As is usually the case in Canadian federal elections, foreign policy issues have not figured prominently on the hustings. While Afghanistan and the two Michaels were briefly discussed during the campaign’s sole English-language debate, these issues concern the safety and wellbeing of Canadian citizens caught in the line of fire. Virtually no attention has been paid to Canada’s broader interests and role in the world, despite the profound shifts in the international order that have occurred since the Trudeau government first took office in 2015.
Recent years have witnessed the gradual erosion of the international order that has prevailed for the bulk of the post-Cold War era – one rooted in hyper-globalization, American unipolarity, and the unrivaled pre-eminence of liberal values and prescriptions. A shift of such fundamental proportions demands structured and strategic thinking from Canada’s next government, rather than an ad hoc and reactive approach.
In the early 1970s, Pierre Trudeau’s secretary of state for external affairs – as the minister of foreign affairs was then called – Mitchell Sharp posited three options for Canada’s future: maintain an ambiguous status quo, firmly anchor Canada within the American orbit, or foster the foundations of a more independent posture on the world stage. These three choices still largely apply today. However, none of them is cost-free. Overdependence on the US – and efforts to wean oneself off such overdependence – comes with both benefits and risks which must be weighed against one another.
Under the status quo, Canada has attempted to maintain the appearance of an independent foreign policy, even as the world largely perceives it to be a mere extension of American power. This approach has cost Canada a seat at the UN Security Council in two consecutive bids and has resulted in a sharp deterioration of relations with Beijing, despite the election of a federal government sympathetic to the notion of deeper ties with China.
Canada-Russia relations, for their part, have become virtually non-existent: beyond the desire to preserve cooperation in the Arctic, there is almost no effort as would befit independent countries to identify a wide-ranging bilateral policy agenda. And the future of Canada-US relations has become uncertain due to growing trade and energy disputes, mounting populism and political polarization south of the border, and Washington’s unilateralist disposition in the nascent great power competition which does not always consider the interests of American allies.
In short, Canada’s relations with the world’s three most powerful countries now range from troubled to threatening. This is not a durable state of affairs. The status quo posture in Canadian foreign policy is, quite frankly, not a viable long-term option.
Option #2, in an era of deepening rivalry and regional blocs, is to become a vassal of the United States in the realm of foreign and security policy. While this may not be the preferred option of many Canadians, it nonetheless represents a coherent strategy that can offer Canada certain benefits. Moreover, Canada need not maintain this posture in perpetuity. Such an arrangement would offer Canada the security to focus its limited resources on building up the sources of its national power – including through sustained population growth – which would eventually allow Ottawa the leeway to revise this strategy in the distant future as international conditions change.
In the meantime, under this option, Canada would abandon any pretense of having an independent foreign policy. Yet in exchange for its full acquiescence to American geopolitical goals, Canada would rigorously defend the independence of its trade policy – highlighting the unique structure and requirements of the Canadian economy but always working to find continental synergies that could strengthen the relative global power of the North American geo-economic bloc. As such, although Canada would aggressively pursue deeper economic integration with the US, it would also never agree to a clause such as the one inserted into the USMCA agreement restricting Ottawa’s ability to sign a free trade deal with Beijing.
However, option #2 also means that Canada would kiss goodbye its long-held notion of being a “middle power”, likely for the next several decades. Ottawa could selectively contribute to international development, the fight against climate change, and other aspects of global problem-solving. It could also spend the next several decades building up the quality and size of the Canadian diplomatic service. But it would not waste time and resources mounting bids for a seat on UN Security Council. Canada would not attempt to advance – tangibly or even symbolically – a vision of international order and security that differs from that of the superpower next door.
Option #3 requires a different trade-off. To assuage concerns that a more independent and proactive Canada might be a liability to the US, Ottawa may have to spend significant sums demonstrating its commitment to the collective defence of North America. But this added focus on deterring threats to continental security would be accompanied by much deeper, wide-ranging and robust diplomacy with Russia and China, rooted in mutual respect and the pursuit of common ground where possible. Ottawa would identify its own interests in its relations with Beijing and Moscow and not align fully with any emerging geopolitical or geo-economic bloc, even if some countries will remain Canada’s primary partners or allies.
Canada would not view China as a threat to the international order, but rather as a key interlocutor whose long-term contribution to multilateralism remains indispensable to resolving key global challenges. While sharp values-based criticism of China would persist, Canada’s government would work explicitly to disentangle political disputes from the pursuit of deeper economic ties and would commit to investing in the development of an inclusive security architecture for the Asia-Pacific region.
Ottawa would also acknowledge that its interests in the Eastern Hemisphere do not always align with Washington’s. Canada would make clear that its foreign policy does not aim to uphold existing geopolitical fault lines nor preserve US global primacy for its own sake, but rather foster greater stability across the Eurasian landmass in concert with a diverse range of partners. And while the second option would merely retain an independent Canadian trade policy, the third option would also include a deliberate and forceful push to diversify Canada’s trade partners.
The second option does not necessarily provide a guaranteed solution to the problem of growing economic protectionism in the United States. It will also challenge the Canadian elite psychologically, forcing it to confront its inferiority complex vis-à-vis the US and revisit longstanding assumptions about Canada’s role in the world. The third option, for its part, would not eliminate Ottawa’s need to address continually the challenge posed by Washington’s increasingly unilateralist foreign policy. Even if it remains Canada’s most important international partner, the task of eliminating Ottawa’s relationship with Washington as the intellectual starting point for Canada’s engagement with the wider world would be both psychological and technical.
Both options are designed to navigate a difficult international terrain – one in which not every problem will have a solution. But if Canada wishes to emerge from this lengthy period of global turbulence as an influential rather than a peripheral player, it needs to have a clear-eyed discussion about what its core national interests are and where resources should be allocated in their pursuit.
Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Nonresident Research Fellow with IPD and a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).