Now that we are in election mode, many foreign policy experts have begun to criticize federal political parties and their leaders for not devoting enough attention to foreign policy issues affecting Canada’s economy and security. Such criticism is not unfair. Canada is currently facing fast-paced international changes, the likes of which have not been observed in a long time. We are witnessing the emergence of a polycentric world, the return to hard power politics – notably in Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea – as well as multiple attacks by authoritarian regimes to a liberal international order which has brought stability and growth to Canada for over 70 years.
Over the last few years, many of these changes have come at Canada’s expense. It found itself in an intense diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia over human rights issues, while none of its closest allies came to its defence. Canada also had a taste of China’s medicine when Beijing used arbitrary detentions of two Canadian citizens as bargaining chips for the liberation of Huawei’s chief financial officer. But it is perhaps the behaviour of our closest ally, the United States, that gave us the best sense of the difficulties ahead: protectionist economic policies and rampant populism led observers to conclude that Canada is more alone than ever on the world stage. And while Canada could possibly have done more at the UN to address these multiple challenges, UN members rejected its bid for a seat on the Security Council for the second time in ten years.
With so many challenges facing Canada, tough questions of public interest deserve to be debated during this federal election. For example, should we lecture and criticize authoritarian regimes in the name of fundamental political values but at the expense of our economic and diplomatic relations? Should we bow to Beijing’s bullying tactics to protect our citizens and help our businesses? Can and should we fight populism in the West? What is our strategy if Trumpism is back in the White House in 2025? Why have our UN Security Council bids failed? And, more importantly, why do we want a UN seat? Should we stay the course with liberal internationalism no matter what, or should we give more thought to Realpolitik when necessary? One thing is certain: the time has come for a substantive discussion on these issues, so that we may better navigate the turbulent waters of 21st-century international politics.
Despite these monumental shifts, the conventional wisdom remains that Canadians are not interested much in foreign policy and, therefore, that it rarely plays a significant role in federal elections. As a result, from campaign to campaign, our leaders keep repeating that Canada “works with others in international institutions” and is a “good international citizen”. They often recall the glorious moments of our foreign policy by emphasizing the right key words: Suez, peacekeeping, landmines, internationalism. But from one election to the next, our leaders seem unable to articulate a coherent vision for the future. The fact that Canada has not issued a foreign policy white paper in a record 16 years – and that this does not appear to bother our leaders – is telling. This reflects the stalemate in which Canada finds itself. Without a clear vision, leaders make few proposals and debate few international issues. Media coverage reflects this reality, thus failing to stimulate further discussion. For their part, Canadians are led to debate other issues, far removed from international realities. But why is this so?
Losing Its Bearings
Canada gradually lost its bearings on the international scene a while ago. First, the war on terrorism waged by the US and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11 diverted the course of our foreign policy overnight. Thereafter, the emergence of a polycentric world, gridlock in international institutions and the erosion of the liberal international order contributed to our disorientation. The Harper government did attempt to provide Canada with a new foreign policy narrative that was more warlike and Manichean. But this Conservative effort was not well received by Canadians because it departed from their self-image as a peacekeeping and multilateral middle power.
As such, while the political class continues to sell Canadians the same narrative about our glorious past, there remains a wide gap between reality and fiction. If we define a middle power as a state working to maintain the stability of the international system through peacekeeping, mediation, conflict resolution, development aid and multilateral diplomacy, then Canada no longer qualifies as one. With respect to peacekeeping, Canada disengaged from UN missions 30 years ago and now ranks 72nd in UN troop contribution. And even if Canada chose anew to become a peacekeeping champion, what kind of peace could it keep that could mitigate great power competition and protect our international institutions?
Canada is no longer a “go-between” state as it used to be back when Lester Pearson chaired a UN special committee on Palestine, General McNaughton mediated the conflict over Kashmir and Paul Martin, Sr. pursued de-escalation in Cyprus. Canada is simply no longer a country to whom conflicting parties turn naturally. Moreover, considering that Canada has prioritized its continental and Atlantic commitments over serious engagement in the Pacific, it does not have the weight or the legitimacy to act as a go-between that could defuse the current US-China tensions and thus reshape world order. Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) is stagnant at 0.26% of GDP, far from the 0.7% UN aid spending target. In this context, Canada could hardly aspire to play a significant role in counterbalancing the influence of China and other undemocratic regimes in Africa, Asia or Latin America, even if it coordinated its ODA programs with like-minded democratic allies.
In this context, is it any wonder that Canada failed twice to win a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council? The good thing about our June 2020 defeat at the UN is that it goes beyond partisanship. Both the Harper Conservatives and Trudeau Liberals failed in their attempts for a seat, which suggests that the problem is actually much deeper: we have lost our bearings.
Breaking the Stalemate?
Admitting that there is a problem is the first step towards fixing it. In the best interests of Canada, political leaders must commit to debating today’s international issues and recognize that Canada would benefit from re-evaluating its priorities and national strategy to render them fit for 21st-century world politics. More than ever, Canada needs a prime minister who acts as a statesman and who is willing to think about foreign policy with a long-term mentality, even if it means short-term political losses.
Some organizations, such as the Canadian International Council with its Foreign Policy By Canadians initiative, are trying to stimulate a bottom-up debate to generate foreign policy reforms. While such initiatives are to be welcomed and encouraged, we must also be aware of their limitations. Without a serious awareness of the problem on the part of our political leadership, Canada’s global position will remain at an impasse at great expense to Canada’s long-term interests, leaving it constantly in reactive mode to international events. In this election campaign, it is imperative that federal party leaders advance concrete proposals and draw attention to international issues in order to right the ship.
Dr. Jonathan Paquin (@PaquinJonathan) is professor of political science at Université Laval and research leader for the Great Powers project at the Network for Strategic Analysis, an initiative funded by the Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) programme of the Department of National Defence of Canada.