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Canada’s Four-Point Game

Spring / Summer 2012 Features

Canada’s Four-Point Game

Canada’s Four-Point GameThe strategy for success this century is ACRE: America, China, Russia and Europe

In past issues of GB, I have written that Canada should position itself to be, and indeed think of itself as en route to becoming, one of this century’s major powers. A key part of this recasting of the national strategic posture – or strategic imagination – would involve building up the population of the country, by century’s end, to 100 million Canadians. This larger demographic weight, supported by extant, uncontroversial factors of Canadian strategic power like geography (the second largest land mass in the world, and good borders to boot), natural resources (top-tier reserve richness in hydrocarbons, minerals, precious metals, food and water) and competent government, would arguably ramify – with great force – through other dependent factors of national power like the economy and, to be sure, the country’s military and diplomatic instruments.

Perhaps even more important than the ‘objective’ change in the fin de siècle effective strategic power of Canada at 100 million is the migration in, or transformation of, the national mentality of the land. The ability of Canadians – and, in particular, of Canadian leaders – to viscerally feel, understand and believe in the telos of 100 million by the year 2100 invests the national geist with a kinetic energy that has long been absent from the national condition and discourse. It causes the Canadian, over time, to imagine his or her country differently, and to have a vastly expanded conception of the strategic possibilities and options for this far more ‘macro,’ capacious Canada.

The 100 million argument for Canada is a means-driven argument: it is stubbornly – and perhaps heretically – agnostic on the country’s ends or projects, except to suggest that the ends – both domestically and internationally – availed to the country will be more numerous, more expansive and, to be sure, difficult for the Canadian of the Canada of 34 million, in the year 2012, to comprehend. For the citizens – and, even more importantly, the leaders – of the Canada of 100 million will think differently about their country. In other words, the imagination – or strategic culture, as it were – of the Canadian in respect of the possible morphs as the aggregate population grows, and the country becomes – irresistibly – more powerful.

The next chapter in a means-driven argument about Canadian strategy logically centres around the key strategic relationships of the Canada of the 21st century with other important players – usually states or groups of states. More precisely, it centres around the differentiated relationships of the Canadian state in a century in which, as I have written in the past, the opening up of Canada’s Arctic borders – global warming oblige – to international traffic and competition, the relative decline of US strategic power, and revolutions in military and other technologies, will together conspire to substantially diminish (and complicate) the great geopolitical luck that the North American continent enjoyed in the last century. For whereas the 20th century – quite exceptionally – saw zero land warfare on continental North America (core North America – that is, Canada and the US), this century could well see warfare return to the continent, in various forms, consistent with all of the prior centuries on the continent following the European landing.

Without suggesting that Canada ought not to have important relationships with a large gamut of states and groupings of states, Canada’s key ‘relationships’ strategy for this century can be summarized by the acronym ACRE: America, China, Russia and, finally, Europe. The hierarchy among these key bilateral or ‘dyadic’ partners for Canada is ‘soft’ – America comes first, but not by a long shot; there is rough parity among the remaining three partners. Taken together, the four partners have in common not just geopolitical status or standing in this new century, but also the brute fact that they ramify Canadian geopolitical projects – whatever these may be – or act as ‘multipliers’ therefor. They also, in some cases, have the capability of exercising varying degrees of veto power on Canadian ambitions in different parts of the world. Perhaps most signally, they together cover much of the globe and, as with the 100 million construct, force the Canadian strategic mind to stretch beyond its historical-geographical comfort zones. Without such ‘stretching’ of the Canadian mind, Canadian foreign policy – still colonial by instinct, if not in law – defaults to a largely unimaginative, bilateral Canada-US foreign policy, disrupted only seldom by heroic outbursts from this essential gravity.

First, the Canadian strategy for the US (the ‘A’ in ACRE). No other theatre of Canadian foreign policy has attracted as many fine Canadian minds, and yet issued in as many idées fixes. To date, Canada’s strategic community has, since at least WW2, largely been beholden to variations and combinations of three policy paradigms in respect of its much larger southern neighbour: first, that Canadian foreign policy ought to be conspicuously distinct vis-à-vis American foreign policy (or, to a lesser extent, diversified away from the US’s strategic orbit); second, that Canadian foreign policy – as if by identity – ought to be strictly aligned with US foreign policy; and third, that Canadian foreign policy ought to ‘link’ performance by Canada in policy domain x with favours or concessions from the US in domain y. This third paradigm has been peculiarly ascendant since 9/11, with Canadian leaders attempting to maximize economic transit across the Canada-US border in exchange for assuring the US that Canada is neither a source nor base of terrorist or other security threats. Indeed, until the recent forays by the Harper government into China in support of Canadian energy export interests (and in apparent reaction to the US impasse on approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the US), the linkage paradigm effectively crowded out the other two paradigms. Even the ever growing body of initiatives favouring de facto perimetric regulatory arrangements for Canada and the US has been essentially driven by the logic of linkage, in which the price of the prize of Canadian access to US markets is the continued demonstration by Canada of its bona fides on national security.

Alas, the linkage paradigm – particularly in its economic manifestation – has paradoxically served the longstanding cause of continentalizing Canadian foreign policy – practically and intellectually – at the very point in history at which the world is not only ever more globalized, but at which the American geopolitical and economic footprints are, at least in relative terms, shrinking.

A fourth, counterintuitive Canada-US strategic paradigm suggests itself for this century. That is the paradigm of the US as a power multiplier for Canadian policy outside of continental North America. It posits that many Canadian strategic achievements in the world run through America – in particular, through the use and levering of America’s still-superior global assets and capabilities. This proposition is made in light of two important observations: first, that while the US is, even on its own assessment, a receding strategic power in the world – and one that is highly stretched – it remains and will remain, for the foreseeable future, strategically pivotal to the management of important international problems; second, that while the US has neither the synoptic understanding required to analyze the world’s myriad policy challenges, nor the strategic capabilities and political will to deal with most of these, its interests and aspirations – unlike those of any other state, including China – remain global. However, because of the structural limits on what it can do outside of its borders, the US will, for the most part, be able to articulate these global interests and aspirations only in highly general terms – for all intents and purposes, in the rhetorical integument of ‘motherhood’ terms like freedom, democracy, rights, security and so on.

Généralité oblige, Canada could in no sense disagree with any of these characterizations of what is in its very own strategic interest in any corner of the world. Where the US government is more heavily engaged in a given country or region – say, in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine, the Koreas and, yes, China – the strategic programme and logic underlying each of the US’s thematic interests or ends will be far more detailed. In this event, Canada will naturally find reasons to support (complement) or oppose the programme in question, depending on its own strategic assessment of the problem at hand and the particular stakes at play. But Canada will not lead or be a major player in these theatres.

However, in those theatres wherein the US government is less energetically engaged, it remains generally interested, but in terms so vague that they are highly susceptible to appropriation, modification and tailoring – in extremis, even manipulation – by other reasonably like-minded countries and allies that do choose to engage intensely. Such intense engagement by these other like-minded states could arguably lever America’s unparalleled assets and capabilities (the means) to achieve ends that these states – by dint of their practical presence and activity on the ground – themselves frame and elaborate. This is the power multiplier for Canada: America’s assets and capabilities, properly used, multiply Canadian capacity to advance around the world objectives that Canada itself can define in substantial detail by virtue of its initiative or first-mover advantage sur le terrain, in situ. These American assets and capabilities include the massive intelligence and information assets of the US, its global relationships at the highest echelons of foreign powers, its military-logistical apparatus and, in many respects, its continued prestige – if not necessarily in moral terms, then still, to be certain, in geopolitical terms.

It is probable that such a Canadian strategy of ‘power multiplication’ would be highly welcome by the US – including by the next US administration, whether led by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney – eager as the country is to be ‘delivered’ by like-minded states in those regions of the world in which it remains interested, but otherwise distracted. And so this is the Canadian multiplier strategy for its engagement with the US: opportunistic alignment on the means, and opportunistic appropriation of the ends, all for Canadian strategic advantage.

The Americas region – beginning with Haiti, but quickly moving to the broader Caribbean Basin – may well be the first geographic theatre in which Canada should apply this strategy of conscious power multiplication with the US. This should happen after concerted discussions with the US to signal its seriousness about delivering results. (Note that the last Harper government declared, in 2007, at least in-principle interest in Canada becoming a leader in the Americas region – a region that does not today enjoy the same attention from the US government as other, more troubled ones, but a region in which the US could still wield significant veto power over Canadian ambitions. And US veto power in this region will continue to decisively trump that of Brazil – a rising regional power – for most of this century.)

A fifth Canada-US paradigm may also soon become apposite, and should be added to the other four: the necessity of a very sober Canadian self-reliance for the defence of a number of its interests in territorial Canada and, specifically, in the Arctic. Diminishing American relative power should destabilize the long-held, implicit strategic assumption – one never articulated, but always felt in the gut of Canada’s political elites – that the US will almost certainly defend the northern part of the continent should Canada come under attack.

Indeed, this America in relative strategic decline might very well raise the threshold beyond which it would be willing to directly or indirectly defend Canada in the event of Canadian involvement in conflict. The opportunity costs of such American defence of Canada, as well as very real potential differences between the US and Canada in national perceptions of interests and threats, could very well mean that a Canada under attack or in some form of military confrontation on its maritime borders (say, in the High Arctic) or on its own soil – say, in remote parts of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, or even in the northernmost reaches of Quebec, Ontario or Manitoba – could well be fending for itself. The little studied Turbot War of 1995 between Canada and Spain off the coast of Newfoundland may, in this regard, have been portentous of larger things to come: that is, fundamental US neutrality and effective non-interference in a conflict pitting its continental neighbour against another state. The behaviour of the US was doubtless largely due to its perception that critical American interests were not in play in the conflict, and that strategic defeat of Canada – something that would have a terrific destabilizing effect on the entire continent – was not a possibility. For Canada, were the conflict more prolonged and more difficult, such strategic laissez-faire from Washington would have come as a shock; that is, it would not even have figured in the contemporary national strategic imagination.

What of Russia (the ‘R’ in ACRE)? If Canadian leadership in the Americas – among other possible theatres – must often pass through Washington, DC, then Canadian success in the Arctic is, first and foremost, a Russian play. For Russia is today, and will be for the foreseeable future, the most powerful, ambitious and serious Arctic player among the world’s principal Arctic states (Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark). This means that Russia is not to Canada’s east – per the dated logic of the Cold War – but rather to its north.

Together, Canada and Russia have ownership over most of the Arctic’s coastline. Canada’s winning play can only be to press this symmetry in order to cooperate and collude with Russia for mutual Arctic advantage. As such, Canada’s two principal interests vis-à-vis Russia this century ought to be as follows: first, to lock Russia into processes or interactions in, or negotiations on, the Arctic that are unlikely to issue in a Russian resort to military force; and second, to, on occasion, opportunistically align itself with Russia in order to advance critical national objectives in the Arctic. A key example of such opportunistic Canada-Russia alignment would be in the service of international recognition of the Northwest Passage – by far the key Arctic enjeu for Canada – as part of Canadian internal waters. As Michael Byers argued in his Feature article “Toward a Canada-Russia Axis in the Arctic” in GB’s Winter 2012 issue, Russia’s claim to the Northern Sea Route as part of its internal waters (according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) is, in many respects, a mirror-image of Canada’s Northwest Passage claim. Both claims are also challenged by, first and foremost, the US, which sees both straits as ‘international straits.’ Byers’ counterintuitive policy conjecture is that if Canada were to formally recognize Russia’s claim to the Northern Sea Route, and Russia, at the same time, Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage, then the legal-cum-symbolic effect would, in the net, be geopolitically significant. Russian recognition could well pave the way for similar recognition of the Canadian claim by a number of other important countries – at least important non-maritime countries, and perhaps even China – just as Canadian recognition would give Western respectability to Russia’s claim.

To be sure, such a move would be controversial for Canada’s foreign policy community. On the one hand, it evidently would aim to advance Canada’s clear and major interests in control – under Canadian law – over maritime passage in the Passage. Such control would include the right or prerogative to determine who may enter or cross the Passage, and indeed the terms of such passage. Legal cooperation with Russia could also begin to lay a foundation for a longer-term, mutual Russo-Canadian trust that could yield fruit in the areas of Arctic transportation, energy exploration and production, environmental regulation, domain awareness technology and Arctic science. On the other hand, while Canada does have some tradition of parting company with the US on a number of major issues, it does not have a pronounced tradition of allying with another major power – and certainly not Russia – in stark opposition to, or in order to foil (or appear to foil), American national interests. That such alignment with Russia would be in defence of the very integrity of Canadian waters would not necessarily lighten the psychic shock of such an unusual arrangement.

Such shock value ought to be resisted by Canada – even if the Arctic cooperation with Russia might at first appear to militate against the aforementioned Canadian success in using the US as a multiplier in other parts of the world in which there is more ready alignment of Canada-US interests. For, on balance, and in the long-run, the Canadian interests that must be defended against detracting claims are too fundamental. (We have already offered that the US’s calculations in respect of its own critical interests in the Arctic will often differ from those of Canada.) And yet, having said this, it may still be the case that the US might, under combined Canadian and Russian pressure, cede to Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage – possibly on the presumption that Canadian control of the Passage will typically be friendly to American transit (and perhaps also because the investment from the US to aggressively oppose this claim may prove prohibitive in practice). This same American presumption is the one that will in all likelihood allow Canada to continue to lever American favour and assets in other parts of the world.

Legal alignment with Russia on mutual Arctic claims would give Canada a marked advantage in respect of its paramount goal: locking Russia into a long-term legal logic – rather than military logic – in the Arctic (if not more generally). The aim here would be to promote a general stability in the Arctic theatre this century – on the clear understanding that, if not well managed, power vacuums and major conflicts of interest over significant stakes (such as transit, territory or resources) could result in devastating wars in the Arctic between Russia and other states, large or small.

In Europe (the ‘E’ in ACRE), Canada’s cardinal interest – in concert with other important states – is to keep the continent together, peaceful and prosperous for the entire century. The aforementioned Russia relationship leads Canada inevitably into some increased influence or ‘ins’ in large parts of Eastern Europe, where Russia still looms very large. (The reverse of the Russian ‘in’ in Eastern Europe is, of course, a de facto Russian veto on Canadian effectiveness in this theatre – or, more precisely, in the former Soviet space.) Canadian brokerage of the peace in any of the ‘frozen’ or future ‘hot’ conflicts in the former Soviet space is, in future, perfectly conceivable.

Canada’s interests vis-à-vis Europe at large are twofold: first, to keep the continent strategically united – in the EU or in more loose, post- or extra-EU forms; and second, to help prevent strategic conflict between Europe and Russia. The first object – a united Europe – ensures that Germany, by far Europe’s most powerful state (outside of Russia), stays durably moored inside of a peaceable logic, and that no serious wars erupt between important European states. (Such wars may seem highly improbable and implausible today, but a century is a long time in international strategic life, and Europe has not, in modern history, gone a single century without major, world-changing bloodshed.) The second object must be to keep Russia’s trajectory consistently tied to that of Europe. This does not mean or require proper Russian membership in the EU, or perfect alignment between the EU’s and Russia’s political mores or strategic visions, but rather that Russia not be – or feel – strategically isolated from Europe.

Canada will evidently not be the lead non-European player in determining Europe’s political or strategic future (that role surely remains America’s), but it will have to play a meaningful part – through economic exchange, political initiatives, and indeed the sharing of best practices – in encouraging Europe’s major and minor countries – including its closest European allies, the UK and then France – to continue to develop a European strategic imagination. But if it cultivates an Arctic relationship with Russia, it is not implausible that Canada should carve for itself a vocation as the lead non-European player in bridging the strategic dialogue between Europe and Russia.

Finally, of course, there is China (the ‘C’ in ACRE), the re-emerging great power of this century. Canada’s China game forces it, for the first time in its history, to develop a concerted capacity to sustainably project influence and policy energy ‘westward’ toward Asia. (China was last a great power before modern Canada was constituted, and Canada’s strategic personality has, as mentioned, instinctually and traditionally focussed on the US at core, and on Europe as a maximum. It has thus never had sufficient seriousness of purpose or strategic extroversion as to allow the country to be a major player on other continents.)

As the China proposition is bound to be a long-term one, the starting point for Canada must be the development of a credible, system-wide capacity and culture within the country for deep, clinical (dispassionate, if not amoral) engagement with China’s power structures – for substantial practical effect. There can be nowhere to start but where the Australians did in the early 1990s when future prime minister Kevin Rudd was cabinet secretary in the state government of Queensland – with a national languages strategy, developed with the provinces under strong federal leadership, aimed at developing, within a generation, a cadre of Canadian political, business and intellectual leaders who are fluent in Mandarin, literate on Asian matters more broadly, and armed with experience and contacts in Asia that would allow them to press Canada’s interests in China. Without language, cultural awareness and indeed top-tier analytical and intelligence capabilities on China and Asia – the current condition of Canada’s strategic classes – Canada will continue to play only on the surface of most policy issues in the region, without being able to penetrate the personal-political gate that is the anteroom to larger discussions about Sino-Canadian economics and geopolitics. (To be sure, the national languages strategy for Canada should aim to create large numbers of not only Mandarin speakers, but also speakers of other key languages for this century, including Russian, Spanish and Arabic. As such, the languages strategy is indispensable to the totality of Canada’s four-point game. And it ought to run, for national unity purposes, through the mandatory mastery by all future Canadians of both English and French.)

If Canada is able to engage with sophistication on the political vector, then its primary economic-strategic ‘in’ with China must surely be its remarkable natural resource endowments – from oil and natural gas to coal, uranium, iron ore and copper. In its more classical assessments of Canadian power, China has always seen these endowments as a major factor of Canadian strategic importance. As posited above, Canada must now begin to see itself in the same light, striking large, long-term supply deals with the Chinese government, investing in the development and transportation infrastructure necessary to deliver on these deals, and, more broadly, levering the promise of stable natural resources in order to extract Chinese reaction and favour.

What may be levered from China through such political engagement and deep economic interdependence with Canada? For certain, not changes in Chinese governance or internal practices – but rather a soft Chinese undertaking not to exercise any de facto veto over – or not to actively interfere with – Canadian political and economic engagement in other parts of Asia – including in Taiwan, but also in Southeast Asian states like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia. (China would have no such veto capability in respect of Canadian engagement in such major Asian states as India, Japan and South Korea.)

But, as with Russia, what ought to be avoided more generally is strategic confrontation or the conscious or accidental pressurizing of China in such a way as to isolate it or to incentivize it into defecting from a peaceable rise. The management of Sino-Indian rivalry will be instructive here – and Canada will not likely have a decisive role to play in this regard. Still, with the US and other major states, Canada ought to be privileging a larger strategic framework that seeks to ensure that China’s ever growing power and prestige are parried and channelled by an international system that is open and generous to such a strategic shift. Canada will for the most part wish to avoid pious positions that are adversarial to this shift. For any general war involving China and any other great power this century could well result from such positions, and it stands to reason that such a general war would militate fiercely against Canadian success not only in China, but in its greater four-point game around the globe.


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

(Illustration: Jeffrey Fisher)

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