The end of the U.S. elections means activists can finally redirect their efforts toward improving human rights, combating religious intolerance and global warming, according to social justice experts who spoke at the recent “Navigating a New World” conference.

Presented by Random House of Canada, the one-day event was named after the title of former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s recent book and examined the evolving relationship between Canada and the international community. For each of the six guest speakers, however, George W. Bush’s recent success at the polls was the backdrop against which all other subjects were discussed.

“I have a positive spin on the U.S. elections — are you ready?” activist, columnist and No Logo author Naomi Klein asked the sold-out crowd at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. “Here’s the positive thing: they’re over.”

Klein said too much time, energy and creativity has been focused around what she called the “Anyone But Bush” movement. This has distracted from the work being done to protest the ongoing presence of American troops in Iraq, she said, adding that the focus on personality-based politics was demonstrated by reactions to Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11. “People were seeing the bodies for the first time,” she said. “They left the theatres crying and they wanted to do something about it. They were told, ‘Vote Kerry’ . . . what is galvanizing is bringing the troops back, end the war.”

Axworthy agreed, arguing that the U.S. has abandoned what he called its “Rooseveltian principles” of rules and restraints around its actions.

“We were too obsessed with being rescued by John Kerry and the Democrats,” he said. “Now we have to do it ourselves.”

In a speech that drew the day’s only standing ovation, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire used his experiences in Rwanda to explain how Canada should be working more closely with the United Nations to protect human rights in places like Baghdad.

“Single nation-led coalitions are not to be trusted,” he warned. “We as a leading nation of the middle powers failed. Americans had no skills at dealing with these issues at a grassroots level.“

Dallaire said Canada and the U.N. should have tried to develop innovative solutions to help civilians on the ground in Iraq once the U.S. had committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. This might mean giving up a degree of our sovereignty to the U.N., but that’s the only way to exercise influence on global affairs, he said.

“This nation has finished being in puberty. The question is, what do we want to do?” he said. “We now have a chance to establish who we are as a result.”

Likening the election results to “a kick in the face, or perhaps a colonoscopy,” Linda McQuaig said the U.S. faces a considerable challenge in dealing with the war’s aftermath. “They totally underestimated the strength of the resistance. They can’t even get control of the streets, let alone the oil fields,” she said.

McQuaig’s new book, It’s the Crude, Dude, examines the link between the North American dependency on oil and its influence on the U.S. decision to invade Iraq last year. She said the American election could be a shot in the arm to right-wing parties in Canada who want to see this country integrate more closely with the U.S. “Watch for that pressure,” she said.

Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam, said the only positive outcome of the war might be that various Muslim groups are forced to face one another. She said there has been almost no media attention around the desire of young Muslim women to see the Saddam Hussein regime end.

“We live in a culture of instant gratification, and just because it’s been a year and there’s still violence, that doesn’t mean nothing’s going to be accomplished,” she said. “Just as fast food is an illusion, so is fast freedom.”