Eugene Lang, a long-time Liberal insider and, currently, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and an adjunct professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, has written a timely article for the CGAI titled “Searching for a Middle-Power Role in a New World Order.”
He begins by saying, quite correctly, that “The “America First” agenda will persist well beyond the life of the Trump administration. Washington no longer “has Canada’s back”. We are living in a new age of great power rivalry. Populism poses a major challenge to the rules-based international order. Adult supervision in global politics is in short supply … [that is especially the case in Canada, and he explains that] … These are some of the themes that surfaced during a recent CGAI conference titled What Role for Canada on the Global Stage? Implied, if unstated, was that Canada is adrift internationally on these waters … [without a steady, adult hand on the tiller] … in search of a role in a new world order of which most Canadians seem unaware. The question remained: How should Canada respond to these new global currents in a way befitting a middle power entering the third decade of the 21st century?“
Mr Lang briefly summarizes Canada’s growth, during and after the Second World War, into the role of “leading middle power,” almost solely under the leadership (as foreign minister and then prime minister) of Louis St Laurent. He notes that “St. Laurent’s claim that Canada was a power of middle rank was therefore sensible, uncontested and offered this country a realistic brand,” but he says, we went, over about 50 years, from being a middle power to being a “middling power.” He explains that “Like a company, a political party or a university, a country can live a long time on its brand, well after the elements that gave rise to it have evaporated. Canada has gotten a lot of mileage out of the middle-power brand. When our military assets were gradually eroded from the 1970s through the 1990s, many Canadian politicians and diplomats seemed to believe the brand endured, owing in large measure to Canada’s soft power assets. More likely, the Canadian Forces’ (as they were then called) significant and lengthy involvement in the Balkans throughout the 1990s and in Afghanistan in the next decade – along with Canada’s willingness to take on difficult and dangerous roles and missions in those conflicts – sustained whatever middle-power bona fides we had in the early part of this century … [but, suggests, and I agree that] … the degree to which Canada is a power of middle rank today is a dubious proposition.“
Mr Lang analyses what he calls the “instrument of power” by which he means the military, foreign aid and the foreign service, itself. He notes that the quantity, especially, and, arguably, the quality of all three have declined since Pierre Trudeau took over as prime minister in 1968. It is very clear that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would have disarmed Canada had he been allowed a free hand and he seems to have mistrusted the (then) sterling Canadian foreign service ~ perhaps because it was overwhelmingly Anglo and Oxbridge (filled with O.D. Skelton’s “boys” English Canadian protestants who were educated at Oxford and Cambridge in England). (I read, somewhere (I cannot put my finger on the reference now) that after returning from Paris and before joining the Privy Council Office in Ottawa in 1949, he applied for a post in the diplomatic service but was rejected and that he believed that was because he was a French Canadian and was, therefore, looked down upon by the External Affairs (as it was then) establishment.)
After dealing with the Canada-USA special relationship, Eugene Lang writes that “One feature of Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda is his emphasis on defence burden sharing. The focus of Trump’s efforts has been to browbeat NATO countries into boosting their defence spending to the two-per-cent-of-GDP NATO target agreed upon at the Wales Summit in 2014. Burden sharing isn’t a transitory agenda in Washington; rather, it is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Former president Barack Obama emphasized it. And a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff delegation to Ottawa asserted that Canada can expect burden-sharing pressure to persist in substance, if not tone, under a Democratic president … [and] … Canada is nowhere near the two-per-cent target. In fact, both the current Liberal and previous Conservative governments rejected the concept (even though Canada had signed onto the Wales declaration). It is almost inconceivable that any future Canadian government – regardless of what it might commit to in election manifestos or otherwise – would increase defence funding to that level. The hard reality is that decades of successful Canadian defence free-riding on the Americans has eliminated any meaningful political constituency in this country for doubling defence funding when stacked up against other domestic priorities, including lower taxes, reduced deficits and more social spending.” This is a topic with which I have dealt, time-after-time–after time, since I began this blog.
In fairness, as Mr Lang says, Canada isn’t the only NATO country to ignore its commitments; in fact, most NATO members remain well below the 2% goal and only a small handful actually achieve that level:
“But perhaps Ottawa can change the terms of trade in this discussion with Washington,” Mr Lang suggests, because “We are the only country that can demonstrate to the Americans increased burden sharing through greater contributions to North American defence and security … [but, he reminds us] … The Trudeau government’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, published two years ago, is unfortunately light in this area, devoting three less-than-ambitious paragraphs – in a 100-plus page document – to the subject of continental defence co-operation.“
“Canada could offer to put a lot more on the table with the Americans in North American defence and security,” he says, and he offers a couple of suggestions:
- First, “putting a greater emphasis on and investment in Canada’s cyber-defence capabilities in the service of North American defence. Cyber is the new threat frontier that has Washington’s attention, if less so Ottawa’s;” and
- Second, “Shifting the terms of burden sharing from NATO to North American defence has its advantages. It would be less costly for Canada. It would be of more direct and demonstrable benefit to the U.S. And it would probably be easier to sell to Canadians than trying to mobilize public support for meeting a very expensive and rather abstract NATO defence spending target.“
I suspect the US would welcome the first and would, immediately, see through the second because it is just moving the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Eugene Lang says that “Since the end of the Cold War – and the conclusion of the last era of great power rivalry – Ottawa has implicitly sent Canadians the message that we can play an influential role internationally on the cheap. That Canada can be a middle power without spending much on its instruments of power – relying on soft power and alleged moral leadership – has become almost part of the national identity, if not one of the great Canadian conceits. This mindset must end. If Canada wants to have some influence in a new age of great power rivalry, we must enhance our instruments of power and somehow achieve bipartisan agreement on this basic policy direction.” He offers three suggestions for reviving Canada’s “instrument of power:”
- A Canadian Armed Forces Funding Guarantee
- “To its credit, the Trudeau government has booked into its fiscal framework graduated increases to defence funding, which are projected to result 10 years out in a defence budget 70 per cent larger in nominal dollar terms than it was in 2016-2017. However, there is no guarantee this funding will be delivered. The biggest risk here is less about politics and more about the business cycle … [because] … Canada is due for a recession – they tend to happen about every 10 years and a decade has passed since the last one ended. When recessions occur, a basic mechanics in Ottawa seems to spring into action. Revenues drop, deficits increase and some sort of cost-cutting or austerity drive aimed at non-statutory spending follows. This has been the pattern for 30 years. In this context, the Department of National Defence becomes an arithmetically irresistible target for any government, owing to the large share of total federal non-statutory spending it occupies – about one-fifth or more … [thus, and this is a key message for Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives] … these planned defence funding increases need to be protected from this possibility for Canada to revitalize its instrument of coercive power. We need bipartisan agreement on this. And if Canada pursues a new North American defence and security deal with Washington, as suggested, a dedicated new envelope of funding to execute this agenda will be required. This won’t be cheap, but it will be less than two per cent of GDP;”
- Meeting Pearson Halfway: Restoring Official Development Assistance
- “This year marks half a century since Pearson’s Commission on International Development, established by then-World Bank president Robert S. McNamara, issued its report calling on developed nations to commit 0.7 per cent of their gross national income to ODA. Since then, various Canadian politicians, scholars and NGOs have clung to the faint hope that someday, some government in Ottawa would meet that target. Fifty years on, and never having come close to reaching Pearson’s goal, regardless of government fiscal conditions (including unprecedented surpluses for a decade beginning in the late 1990s), it is time to admit Canada will never achieve this ambition. There is no political constituency in this country sufficiently motivated by foreign aid to get politicians that focused on it … [but] … Canada’s current level of ODA – just over 0.26 per cent of gross national income – is a nadir since the turn of the millennium. It is also an embarrassment for a country that claims to have moral authority on a range of global issues, including poverty reduction … [and] … Canadian ODA as a percentage of gross national income hit a high-water mark this century about 15 years ago at just under half the Pearson target. Getting Canada’s instrument of financial power back to half of what Pearson called for, and keeping it there indefinitely, is therefore a realistic goal that Canada should pursue;” and
- In Pearson’s Long Shadow: Reviving the Foreign Service
- “It’s been said for years that the chief problem with the Department of Foreign Affairs is organizational in nature; namely, there are too many staff in the Ottawa headquarters and not enough people in embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world. That may be true, but there is perhaps a deeper issue … [he says that] … A foreign service that has trouble engaging and inspiring ministers and prime ministers risks marginalization. And there is evidence that over the last 15 years or more, successive governments have marginalized what is now called Global Affairs Canada … [for example, he writes] … Not long after he left office in 2006, Paul Martin had this to say about the state of the foreign service: “Over twenty-five years, due to the combination of Michael Pitfield’s (Pierre Trudeau’s clerk of the Privy Council) centralization initiatives and my budgets (in reference to Martin’s nine years as Finance minister), we have totally destroyed the policy-making capacity of the public service, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the Department of Foreign Affairs” … [and] … Stephen Harper offered a similarly dim view. Shortly after he became prime minister, Harper had conversations with a senior official in line for an ambassadorship. The prime minister asked the official: “Why do you want to be an ambassador? What do ambassadors do? What do ambassadors do that I can’t do myself?” … [then] … A former senior deputy minister was more scathing yet: “The Department of Foreign Affairs can’t do policy, they have no policy capacity. The Department of Foreign Affairs is a roving travel agency and property management department” … [he concludes that] … If those sentiments reflect the reputation of the foreign service within the power centres of the Canadian government, the problem is fundamental, not organizational. Somehow, the leadership of Global Affairs Canada needs to find the language and the ideas to reverse a mindset among Canada’s political and civil service leaders which undervalues the skills and knowledge of the foreign service.“
I am 100% behind him on “securing” the defence budget, although I suspect it may be a practical, political impossibility. I am equally supportive of increasing our overseas development assistance (ODA) (foreign aid) but only after the whole process has been reexamined, reformed and revived. We must understand that we are, essentially, bribing third-word tin-pot dictators to support us in initiatives we regard as important. We must appreciate that much ODA, taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars, will go towards buying luxury yachts for African princes and so on, but that’s OK because ODA is not “productive” in most common measurable senses. It is, in a way, like our defence spending ~ a waste, if we are lucky, but valuable insurance in a few, unfortunate, circumstances.
Mr Lang concludes by quoting former Ontario Premier and federal Liberal leader Bob Rae who said: ““there’s no adult supervision.” By that,” Eugene Lang says, “he is referring chiefly to the United States, specifically Trump and his foreign policy team … [but, he explains] … Canada cannot be the adult supervision the world needs today. We can, however, be the adult in the room … [but, in my opinion, only if we elect an adult to replace Justin Trudeau in 2019] … But Canada will never be taken seriously by the children and adolescents unless and until our instruments of power are demonstrably on the rise relative to their current very low base. We can also bolster our adult credentials by resisting the temptation to engage in international grandstanding and one-upmanship via social media, as is too common today.“
“In other words,” he says “being the adult in the room requires seriousness, in substance, tone and comportment. This means Canada’s political leadership – the prime minister, the Foreign Affairs minister, the minister of National Defence, the minister for Official Development Assistance and the Finance minister – needs to get more serious with themselves, their cabinet colleagues, Parliament and ultimately, the Canadian public about today’s world and the need to rebuild Canada’s instruments of power. It is essential if Canada is to be taken seriously as a middle power.” It would be better, much better, if, in October, Canadians elect a new prime minister, Andrew Scheer, and a whole new team of ministers.
Eugene Lang closes by saying that “Jean Chrétien’s former director of communications, Peter Donolo, has said foreign policy communications should be like the soundtrack to a movie, largely unnoticed but serving to enhance the experience. Today, though, we need a more clarion message from Canada’s political leaders … [but] … Rather than asserting “Canada is back” – with little evidence to back up the assertion – Canadians need to be given the hard truth about the world and Canada’s gradually diminished role in it. They need to be told that if they want the kind of global role and influence of our halcyon middle-power years, Ottawa must rebuild those instruments of power, and this will be expensive. There is no being a middle power anymore on the cheap, and Canadians need to get that message loud and clear. Unless and until that shift in Canada’s narrative, mindset and priorities happens – to paraphrase Bono’s famous line – the world will not get much more Canada even if it needs it.” But the Canada that the world “needs” was Louis St Laurent’s Canada which Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Justin Trudeau all explicitly rejected. Paul Martin and Stephen Harper both wanted what Prime Minister St Laurent built but they were unprepared to pay the piper because Canadians, by and large, are unwilling to pay for either defence or ODA and are unconcerned with diplomacy.
I have a lot of sympathy for almost everything Eugene Lang says … but I don’t expect any of it to happen. I can guarantee that Justin Trudeau neither knows nor cares about any of it, and I suspect that Andrew Scheer has defence, ODA and reforming foreign policy down near the bottom of his priority list.