Rethinking America

Canada: From Middle Power to Middling Presence in the World

Rather than showing dynamism on the world stage, Canada is turning inwards to manage big challenges in federal/ provincial and U.S. relations.

Takeaways


  • Rather than showing dynamism on the world stage, Canada is turning inwards to manage big challenges in federal/ provincial and U.S. relations.
  • When Trudeau became Prime Minister, Canadians were proud that “Canada was back” as a dynamic force in international affairs. Reality turned out to be much less inspiring.
  • The middle power cohort, which Canada led during the Cold War, is now so locked into regional blocs that it is unable to form a cohesive global force.
  • Canada is apparently incapable of finding powerful partners other than those that our inevitable best friend, the US allows us to.

Canadian governments have traditionally used foreign policy to serve three purposes: First, to give themselves legitimacy in world affairs, second to show independence from the United States and third to create myths helpful for nation-building.

Alas, the world has changed and no longer provides easy room for Canadian cheeriness and gumption on the international scene. This is a particular pity as the country is going through a phase of intraregional dysfunction at home and unusually mercurial period in its critical relations with the United States.

A compelling narrative of an “indispensable Canada” in the world would help encourage a positive national discourse on Canada’s place in the unfolding global order.. However, such a narrative is unlikely to emerge,given the attention domestic issues now demand.

The Crystia Freeland factor

The Canadian government is aware of the changed dynamics, as it is entering its second mandate following the recent October 21, 2019 national elections.

One clear indication of that is that it has shifted its international “star,” Foreign Minister Crystia Freeland, to manage an expanded ministerial portfolio that includes both internal relationships and those with the United States.

Her replacement as Foreign Minister is François-Philippe Champagne, a protegé of the supremely pragmatic Jean Chretien, and a man deeply immersed in the world of global business.

However, Champagne risks becoming a Foreign Minister largely only in name, considering that his brief does not include managing relations with the United States, i.e., the one truly existential international relationship that Canada has. He will, though, have plenty to do in restoring important international relations bruised under Freeland’s watch, most particularly those with China.

Canada isn’t really “back” globally

When Justin Trudeau replaced the very domestically focused Stephen Harper as Prime Minister in 2015, many Canadians were proud that “Canada was back” as a dynamic force in international affairs.

Reality turned out to be much less inspiring. Over the past four years, Canada’s international efforts were almost exclusively focused on “Trump management,” including the negotiation of a trade agreement to replace NAFTA.

The government was also successful in finalizing CETA, the free trade agreement with the EU, initially a project of the previous government. These negotiations were a real accomplishment.

However, neither the new NAFTA deal nor CETA could be described as emblems of dynamic Canadian leadership in the world. Moreover, both are still dangling and, lacking full ratification and/or parliamentary approval abroad by Canada’s partners.

For the rest, the Canadian government’s global presence has either been too fuzzy to have an impact (witness, for example, its effort to cast its foreign aid program as “feminist”). Or it has been embarrassing, as when Prime Minister Trudeau posed for photo shoots in India dressed as a Maharajah. Or it has been inept as in the failure to sign the CPTPP in Japan, or the missteps in communication that alienated Saudi Arabia.

But much of Canadian Foreign Policy under Trudeau has been about symbolism.The centerpiece of the strategy to place Canada at the heart of world affairs has been the campaign for temporary membership on the UN Security Council. Embarrassingly, that campaign has yet to yield results.

On the plus side, Canada’s principled support for Ukraine is to be commended, even though that logically triggered Russian irritations.

Canada tackles China: Really?

The self-inflicted damage in Canada’s relationship with China is,however, another matter. Painstakingly built over the decades since Pierre Trudeau’s move to recognize the PRC in 1970, it has now been deeply damaged by Canada’s arrest, at the request for extradition by the United States of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei, an icon of Chinese success in the world (the name translates as “China is able”).

Not least because she is the founder’s daughter, Beijing regards her arrest as not just hostile, but insulting. The fact that Canada allowed itself to be used as a proxy for the United States in its trade war with China certainly does not add to Chinese esteem for Canadian diplomacy.

Some in Canada consider a cooling of relations with China to be overdue in light of Chinese behavior on trade and human rights. And indeed, a reassessment is warranted,but not one prompted by the United States..

The consequence of that would be to show that Canada is apparently incapable of finding powerful partners other than those that our inevitable best friend, the United States allows us to.

Conclusion

In fairness, a shrinking Canadian presence in the world is as much a reflection of how that world has changed as of national policy.

The middle power cohort, in whose leadership Canadians took great pride during the Cold War years, is now so locked into regional blocs that it is unable to form a cohesive global force.

As superpowers and regional hegemonies have replaced the static order of the Cold War era, the middle powers have largely lost their ability to act as a go-between and play a balancing and directional role.

What then to expect from Canada over the next few years?

The challenges for Canada are mainly domestic, with an international tinge. These include, most critically, the challenges posed by climate change and migration, as well as the need for a stronger federation to cope with a mutating external environment.

It will take consistent effort to keep our democratic politics at home legitimate and free from corruption. It will require major investment in the opening areas of the Arctic under its control. The government will also need to ensure that the integration of new immigrants is well supported even as cultural tensions arise.

It will also have to maintain close management of the U.S. relationship, now in unpredictable hands in Washington. Most important, is making good on the government commitment to balancing protection of the environment and economic development in the face of deeply divided provincial governments..

The second Justin Trudeau government,will,in short,have to show the broader vision and higher skill necessary to manage a loose and regionally conflict-laden federation, as well as keeping that polity close but independent of the United States, Canada’s hegemonic neighbor and intimate partner.

Dissolving the borderlines in Canada’s foreign policy

Canada, in short, must get and keep its house in order first, and urgently, if it is to play any real role in the broader world. It will be in its success in doing so,that it will make its greatest contribution to world affairs.

Tackling all of this is the task that has now been assigned to Crystia Freeland. In effect, she is moving from being Canada’s foreign minister to serving as its “intermestic” relations minister, responsible for both federal, provincial and U.S. relations.

Managing those divides contains plenty of challenges and will be the key factor in determining Canada’s real place in the world of today and tomorrow.

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About George Haynal

George Haynal is a Senior Fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and a former head of the Policy Planning Staff of the Canadian Ministry Of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

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