Middle power?

1229-na-xmas-paris_43097589Professor Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa, who was formerly the foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and who has written a lot about Canada in the world, was interviewed, recently, on Australia’s ABC Radio. It’s a nearly one-hour-long piece, Professor Paris is on for about 10 minutes, at the beginning, and I have listened to it, carefully, a couple of times and I hope I can accurately capture his main points or at least the points that I find most important.

Professor Paris is asked, by the radio host, Amanda Vanstone, herself a former Australian (Liberal) Senator and Ambassador to Italy, to discuss his recent paper, ‘Can Middle Powers Save the Liberal World Order?‘ which I discussed, here, a few weeks ago.

Professor Paris explains that while China and the United States play an outsized role in the world, he sees a role for other countries, like Australia and Canada and others, to also play important roles in moderating their disputes, to try to protect and preserve the liberal, rules-based system that has done so much to keep the peace and make the world better for billions of people. Ms Vanstone cites the (usually misattributed to Edmund Burke) quip about all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.* She suggests that many people and some nation-states have come to believe that they, and “they” includes the middle powers, are not important enough to influence America, China and Russia so why waste time trying?

Professor Paris says, and I agree, fully, that:

  • The world, led by Vladimir Putin, Donald J Trump and Xi Jinping, is, right now, headed in the wrong direction; but
  • The world has been in worse, more dangerous situations before ~ think 1948 to (about) 1980 ~ and it was (sometimes coordinated) efforts by middle powers that helped to shape the right outcomes.

He suggests that countries like Canada and Australia can cooperate to, “at least, slow the erosion of international stability” and, perhaps, even act, in concert, to strengthen some areas of international cooperation.

Professor Paris is cautious because, as he says, the global challenges, from e.g. Donald Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, not to mention populist/nativist movements in Europe and religious fanatics in other regions, are large and complex and will be very hard to stop, much less turn about. Some will say that we, the US-led West, did just that, faced down Stalin and Mao, in the 1950s, but these are not the 1950s, there are no Trumans or Eisenhowers in Washington, no Churchill’s in London, and I suspect that even Scott Morrison does not see himself as another Sir Robert Menzies. And I know, with 100% certainty, that Justin Trudeau is no Louis St Laurent. There were giants then, there are monsters (Trump) and pygmies (Trudeau) now.

I agree with Professor Paris that after Trump, be that in 2 years or six years, we will see “a return to a more internationalist Amerca,” but he, like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, thinks that “Trumpism” will survive and will remain a thread in American policy and politics. He looks for practical, work-a-day ways for small and middle powers to work together, piecemeal, for example, to strengthen the TPP in the hopes that America will come to its senses and want to rejoin. He’s really talking, in military terms, as he says, about fighting a holding action until the USA turns back to its, historically, more moderate course.**

Later in the broadcast, Amanda Vanstone also focused on trade as a driver for peace, and she discusses that with another guest. But I think she, and her guest, another professor, really meant both free(er) trade and the free(er) movement of people which makes me think of the CANZUK and CANZUK plus ideas which is another way that some small and middle powers could cooperate for their own mutual benefit.

My main problem with the notions advanced by Roland Paris and Amanda Vanstone is that both define Canada as one of the middle powers. That was true, of course, from about 1947, when Prime Minister Louis St Laurent pulled the country out of its comfortable isolationism and on to the world’ stage as a leader of the middle powers, and it remained true through the St Laurent and Diefenbaker and Pearson years …

… until Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, circa 1970, by his actions in trying to withdraw, totally, from NATO*** (1969) and in his government’s foreign policy white paper ‘A Foreign Policy for Canadians‘ (1970), abruptly reversed course and decided that Canada could no longer afford to be a “middle power,” much less a leader. Sadly, as Paul Martin and Stephen Harper learned, Canadians still, broadly and generally, prefer the Trudeau (père et fils) notion to the noble vision of Prime Ministers St Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson.

For reasons that may have had something to do with his own youth, when he put himself on the wrong side of history and elected to ‘sit-out’ the Second World War, Pierre Trudeau pretty clearly disliked the Canadian military ~ even when they were dressed up as United Nations peacekeepers ~  and he did his best to emasculate it, trusting that the United States had a vital interest in defending all of the North American continent, including Canada.

It may be that Pierre Trudeau understood the idea of soft power long before Joseph Nye http_o.aolcdn.comhssstoragemidasb70e485348f1fb1de7e42889dcccddb1205897339trudeauJoseph_S._Nye_Jr.2popularised the notion in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990) and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). His (Trudeau’s) peace initiative in the 1980s was, almost totally, a soft power exercise and Canada’s lack of hard power was one of the reasons that he was given polite but, ultimately, disinterested hearings when he spoke in “Japan, the Commonwealth conference in India, China, the United Nations in New York, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania and the Soviet Union.” Professor Nye understood that soft power works best (only?) when it is backed up by enough hard power to guarantee an attentive audience; Pierre Trudeau did not.

In any event, for whatever reasons, the deep, painful cuts that Pierre Trudeau made to Canada’s foreign service and, especially, to the Canadian Armed Forces proved to be politically popular ~ most Canadians, a substantial majority, I think, don’t care about foreign affairs and they dislike paying for the military ~ and the social programmes with which he saddled the country made reinvesting in defence, even during a war, difficult to impossible. In depriving Canada of its hard power ~ his only real ‘legacy’ ~ Pierre Trudeau also deprived it of the soft power which Professor Paris wants us to use today.

Canad is no longer a “middle power.” Canada has not been a middle power since, about, 1980. We could have recovered in the 1970s, it wasn’t too late, but the political climate in Ottawa was wrong. Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper …


… all, I believe both understood that a middle power needs both soft power and hard power and they wanted Canada to play a leadership role in the world, but all were hamstrung by Pierre Trudeau’s legacy of a culture of entitlement which, coupled with a disdain for the military, makes defence renewal, and consequentially, a return to ‘leading middle power’ status, nearly impossible.


* It was, actually, the great liberal John Stuart Mill who said, in 1867, that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

** The USA has gone through protracted periods of nativism and isolationism ~ liberal internationalism is, really, quite a new and even innovative policy position for America.

*** I was told, by what I regard as an unimpeachable source, that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s personal goal was to withdraw from NATO and to disarm Canada, making us, essentially, a snow-bound Costa Rica (which disbanded its Army in 1948), and was only dissuaded by the threats of a full-scale cabinet and caucus revolt which would bring down his government and intense diplomatic pressure from some fellow, European social-democratic leaders.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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