This report is published as part of IPD’s project, Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order.
On September 15, 2022, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) convened the second roundtable of its “Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order” project. The topic of this session focused on Canada’s long-term foreign policy imperatives in Europe. Participants included former and current Canadian ambassadors, in addition to roughly a dozen scholars and experts on Canadian foreign policy and Euro-Atlantic security. The session was held under the Chatham House rule.
This project, launched in June 2022, brings together Canadian foreign policy scholars, analysts and stakeholders for a series of informal discussions. These private roundtable sessions aim to identify Canada’s national interests on the world stage in the context of a shifting international order, culminating in the publication of a final report in Autumn 2023. The project’s guiding logic is not to point to threats which must be balanced against, but rather to hold a first-principles discussion on the nature and scope of the country’s national interests, which can then serve as a basis for determining policy goals and developing the capabilities necessary to achieve them.
Europe vs. Asia?
For the past six months, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been front-and-centre in Canadian foreign policy circles. Given the war’s consequences – the collapse of Europe’s security order and the apparent end of the post-Cold War liberal interregnum – this is unsurprising. But looking past the current conflict, as the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity continues to shift toward Asia, will Europe increasingly become a theatre of secondary importance to Canada?
The second roundtable of IPD’s “Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order” project sought to tackle this question. Some participants noted that this Europe-Asia dichotomy was an artificial one, as the fallout of the Ukraine war is increasingly global. Such a perspective asserts that Canadian foreign policy should therefore focus on identifying and repairing the various global fault lines which threaten the future of multilateralism.
Still, with finite resources and limited attention spans, one can still surmise that trade-offs do exist between the European and Asian vectors of Canadian foreign policy. Canada already casts a smaller international shadow than it did a few short decades ago. Can Ottawa truly respond to a frontal assault on the “rules-based international order” and adequately support its allies in the face of a likely prolonged “new cold war” in Europe, while also developing a coherent and sufficiently committed approach to shaping regional order in the vast “Indo-Pacific” theatre?
The answer to this question will go a long way in determining what sort of power Canada wants to be – and indeed can be – in the 21st century. If the answer is “no”, might this call for a more targeted strategic posture which prioritizes one region over another? Or rather does it suggest that Canada might be better served by pursuing a more “a-geopolitical” foreign policy, placing patchwork efforts to repair and improve global governance ahead of attempts to shape regional security frameworks in Europe or Asia? Both options feature opportunities and drawbacks – and either choice will come with strategic implications for Canada, including with respect to its position in the emerging international order.
Interests vs. values?
Roundtable attendees were drawn from both the “realist” camp and the liberal internationalist tradition. Interventions from the latter group focused, to a large extent, on the theme of defending democracy and the “rules-based international order”. On its face, this is unsurprising: Unlike superpowers, which are more prone to pursuing unilateral action in defence of their perceived interests, so-called “middle powers” and smaller states supposedly depend on a rules-based system for their security. European countries are therefore seen as key partners in the struggle to buttress the foundations of multilateralism, even more so given the unique nature of a transatlantic alliance whose contours cannot be easily replicated in the Asian theatre.
Yet the question of how events in Europe affect Canada’s national security – strictly defined – is not identical to the challenge of how to bolster democracy and multilateralism. That many Canadian experts view Canada-Europe relations through the latter prism reveals the extent to which Canadian foreign policy is shaped by considerations pertaining to national identity. Whereas realists are more likely to argue that hard interests such as trade and border security should be prioritized ahead of “softer” aspirations such as human security or a feminist foreign policy, for liberals values are interests.
A compromise position may be that values can be marshalled in support of national interests. But if Canada, as a country with limited resources, therefore retains an interest in rules-based cooperation, could not a (superfluous and inaccurate) framing of the emerging international order along democratic vs. authoritarian lines damage the prospects for international cooperation? In other words, are we entering a period of history in which our interests and our values are increasingly at odds?
One might retort that the West has now shifted from its immediate post-Cold War efforts to export democracy to a more limited approach centred on the defence of existing democracies. But a binary and ideological framing of great power relations will inevitably be viewed by Moscow and Beijing as a threat to their regime security, resulting in the persistence of behaviour that eats away at established international norms.
In fact, realist voices in the discussion expressed scepticism over whether the war in Ukraine actually presents an existential threat to the “rules-based international order”, given that international treaties continue to proliferate and violations of international law remain more the exception than the norm. Moreover, violations of international law committed in other parts of the world are rarely framed as existential threats to the “rules-based order”, suggesting that Canada’s response to European security issues has cultural rather than interests-based foundations.
If indeed it were merely the culturally neutral “rules-based order” that were at stake, then one might expect to see Canada’s foreign policy focus shift substantially towards Asia along with global power. Yet we appear to observe the opposite: NATO retains a seemingly disproportionate place in Canada’s mental map and international engagement, irrespective of the shift in global power. And while it may be in Canada’s interest to reassure its existing allies, where does this interest rank in relation to other national interests?
Points of agreement
Irrespective of these disagreements, however, there were two principal points of convergence among roundtable participants.
The first concerns the interconnectedness of Canada’s foreign policy vectors. Geographically, Canada possesses four such vectors, governing relations with the US (to the south), Europe (to the east), Asia (to the west) and in the Arctic (to the north). For some participants, recognizing Russia as a declining power and China as a rising one implies that Canada should shift its attention away from Europe and toward Asia. For others, political transformations in the US, which raise questions over whether Washington remains a reliable partner, suggest a need for Canada to find new friends – whether in Europe or in Asia.
For others still, Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession provides an opportunity for Ottawa to establish a new “northern security working group” within NATO, thereby reinvigorating Canada’s role within the transatlantic alliance. By contrast, other participants warned against taking a rash decision to change the fundamentals of Canada’s Arctic strategy – which has traditionally sought to insulate the circumpolar region from extra-regional disputes – without fully considering the range of potential implications.
In short, there was an identified need to integrate Canada’s varied foreign policy vectors into a coherent strategic whole – to learn how to do more than one thing at a time. This points to the second area of agreement among participants, which highlighted the need for more long-term thinking in Canadian foreign policy. However, given the radical shifts that one can now expect in US foreign policy every four years, developing a Canadian foreign policy posture that goes beyond reacting to events as they unfold will be a significant task. This topic will be further broached in one of the project’s forthcoming roundtables on Canada-US relations.
Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a non-resident research fellow at IPD, where he directs the Institute’s project on Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order. He is also a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels and co-editor of the forthcoming volume Rebooting Global International Society: Change, Contestation and Resilience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).