realities. The larger schools were founded in the wake of both world wars, and their directions were set by the victors. To this day, many academics in the area still hew largely to a world view in which national governments hold unique power over the economic, social and cultural lives of their citizens.

The Munk School, however, sees things through a wider lens. “We focus on three areas,” says Stein. “The global economy, which shapes opportunities for people all around the world; global institutions, or the broader architecture of how we govern ourselves; and the third is global civil society.” The third area is perhaps most surprising for those attached to the old paradigm. “Civil society” refers to the idea that volunteers, foundations, special interest groups and individuals all have an increasing ability to band together to make change, irrespective of place and ethnicity, thanks in no small part to the Internet. (As an example, think of the recent global campaign to prevent the stoning of a woman in Iran, a movement that spread quickly around the world and attracted thousands of signatures.) “We say to students: it’s not enough to know about one of these areas – you also need to know the other two,” Stein says. “If you don’t, you’re going to miss a big part of the story.”

To talk to Stein is to feel the very land mass beneath you crumbling; she convincingly argues that nothing now is as you thought it was. “You name any significant policy challenge that you think people are worrying about; stabilizing the economy, for example. That’s not within the sole purview of national governments to do anymore.” Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the G20 are defining the new regulatory structure, “and these are now being discussed at a global table, not a national table. And,” she says, gesturing outside, toward Toronto streets recently ensnarled by G20 unrest – “we just saw that these issues are not only the province of governments that come together at a table. Outside organizations have a voice in how these issues are shaped.” In this category, she includes corporations, NGOs and not-for-profit behemoths such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

These changes have had a big impact on who works at or visits the Munk School. Since its inception in 2000 as the Munk Centre for International Studies, it has played host to speakers and faculty from all walks of life – not just scholars and diplomats, but policy analysts, journalists, financiers, scientists and cultural figures; “professors of practice,” in other words. With new funding, the panoply of voices will expand. “It’s also broad in terms of where people come from,” says Stein. “It’s not a focus exclusively on the United States and Europe, which is traditional… there are places that Canadians don’t hear a lot from but are so important to the future.” Upcoming events will welcome guests from Latin America, Japan and Turkey.

And then, of course, there are India and China. China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, and India is not far behind. Accordingly, Asia will continue to be a major focus of the Munk School’s activities. While the United States turns inward to deal with an economy hobbled by war and recession, the rise of China and India suggests that this will be “Asia’s century,” says political scientist Joseph Wong, director of the school’s Asian Institute. “However, there remains great uncertainty about what we mean by that; indeed, this is a serious debate in China and India as well.” And so, Munk School students will be called on to investigate the as-yet unknown ways in which Asia will deal with political, environmental and economic pressures in the coming years. It’s the faculty’s main job, says Wong, to try and “inculcate a genuine sense of global curiosity.”

Stein considers Toronto’s diversity a natural and powerful asset for the Munk School. “Our students come from everywhere. They’re knowledgeable and connected, and that’s a phenomenal resource,” she says. In September, the school welcomed 36 students to its first graduate program: the Master of Global Affairs, which requires them to work abroad for the summer between their two years of study. Most schools recommend international experience; Munk makes it mandatory. During this time, students will work within one of the school’s streams of study: in a government, corporate, institutional or civil-society milieu, all of which are, in turn, enriched by the presence of potential future leaders. Wong, who regularly teaches in a summer program in Shanghai as part of a Munk School partnership with Fudan University, U of T’s political science department and Woodsworth College, cites the workabroad component as crucial. “Learning,” he says, “is not simply the mirror of teaching. Learning is about experiencing.”

Learning, here, is also interdisciplinary. International relations has long been considered a branch of political science, subject to input from philosophers and economists. Over the last 20 years or so, the field has broadened to include scholars from a variety of disciplines. The school’s “Dynamics of Global Change” PhD reflects this: it is a collaborative program, whereby students in the medical, legal, business, cultural or scientific fields can conduct research with an eye to applying it in a global context.

“Somebody just said to me when they came in – this place smells good!” Stein says with a laugh. “There’s excitement, there’s buzz, there’s activity, there’s ferment.” Emails ping from the bespectacled professor’s desktop computer as we speak, and her arms wave passionately; always in motion, she seems one of those people for whom the mere act of sitting constitutes exercise.

But on this lazy summer day, the school’s reflecting pool shimmers softly in the haze – reminding one that, lively as it is, this is also a place where peace is a central concern. Many of the Munk School’s programs lead, in ways both direct and indirect, to advancing the cause of peacemaking. At the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, for example, undergraduates examine the causes of violent strife in the world via a distinctly interdisciplinary route, studying history, economics and psychology.

But the institution’s commitment to bridge-building becomes more immediately evident when you look at its extracurricular plans. In October, the school will host a conference with academics from Mexico. Hot-button topics such as illegal immigration and visa restrictions will, Stein hopes, not be the principal focus of attention: while significant, their dominance in the discourse often obscures natural sources of partnership between the two countries. “So we’re going to talk about whether we have some shared concerns on global issues,” Stein says. The global economy naturally comes to mind, especially in advance of November’s G20 meeting in Seoul. Other research questions, such as science policy, will be broached. And there will be an exchange of ideas on a wide variety of other global issues. This is important, says Stein, because “there are 100 million Mexicans. We’re focused rightly on India and China, but they’re halfway around the world and Mexico’s right in our backyard.”

The public is invariably invited to play a part in such conferences; an acquaintance of Stein’s says these events offer “a university education for free.” Lectures and debates are sometimes televised, always streamed on the Munk School’s website and frequently sold out within minutes. Other gatherings include film screenings, book launches and talks on topics ranging from folk religion to pharmaceutical policy to the state of the euro; speakers come from all over the world, finding instant audiences from every tile in the Canadian mosaic.

“One of the reasons I was committed to public education right from the word go is that I wanted a place where people from different communities can come and hear their own countries talked about,” Stein says. She admits it isn’t always easy. Campuses can be particularly fractious places. But Stein is “absolutely committed” to the idea of civil conversation, even in the many cases where argument may be unavoidable.

“There’s no value in shrieking at each other,” she says. “That’s not educational. We want questions and participation from the audience, but we don’t want harangues, speeches, personal attacks or insults. A university has a right to have higher expectations.”

There can be, however, no peace without security. And security, in myriad forms, will be a major focus in coming years. The $25-million federal commitment has been specifically earmarked to establish the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, which will position the Munk School as a vital locus for policy generation on the issue.

But what does security mean? Here is where the land mass crumbles further. In the coming decades, it will not be enough to fortify our borders and airplanes and public buildings, nor to concentrate exclusively on sabre-rattling from rogue nations. At Munk, experts are looking beyond these problems into realms that are larger, more fluid, less subject to traditional methods of control: Water. Cyberspace. A previously forbidding Arctic that, because of climate change, is potentially open to predation.

“At evolutionary times such as these, the greatest challenge is for our understanding of the world to keep pace,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said earlier this year, in announcing his government’s intention to fund the new centre. “The [Munk School] has already earned a reputation for excellence in international security studies. Demonstrated success deserves reinforcement.”

The effect the school’s security initiatives have had on the world outside is indeed worthy of note. Its Program on Water Issues has long been examining concerns relating to the protection of Canadian water; director Adele Hurley has drafted a Model Act for Preserving Canada’s Water, the principles of which are supported by all major federal parties. In the coming years, water may be a key focus of U.S.-Canada relations, as scarcity affects many areas south of the border and conflicts could arise, despite treaties designed to protect our ownership. Global climate change, the oil sands and energy use are also key areas of the school’s focus.

Professor Emeritus Franklyn Griffiths, an expert on Arctic security affiliated with the Munk School, has provided policy analysis and advice in this area to the federal government for more than 30 years. His advice may be more valuable than ever in the near future: Griffiths says the now-navigable Arctic is an area that, to date, has been well managed nationally but comparatively neglected in a global sense. “Through proper stewardship, we can build greater security there,” he says, though problems could arise: further drilling under ice-covered waters, for example, could give rise to a “nightmare” scenario should a BP-style blowout ever occur. Shipping and territorial disputes, as well as the well-being of aboriginal people living in the area, are also areas of concern.

So far, though, the Munk School’s most prominent success on the security front has been realized by the Citizen Lab. Led by political scientist Ron Deibert, its small research team monitors an Internet world that, as Deibert put it in a CBC report, has been “carved up, colonized and militarized.” The lab has developed software to circumvent Internet censorship in countries such as Iran and China. And in the past two years it has cracked two large cyber-espionage rings that allegedly originated in China. Both rings were hacking into computers around the world (the second ring focused on India) in order to steal politically explosive information. The Citizen Lab is without question a world leader in this area, says Stein. “We’re making a huge investment there,” she continues, saying that new funding will enable it to double in size.

The Citizen Lab made global headlines for two studies in quick succession, but seven years of intensive work preceded the publicity. Stein says the Munk School’s “incubator atmosphere” can be nerve-racking, since she never knows whether a project will succeed. “Most will not, and we have to have the expectation that they will not,” she says. A project on global public policy “didn’t attract enough interest and excitement.” One on public space did not survive the initial investment, but Stein may go back to it, incorporating the work of architects and designers as well as political scientists. But “if you ask me why we’ve done as well as we have over the decade, I think it’s the culture we have created,” which she says is more accepting of risk than is usual in Canada. “We have to make a place for experimentation and innovation – and in order to do that, it has to be okay to fail.”

Canadians’ natural aversion to risk may irk Stein. Otherwise, she says, her home and native land might just be the best possible place for a school of global affairs. “We are a developed country with a rich knowledge base, with excellent universities that are among the best in the world. But we don’t have an imperial past. You can’t say that about the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal or Spain! Our slogan is ‘Join the Global Conversation’ – not ‘Lead…’”

This conversation, naturally, is largely being conducted over the Internet. But although the school has accommodated itself to a cyber-dominant world, Stein also sees its teaching and research as a bulwark against the electronic realm’s errors and superficialities. Today’s world may be saturated in information, she says, “but how do you know how well-researched it is, how thoughtful it is? People want places where they can get some quality assurance. And that’s in a sense what the Munk School is – it’s a node of quality assurance.”

And though Stein’s departure from the Munk School directorship can be seen on the horizon, she says it isn’t imminent. “The university will begin this fall to look for a successor. However long that process takes, I will stay until my successor takes over.” Until that happens, she will continue presiding over an institution that is diverse in perspectives, but unified by strong values. Brash, yet respectful. And forward-looking, even as it is deeply grounded in history. Tolerance, peace and diversity may be distinctly Canadian virtues, but Stein knows their appeal transcends all borders. “I like working here,” she says. “You can hear it in my voice, can’t you?”

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  1. 7 Responses to “ A Global Affair ”

  2. Harold Innis says:

    You must be kidding! Quote: "We’re focused rightly on India and China, but they’re halfway around the world and Mexico’s right in our backyard.” Backyard?

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Janice Stein made an unfortunate choice of words when she referred to Mexico as Canada’s “backyard” – especially when the new school aims, as Peter Munk suggests, to transmit Canadian values around the world. The derogatory label of Mexico (and Latin American by extension) as the “backyard” of the U.S. goes back to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that justified any interference in Latin America’s politics.

    Rosa Sarabia
    Professor, Spanish and Portuguese
    University of Toronto

  4. Eduardo Padilla says:

    I would also like to comment on Janice Stein’s remark about Mexico being in Canada’s backyard: “We’re focused rightly on India and China, but they’re halfway around the world and Mexico’s right in our backyard."

    While I understand what Prof. Stein probably meant with her metaphor – that Mexico is much closer to Canada than many Canadians think— I find the reference to Mexico being in the back, rather than next to or close to Canada, inaccurate at best. In economic terms, the countries have roughly equal GDP (roughly $1.3 trillion for Canada vs. $1.0 trillion for Mexico, and $1.3 trillion vs. $1.5 trillion when adjusted for purchasing power parity, according to the 2009 CIA World Factbook).

    Equally important is that both countries compete against each other when exporting their goods and services to the United States. (In 2009, Canada exported 75% of its goods and services to the United States; Mexico exported 80%.) Given the similar sizes of the countries' economies and the similar export objectives, it would be productive to reframe Canada and Mexico’s relationship as a cooperative and synergistic one: a relationship with enormous opportunities that could tilt the North American Free Trade Agreement in favour of the two nations.

    Such a restorative approach would be helpful in moving away from a competitive relationship that has been detrimental to each nation. Avoiding metaphors that remind people of the Monroe doctrine would be both constructive and realistic.

  5. Mathew says:


    I wouldn't take it as indicating derogatory intent, conscious or otherwise, if someone from Mexico said "Canada is in Mexico's backyard!" To me it just means "neighbours." It used to be an idiom meaning only this; doesn't anyone still use it?

    I don't remember with certainty if it is the right book (sorry, getting old), but if it is, "Ethnics and Indians: Social Relations in a Northwest Ontario Town" by David H. Stymeist (1975) is still well worth reading for anyone in international relations and dealing with with Canada or Canadians. If one is prone to take casual familiarity to indicate disrespect and formality to indicate respect, it is worth understanding that in Canada the better deduction is that the reverse is often true.

    Years ago I used to work in a settlement agency in Toronto, and was always careful to make sure newcomers understood this. This piece of information tended to be of considerable practical value in negotiating the social landscape here, which is filled with unspoken barriers of one sort and another.

    I stand to be corrected, of course, and am curious as to whether things have changed so much from my youth in "ancient" days that the above is now in error.

  6. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Peter Munk deserves our thanks for his generosity to the University of Toronto, but readers of U of T Magazine deserve a more nuanced view of his life and the activities of Barrick Gold than is offered.

    Janice Stein, the director of the Munk School, is quoted to the effect that, while we are saturated with information, how do we know how well researched it is or how thoughtful it is? The reader is entitled to ask how well researched and thoughtul your article is. I think it has problems on both counts.

    I would urge readers who want a more balanced view to read the Wikipedia entry on Barrick Mines and take particular note of the statements by some indigenous leaders, who speak for some of the most oppressed peoples in the world. Mr. Munk and your magazine trumpet transmitting Canadian values globally.That is well and good but the values with respect to environmental rights and human rights represented by Canadian mining are matters of public contention and should not be simply ignored. As well, Barrick Gold has been accused by some of engaging in "libel chill," a practice that discourages the search for truth which is at the very heart of what the university must be about.

    Mel Watkins
    BCom 1952 UC
    University College Professor Emeritus
    Constance Bay, Ontario

  7. AB says:

    I think political correctness is suffocating public discourse.

    What is wrong with “We’re focused rightly on India and China, but they’re halfway around the world and Mexico’s right in our backyard.”?

    It doesn't mean Mexico is "our backyard," it means it is close to us. Furthermore, it encourages focusing on Mexico, not otherwise.

  8. Felms says:

    "We don't have an imperial past" - oh no? Tell that to the indigenous First Nations of this land. Then tell it to the the people of the Carribbean whose banks are owned by Bay Street; to the people of Latin America whose lands are stolen and polluted by Toronto mining companies; to the migrant workers who are treated like pawns for profit and denied rights and dignity in this colonial country; to the Afghans who believe they would be better off without foreign military occupation. More than a past, we have an imperial present.