When Canada Becomes the West’s 2nd State

FEATURES | November 11, 2013     

When Canada Becomes the West's Second StateTransformation of the national strategic psychology and culture – through events or, better still, heroic leadership – can make a major power of the country with the world’s second largest land mass. Canada may have no better option this century

By century’s end, if Canada still exists, it will be the West’s second state. It will be less important than both China and the US, but larger than any country in Europe, with the likely exception of Russia. Whether a country like Brazil, India or even Indonesia is more important or not does not negate this basic supposition: by the year 2100, Canada will be among the top five or six states in the world. And in the West, it will certainly be the second most important state: no other Western country apart from the US is so obviously a ‘growing concern.’

Of course, it is not inevitable that Canada should exist in any recognizable form in the year 2100. The Quebec question remains vexed, and will require careful stewardship in every single political generation. As I have written elsewhere, Canada would not survive the secession of Quebec: it would not have territorial continuity across its gigantic landmass and, more importantly, would suffer from a psychological incoherence that would make it nearly impossible for a 21st century political figure to ensure that the ties that bind St. John’s in the far east to Victoria in the far west and Whitehorse in the north are sufficiently strong and compelling as to allow all of these disparate and distant parts to agree to still be governed by and from Ottawa in a post-Quebec country called Canada.

This is to say nothing of the increasingly complicated Aboriginal question in Canada, which is generally viewed by Canada’s governing classes as an ‘internal’ matter, but will before long surely assume a highly strategic character as it begins to impact the practical efficacy of Canada’s federal framework and the capacity for purposive action by government (see the Feature article by Douglas Sanderson in GB’s Spring/Summer 2013 issue). I shall address the connection between Canada’s Aboriginal question and Canadian strategy writ large in a future GB piece.

For now, let us agree that the above logic speaks to one underlying verity: that Canada is and has always been, constitutionally and culturally speaking, a political project. Its strength and legitimacy depend on the quality and qualities of the political class, its policy agenda and the fruits of that agenda. There is no single ‘deep state’ or ‘deep nation’ in Canada: there is only a deep and civilized tradition of complex political intercourse across the world’s second largest land mass, many diverse regions, and multiple nations (including the Québécois and scores of First Nations), local realities and mindsets – all conducing, thus far, to a very respectable general welfare.

If Canada does stay united, then it most likely has no other good option but to become one of this century’s major countries – this in what promises to be a more difficult and demanding century, in strategic terms, than the country has known over the first century and a half of its modern existence. The other option – still in the Canada-is-united scenario – is far less auspicious: Canada exists, yes, but is otherwise a strategic cripple, operating on the terms and conditions of more serious, more energetic countries and peoples. Indeed, we may even choose to view the option of Canada becoming a major country as tantamount to the option of Canada avoiding becoming a strategic cripple.

There are, to be sure, positive reasons for which Canadians and their leaders may properly desire to become so powerful. First, however, a housekeeping point about ontology: power is capacity – nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about being more powerful, just as there is nothing inherently virtuous or romantic about being not-powerful. For power in international affairs is a means – a means to achieve a variety of ends, some more virtuous or nefarious than others. But if power is a means to achieve ends (the content of which can be justly debated), then the absence of power is a certain route to the non-achievement of ends (good or bad).

There are at least three good arguments for Canadian power this century: the argument from national interest (which exercises us most of all in this piece); the argument from obligation; and finally, the argument from identity. We touch on the latter two arguments toward the end of this piece, and focus on the critical argument from national interest immediately. The grammar of this argument from national interest is fairly straightforward: Canada will need to be far more powerful this century if it is to secure basic national interests in a strategically more intense Canadian century. These basic interests start with the capacity of Canada to govern in reasonable freedom from the strictures of other powerful states and people – a capacity that in turn informs such important interests as territorial integrity (particularly in the Arctic), national security, social peace and economic prosperity.

As I have written in GB in the past, at least three key forces will combine to exert far greater strategic and psychological pressure on Canada this century – pressure that will need to be parried and managed if Canada is to get satisfaction in respect of its basic interests. The first force is the opening up of the Arctic and the creation, for the first time since the 1871 Treaty of Washington, of a properly porous border for Canada: the ‘other’ will no longer be an abstraction, but will be promiscuously criss-crossing Canada’s northern flank (skinning Canadian shores) with growing regularity and in the name of myriad objectives (not all consistent with Canadian preferences).

The second force is the relative strategic decline of the US. The US, as mentioned, will remain among the two most powerful states in the world, but will not be overwhelmingly dominant, will be more economical or fastidious in its strategic extroversion, and will not necessarily be able to, or even wish to, project strategic alignment with Canada on matters that Ottawa may well see as critical. Indeed, one can imagine scenarios in which core Canadian interests are challenged in, say, the Arctic, and in which the US is either a direct adversary, accords the issue less import than does Canada (Washington may view the issue as tactical in character, while Ottawa may see it as strategic and vital), or is otherwise indifferent on the matter (consider Washington’s clinically neutral stance in the 1995 Turbot war between Canada and Spain).

The third and final force is technology. Between drones and, more plainly, even conventional military capabilities – leaving aside cyber-warfare – it is hard to imagine that territorial North America – core North America being Canada and the US – will escape some description of warfare on its territory over the course of this century. Let us recall that core North America was the only continent not to have known any real warfare on its territory for all of the last century. This was exceptional on two scores: first, latitudinally, across all the continents of the world – each of which, from Africa to Europe and Asia, was scarred by terrible territorial wars; and second, longitudinally, across the sweep of North American history since the landing of Champlain, with each century but the 20th seeing great military rivalry and bloodshed on the continent.

If there is any doubt about the idea of warfare returning to North America this century, then we might ask the following: is it conceivable that an entire century should go by without there being any military clash whatever between the world’s two major powers, China and the US? It is possible, but not likely. And as former Australian deputy defence secretary and current Australian National University professor Hugh White has written, if there is a serious military confrontation between Beijing and Washington, then within a decade there is every probability that China will be able to strike militarily at North American cities. Indeed, within two decades, even middle or secondary military powers will likely have the technological wherewithal to mount attacks of some intensity on territorial North America.

So Canada enters this new, strategically more precarious century after one of the luckiest strategic centuries known to mankind. It is a state that enjoys high standards of governance, but one that has been built in exceptional strategic leisure – indeed, in the total absence of military enemies on Canadian soil or at the gates of Canada. And, to be sure, this strategic leisure has, over the course of nearly a century and a half of geopolitical good luck, formed and hardened a deep culture not just of political and constitutional civility – indeed, great constitutional sophistication – but also of strategic lassitude and naïveté. How could it be otherwise?

A Canadian prime minister there has almost never been who was not intimately – indeed, gutturally – familiar with the Quebec question and its existential import for the Canadian project. On Quebec and matters of Canadian national unity, the political classes in Ottawa must play for keeps – and they typically do. But nearly all Canadian prime ministers – with a small coterie of obvious exceptions – have been able to see war with another country or people as a total abstraction; that is, as a one-way action in which the enemy is seldom seen and never fires back (that is, to or in Canada), and in which failure by Canada to achieve victory or any number of objectives in war has no material impact on Canadian life whatever, and carries with it no felt responsibility for righting that failure. This has made most Canadian prime ministers and most Canadian cabinets ‘serious people’ in respect of matters federal – and relatedly and belatedly, on questions of majority-minority relations, and also individual rights – but patently ‘unserious people’ on matters strategic; that is, people who, with some heroic exceptions, do not have a felt appreciation of the stakes of high strategic questions because they have never had to live or die by decisions made in relation to such questions.

And so it should be. For this reality is a destiny foretold in Canada’s founding document, the Constitution Act, 1867, the little read second recital of the preamble of which reads as follows: the federation will “conduce to the Welfare of the Provinces and promote the Interests of the British Empire[.]” That Canada will “conduce to the Welfare of the Provinces” means that Canada was conceived to become excellent at federalism – that is, at managing federal-provincial questions (the essence of the negotiations at Confederation). That Canada will at once “promote the Interests of the British Empire” means that, in fact, Canada was designed to outsource strategy – the big questions – to Westminster. In other words, Britain was by vocation to have done strategy, while Canada was to become, at most, a tactical power.

Canada’s constitutional logic mirrored and prefigured a peculiarly tactical Canadian national culture and psychology that, without the conspicuous interruption of revolution (the American experience) or existential war (consider Israel, Singapore, Turkey, China, Russia and Iran), became the general context and gravity, as it were, within which questions of Canada and its performance in the world must be analyzed. This constitutional logic suggested that Canada was legally and politically emancipated from the imperial yoke, but that its strategic culture and psychology remained trapped in a colonial cage.

It follows, then, that, in many ways, the migration of Canada to a major power this century is very much a psychological and cultural proposition. For the Canadian in the Canada of the year 2100 – a Canada that, if united, can be a major power – will think, talk and act differently from the Canadian in the year 2013. This is only natural and proper. He or she will think differently about himself or herself as a Canadian, about his or her country, and about what is possible both for himself or herself in Canada, and for Canada in the larger human experience and in the sweep of human history.

Another way to understand or interpret this proposition is to say that the key moves for Canada this century turn not on the ‘ends’ of Canadian policy in the world, but rather on the ‘means.’ While it is common today in Canadian policy and strategic circles to debate about what Canada ought to do in international affairs in scenario X or scenario Y, and whether one federal government’s positions are more wise than those of alternative or past governments, this debate generally happens in the context of the aforementioned colonial cage – that is, in the absence of a deep national strategic culture or psychology. And because such strategic culture or psychology is the indispensable bulwark or foundation for Canada being able to act with great (and regular) consequentiality in world affairs, it follows that Canada as a major power is also a proposition about means, rather than ends. In other words, before Canada determines what it may wish to accomplish in the world as one of its major countries, it must develop the requisite national psychology and culture to properly assess its options on such a plane of strategic potential.

Governing Canada in this more complex century will therefore require an approach that is not merely functional or, in the modern parlance, service-oriented, but one that will also have to be very deliberately effective in the psychological realm. The purpose of such government must be to emancipate the Canadian, psychologically, in order that Canada may begin to build and reappropriate its own strategic imagination – instead of outsourcing it, consciously or unconsciously, to nations, countries and peoples that it has to date fancied more serious or authoritative.

Enter the conjecture or argument – made in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of GBthat Canada should have a population of 100 million people by the year 2100. This argument is both policy and metaphor. In policy terms, 100 million (or 70 million or even 120 million) people properly distributed across Canada’s land mass (including in the north, where the Arctic border will have become porous and contested), will give Canada both the internal energy and socioeconomic dynamism that it will need to support – nay, drive – a far higher standard of domestic achievement and, in the same breath, to undergird far greater Canadian influence (power) in international affairs. As for the metaphor of the 100 million thought-experiment, it consists in the idea of Canadians and Canada thinking big and imagining the long term. In this sense, the metaphor of 100 million plays very clearly in the psychological space – reinforcing the aforementioned conjecture that the mentality of the Canadian at 100 million will be markedly different from that of the Canadian at 35 million. (Note: the environmental or ‘carrying capacity’ critique of the 100 million conjecture is far less persuasive than the critique that sees such a larger population as greatly complicating the management of the Quebec question.)

To come full circle, then: if Canada does not rise to the status of major power this century, then it may well become a strategic cripple – outsourcing its strategic imagination to other players, and living in accordance with their interests and preferences (which are manifestly not necessarily consistent with, or supportive of, Canadian interests and preferences). If Canada does rise to the status of major power, then it will need to have changed its national psychology over the course of this evolution. That psychology will need to have become more strategic – or indeed more strategically serious. Let me go even further: if Canada does not develop the appropriate psychology for playing at this more serious strategic level ex ante, then that psychology may well be foisted on it by events – that is, if Canada is to emerge without becoming a strategic cripple. In other words, in asserting itself at this enhanced strategic level, Canada may quickly develop the psychology that comes with performance at this level. But then again, it may not – that is, Canada may not be successful in asserting itself at this level (the strategic cripple scenario revisited).

This suggests the following paradox: if history is any guide, then a national strategic psychology, as is absent in Canada for reasons of the country’s founding constitutional culture and the general penury of strategic stress over the course of the country’s history, can typically only be acquired through the presence of said strategic culture or geopolitical stress. We have already painted the scenario in which geopolitical stress finally causes Canada to become strategic (or not). The only other factor that may introduce such a strategic psychology is heroic leadership – the coming to power of a coterie of like-minded Canadians who are clear-headed about the good geopolitical fortunes of Canada’s past and present, the challenges and risks of the future, and indeed the transformative potential of the country on the global stage if it succeeds in developing a national psychology and culture and the associated material capabilities (means) necessary to be serious and to be taken seriously as a far larger and more important player.

Evidently, the scenario of a leadership class that builds such a strategic culture and psychology is far more efficient than the scenario of the country edging into a storm of strategically stressful contests – contests from which it may or may not emerge successful (not successful because psychologically unprepared). For now, that leadership class does not appear to exist in Canada. And it is not visibly on the horizon. It may yet develop. If it does, it will hopefully see that a Canada that is firing on all cylinders, strategically speaking, will not only achieve its ends in national interest terms, but may well transform humanity in toto.

We return, in closing, to two other positive reasons for Canadian power and in support of the desirability of Canada becoming the West’s second state this century, and quite possibly a top-five or six state tout court. The argument from national interest suggests, as we know, that Canada may need to become more powerful whether it ‘wants’ to or not. But the argument from obligation suggests that Canada, levering its peculiarly good fortune, has a net responsibility to the over 99 percent of the rest of humanity – most of which lives worse than do Canadians – to help to improve their lot and raise their prospects in life. A not-powerful Canada with an astrategic national psychology is not an effective player in dispatching such an obligation. But a powerful Canada that enjoys the right psychology could lift many boats indeed. It could transform Haiti – nay, three or four Haitis – in a decade, and alone. It could regularly lead peace-brokering exercises and peace-negotiating tables for several conflicts at a time. It could stave off genocides through superior intelligence and unexampled diplomatic relationships. Und so weiter. Indeed, the specific end matters not (that is largely for the government of the day to decide) – for the means to achieve that end are undifferentiated; and Canada would have these means.

Finally, there is the (admittedly provocative) argument from identity: are Canadians a primary or secondary people? John A. Macdonald, the founding prime minister, was steadfast in his belief that Canadians were a secondary people; that is, that the ‘primary nation’ was the British one, and that Canadians were happy, albeit subordinate, parties to the larger imperial (and civilizing) enterprise anchored at Westminster. Will the challenges of this century turn Canadians into a primary people? I suspect that they just might. A signal question, as Canada moves to become a major power, is whether this migration to primary status will be conscious or unconscious. If the migration is conscious, then there may be much consternation and self-doubt along the way. If, however, the migration is unconscious, then Canadians will soon be doing world-historical things together, with fierce regularity, and will not make too much of a fuss in the process – for these things will have become organic to, and indissociable from, Canada and the Canadian. And the world will be better for it.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Tracy Walker)

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