Canada’s foreign policy

Roland Paris, a professor at University of Ottawa, who is a very smart guy, and, in this day and age, a very media savvy guy ~ which might be equally important, and a former advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Allison Smith about Canada’s current foreign policy in this CPAC video.

I agree with him that we are in a “very disturbing period” and that we are, also, “pushing against the tide” of isolationist populism, not only President Trump’s brand of populism but a broader, deeper wave that seems to be sweeping not just the West but, aybe, the world..

We have to deal with China,” he says and he stresses that we have to find a way to deal with China without sacrificing our values. He sees, based on our dealings with Europe and Australia’s dealing with China, a decade long programme before we have any sort of fair (rules based), free(er) trade deal.

He thinks Canada needs to pay more attention to Asia and to better define a Canadian leadership role in e.g. the G7 ~ he uses Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s women’s initiative as a good example of how this can be done, and he encourages Justin Trudeau to follow suit with e.g. a refugee education initiative. I could get behind that; Canada could lead in something like that.

He hints at but stops short of what I believe should be Canada’s strategic goal: to be a leader of the middle powers. But that is what Canada really needs to do … either lead or get out of the way and be a follower.

What is a middle power?

While there are definitions, most rely upon saying what a middle power is not: it’s not a super-power but it is not a poor, weak state, dependent on the support of others, either.  In my thoughts a middle power is a nation that can and does make most of its own political, socio-economic, foreign and defence policy decisions without needing the prior approval of others and with confidence that it has the resources ~ political, economic and military ~ to give adequate effect to it’s policy decisions.

Is Canada a middle power?

That’s debatable. We certainly were a middle power, perhaps THE leading middle power in the late 1940s and through the 1950; it wasn’t so much that Canada’s power declined in the 1960s as it was the fact that other nations, those who had needed time to recover from the effects of World War II, rebuilt themselves and joined the ranks of the middle powers and pushed Canada aside just a bit. Then, in the late 1960s, Pierre Trudeau actually managed to move Canada out of the middle power ranks entirely ~ he proposed to pull Canada out of NATO but he was forced to back down by other middle powers, most notably after he issued his infamous 1970 White Paper, ‘A Foreign Policy for Canadians,’ the German chancellor took him for a private chat ~ a walk in the garden, as it was termed then ~ and Canada’s policies changed: we stayed in NATO, kept troops in Germany, albeit as a “third string” player, in a reserve capacity, and we bought new German main battle tanks for our forces. Canada had, quite miserably, failed the middle power test: we could not make and implement our own policies without the approval of other powers … and not just America, we bent and buckled under pressure from another middle power: Germany. It was, perhaps, a low point in modern Canadian diplomatic history.

Canada tried to come back, and, partially, succeeded, in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s:

  • Canada gained a lot of credibility when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reached back into John Diefenbaker’s bag of trucks and stood up to Ronald Reagan and the formidable Margaret Thatcher on the issue of South Africa. He restored some principles and a bit of vigour to Canadian foreign policy;
  • Jean Chrétien was a very astute politician and he knew that Canadians, by and large, don’t give a damn about the rest of the world, but they always want to be, in some respect, “superior” to the Americans. Prime Minister Chrétien wanted the world to leave Canada alone, but it wouldn’t cooperate … he tried to do as little as possible in return;
  • Paul Martin wanted Canada to have a “role of pride and influence in the world,” but fiscal constraints and lack of support in his own, Liberal, party forced him to settle for words rather than deeds;
  • Stephen Harper wanted Canada to play a role on the world stage but he found, as had Martin, Chrétien and Mulroney before him that the “sacred trusts” of Pierre Trudeau’s entitlement programmes left very little fiscal room to manoeuvre.

Justin Trudeau has tried to tie Canada’s foreign policy to climate change and feminism. Sadly, for Liberals, neither garners much in the way of respect. I doubt that Prime Minister Trudeau has much knowledge of or interest in the world, especially, not, I fear, in the realm of grand strategy. His only goal appears to be to be liked, personally, for being “good.”

But, as it stands, beyond our narrow focus on climate change and feminism:

  • Canada is “missing in action” on UN peacekeeping, doing much more of which one of Justin Trudeau’s signature campaign promises;
  • Canada, under the Trudeau regime, has signed one trade deal ~ one negotiated by Stephen Harper ~ but others, like NAFTA and the TPP, have been fraught with difficulties;
  • Even simple sales of helicopters go wrong because the Liberals cannot resist virtue signalling at every opportunity; and
  • The military continues to decline in capabilities, even as Trudeau’s ministers and officials try to implement Prime Minister Harper’s programmes without much in the way of will or skill.

What should we do?

First, we need a national conversation about the realities and utility of power. It has been a long time, since the 1950s, that Canadians have actually debated their role in the world. It is not a subject that I expect the Greens or the Liberals or the NDP to raise. That debate needs to inform Canadians about the costs and value of real power and the “return on investment” that we can expect if we have and use real power, soft and hard, wisely.

Second, we need a political party ~ it will likely have to be the Conservative Party of Canada ~ to make “restoring Canada’s “role of pride and influence in the world” (and yes, I do suggest that the CPC should use Paul Martin’s formulation in order to remind some Liberals that they have a history of being foreign affairs activists) a national goal, again. It doesn’t have to be a centre-piece of the platform, in fact it is better to down play foreign . and defence policy, but it needs to be there or Canada will never even try to dig itself out of the hole dug by Pierre Trudeau and deepened by his son.

Third, we need to have academics, like Professor Paris and others, and informed “opinion makers,” like David Akin of Global and Mercedes Stephenson of CTV speak up and out about foreign policy … on all sides of the debate. We don’t need just”cheerleaders” for more defence spending nor do we need just the “peace at any price” fringe; we need a national debate to inform Canadians about costs, risks and benefits.





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