Ten Theses on Canadian Foreign Policy
Why the means are more important than the ends, and how to build a national strategic psychology
Thesis 1: The primary challenge for Canadian foreign policy in the early 21st century has little to do with specific policy positions or preferences, and everything to do with the psychology of the country’s strategic classes. Can Canada think for itself in international affairs? Can its most talented people develop a strategic imagination that reflects the specific challenges of the country and allows the state to advance its interests in the world? Most Canadian foreign policy to this day still works from a bulwark of assumptions that are in keeping with the colonial status of the country at its genesis in 1867. (Recall that the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 reads that Canada will “conduce to the welfare of the provinces and promote the interests of the British Empire.”) No revolution or territorial war in Canada has succeeded in forcing the national psychology out of this ‘colonial cage.’ And there are only two ways out of this colonial cage this century: great leadership that exerts great pressure on the strategic classes and machinery of the country in order to transform the national psychology from the colonial and tactical to the properly strategic; or, in the alternative, a strategic crisis – a war or some other set of catastrophic events – that requires the country and its leaders to raise their game in the name of national survival. Manifestly, the leadership path to a proper national strategic psychology is the most efficient of the two variants.
Thesis 2: Why would Canada want to get out of this colonial cage in its foreign policy thinking and behaviour? Answer: because this century will be far more difficult for Canada, strategically, than the first century and a half of its modern existence. For one, let me state clearly: there will be territorial war in North America this century. That Canada has been exempted from war on its territory since the brokering of the 1871 Treaty of Washington with the US is not predictive of the future, but rather betrays the considerable good strategic fortune of the country’s past. Every other continent, from Africa through to Europe, Asia and even Australia, saw terrible bloodshed on its territory in the last century. So too did Canada and North America in all of the centuries since the European landing at the start of the 17th century – except, of course, in the exceptional 20th century.
What would bring war or, short of war, great strategic pressure to bear on Canada? Three vectors are at play: first, the strategic decline of the US, primarily in relation to China; second, the melting of polar ice and the attendant opening up of one of Canada’s borders to the ‘other’ for the first time since the general peace was brokered with the Americans in 1871; and, third, the advent of military and other technologies that will make the North American ‘fireproof house’ penetrable to attacks of various kinds in the coming decades.
The entire strategic life of the Canadian state to date, then, has been lived with no experience whatever of Chinese centrality in international affairs. And yet the return to Chinese centrality and with it the lessening of American centrality (both material and psychological) will serve to apply a pressure on Canada to play its cards far more cleverly and cunningly.
If the return of China to the centre of world affairs is today seen by Chinese elites as a natural reset of the global balance of power following the exceptional century and a half during which the Middle Kingdom became poor and marginalized, then Canadian elites ought to recognize that Canadian Confederation occurred just after China lost the two Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century that would relegate it to a peripheral power. The entire strategic life of the Canadian state to date, then, has been lived with no experience whatever of Chinese centrality in international affairs. And yet the return to Chinese centrality and with it the lessening of American centrality (both material and psychological) will serve to apply a pressure on Canada to play its cards far more cleverly and cunningly, as we discuss below.
The Arctic pressure will come not necessarily from the fact that Canada will be contesting land or resources or waterways like the Northwest Passage – although these contests, too, will come, notwithstanding the present deference to a legal and diplomatic Pax Arctica – but rather that the Canadian imagination will suddenly need to stretch to the north of the country and continent and begin to reckon with significant ‘other’ players with which the country has little serious experience: notably Russia.
Finally, from drones to cyber weapons and, to be sure, conventional nuclear arms, Canada and North America, if they are not already eminently targetable and reachable, will certainly be so over the next couple of decades – even to middle-sized powers. Of course, as I have written in these pages, in any scenario of war today between the US and either of Russia or China, major Canadian centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa are within easy reach of conventional bombardment and even nuclear attacks.
Thesis 3: Canada has a four-point game this century. We may call this game ACRE, or America, China, Russia and Europe. This game requires strategic promiscuity from Canada’s political classes – to wit, the ability to form relationships with the key powers at each of Canada’s borders in the service of Canadian survival and advantage. If America is again at the southern border this century, then a rising China is at Canada’s western border (flights to Beijing from Vancouver are shorter than flights between Beijing and Brisbane – that is, Canada is more ‘in Asia’ than Australia), a melting Arctic puts Russia directly at Canada’s northern border, and the EU is evidently at the eastern border.
What are Canada’s imperatives in the context of its ACRE game? Answer: use American assets and capabilities – intelligence, military, diplomatic and economic assets – for Canadian gain (i.e. the US is for Canada a means, not an end); develop a deep relationship with China for Canadian economic gain and to play an important role in ensuring that its return to the centre of international affairs is peaceable; work closely with Russia to bind it to a peaceful, transactional logic in the Arctic and to advance that country’s integration with European structures in a Europe 2.0 framework; and, to be sure, advance economic imperatives in the EU and, politically, keep the EU together.
Thesis 4: If Canada survives this century, then it will likely be the second most important country in the West, and among the most powerful countries on Earth. The average lifespan of a state over the last two centuries has been about 60 years (the Soviet Union, for instance, lasted 70 years), so survival for the entire balance of this century is not foreordained. Given the strategic pressures on the Canadian state described above, and given, in internal affairs, the extant possibility of Quebec secession referenda in the coming decades, Ottawa and other parts of the country will have to work hard (and raise their game) to assure that the country remains a going concern in the year 2100.
By the year 2100, Canada could well have a population of up to 100 million people. GB has devoted many pages to arguing that the country should consciously aim for such a large population – an argument that has gained considerable momentum in the public discourse in Canada over the last five years – so we will not belabour the point here. But at 100 million people, Canada would likely be larger than every country in Europe, with the possible exception of Russia.
Of course, at 100 million, Canada would not only have much larger military and diplomatic (and intelligence) assets – built on a significantly larger economic base and far greater societal ‘energy’ – with which to advance its interests and increase its ability to compete in the context of the heightened strategic pressure described above, but its political and strategic classes may be, in the mental sense, entirely different types of Canadians. In other words, the Canadian representing or leading a country of 100 million people – consciously larger than every Western country in the world except the US – will very likely no longer be the same ‘Canadian’ who works in similar positions of responsibility today. The mentality will be very different. This therefore becomes, to a great extent, a third possible route for Canada to develop the requisite strategic psychology that will allow it to exit the aforementioned colonial cage and reckon with what promises to be a far more difficult century. To be sure, strong leadership that painstakingly seeks to develop this national psychology well before Canada reaches 100 million is, as mentioned, not only by far the most efficient path, but also the only one that can answer the following question: what happens if Canada faces catastrophic strategic pressures or even war in North America before it sustainably develops this national psychology? As we have argued before in these pages, the country would in this case either be lost – emerging perhaps in an unrecognizable form, with different borders and a different constitution – or, similarly, would become a strategic cripple, operating entirely on the explicit terms of more serious outside countries or groups of countries. The said ‘60-year rule,’ then, would have come home to roost with a vengeance; that is, Canada might in that case have lasted unscathed for nearly two centuries – an exceptional run compared with the averages and odds – but it could not, without continued strategic luck or remarkable strategic leadership, outrun historical probabilities indefinitely.
Canadian foreign policy today still punches with the wrist, as it were, and not with the entire national corpus. Consider a boxer by way of metaphor: he or she may punch with the fist (or wrist), but in the absence of a strong torso and coordinated projection of the power of the torso through the punching arm and fist, the resulting punch will be a nullity.
Thesis 5: Canadian foreign policy today still punches with the wrist, as it were, and not with the entire national corpus. Consider a boxer by way of metaphor: he or she may punch with the fist (or wrist), but in the absence of a strong torso and coordinated projection of the power of the torso through the punching arm and fist, the resulting punch will be a nullity. And yet most of the current foreign policy debates in Canada – regardless of the government in power – are principally preoccupied with the punching wrist or fist (the outcome that can be seen with the naked eye), rather than with the development of the musculature and latent energy of the corpus or torso of the Canadian state and society that would make the punch consequential.
I have written about this connection between corpus and punch in various foreign policy and general strategic scenarios in The Strategic Constitution – Understanding Canadian Power in the World (2014). Two key points are worth noting here. First, Canadian foreign policy and strategy must always look at Canada’s diplomatic and military instruments (the wrists, as it were) not in isolation but rather as sitting atop a larger infrastructure or bulwark of national strategic capability that consists of such ‘factors of power’ as population (size and quality), the economy, natural resources, and, among several others factors, transportation and communication infrastructure and capabilities. Development of the factors of power, on this logic, is necessary both for potency and, to outside observers, credibility in the diplomatic and military instruments of Canadian power. Second, Canada must develop a class of foreign policy decision-makers who instinctively are able to see the national foreign policy assets as a total system – that is, as systems thinkers – rather than behaving as pure advocates for particular policy positions. For while there is naturally a perfectly reasonable debate to be had in Canada on such policy positions – to bomb or not to bomb; to be an ally or to be an enemy; to trade or not to trade; to pivot to X as opposed to Y – such positions are often without lasting effect internationally in the absence of a supporting framework or corpus of national power to advance these positions, and indeed in the absence of a class of strategists in Canada who are capable of understanding and using all of the levers of national power to implement foreign policy preferences (and to be seen as such).
This leaves Ottawa at a distinct strategic disadvantage in advancing various foreign policy objectives by comparison with the capitals of major unitary states (France, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) and federal states that – often because of constitutional jurisprudence through the courts – are more centralized in their foreign policy powers.
Thesis 6: Canadian federalism is beautiful and necessary domestically, but it is an inefficient setup from which to do great foreign policy. While provinces like Quebec, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador could not exist happily within a non-federal Canadian constitutional framework, a number of constitutional levers that are critical to Canadian foreign policy success are not within the control of the government charged with defending national interests – to wit, Ottawa. This leaves Ottawa at a distinct strategic disadvantage in advancing various foreign policy objectives by comparison with the capitals of major unitary states (France, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) and even federal states that – often because of constitutional jurisprudence through the courts – are more centralized in their foreign policy powers (the US, Australia and India).
The most prominent example of such inefficiency in Canadian foreign policy due to federalism is the Labour Conventions framework for the implementation of complex international treaties into Canadian law. Labour Conventions was a 1937 decision of the Privy Council in London that determined that Ottawa could negotiate or sign any international treaty – like all other national capitals in the world – but could only implement into law those aspects of the treaty that fell within federal constitutional jurisdiction. This has meant that Canada has been far slower than not only unitary states but also the aforementioned federal states in implementing into national law, and also, by logical implication, in negotiating composite treaties involving policy areas like microeconomic regulation of various products and services – and even local environmental standards – because of the Labour Conventions strictures requiring provinces to implement (or not implement) those aspects of the treaties that fall within their jurisdiction.
Of course, a more stark example of Canada’s federalism paradox in international affairs arises when Ottawa decides to, say, strategically pivot to Asia (or, as it did briefly in 2006, to Latin America). Even if Ottawa, through the royal prerogative, has full control over the target, degree and velocity of the national pivot, it does not have policy control over many of the aspects of national power that would determine the success or failure of the pivot. Consider, with the Asia pivot, a policy requirement for language competence in tongues like Mandarin, Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia and Korean (incidentally, the four tongues privileged by Canberra in Australia’s pro-Asian strategic pivot). However, it is the provinces in Canada that control the education function. This means that while Ottawa fancies a national pivot to Asia, Quebec may be interested in teaching its young people to speak Spanish, New Brunswick may privilege Russian, and Saskatchewan may emphasize Arabic. The pivot is declared as policy, but is seen as incredible or even not serious by any outside power or observer (starting in key Asian capitals) who understands Canada’s federal makeup.
What’s to be done? Absent revolutionary new decisions by the Canadian courts (highly unlikely), the only way to consolidate the national foreign policy system in the federal context in the service of major national strategic objectives that exercise provincial constitutional competence is through deep and sustained federal-provincial cooperation – with the federal spending power and various federal constitutional trump cards always at the ready (including the declaratory power, in extreme cases). (I have written elsewhere that Canada should adopt Australia’s Council of Australian Governments regime in order to drive long-term federal-provincial cooperation on multi-jurisdictional issues, including international ones.)
Thesis 7: Canada needs a national languages strategy. French-English bilingualism is absolutely necessary for national unity and must, to be sure, be deepened (levels of full bilingualism in Canada are unacceptably low), but bilingualism neither impresses nor is adequate for Canadian strategic excellence internationally. Many of the leading foreign policy countries outside of the Anglosphere – from China to Russia, through to Singapore and Israel, and evidently in most of the EU states – are led by strategic classes of people who can operate with facility in three or more tongues.
Canada’s languages strategy should emphasize perfect English-French bilingualism among the next generations of Canadians, plus high proficiency in at least one other tongue – including, possibly, an Aboriginal tongue, as I have explained in past issues of GB. But for international effect, Canada’s four-point game would seem to commend to the languages strategy tongues like Mandarin, Russian, Spanish (the broader ‘A’ in the ACRE game), and perhaps even Arabic and Persian – given the terrible conflicts in today’s Middle East and Canada’s security interests therein.
This languages strategy should be driven by Ottawa, but can only be implemented through the said federal-provincial cooperation, given the provinces’ lead on education.
Thesis 8: In the spirit of focussing on the means in order to be able to advance any ends at all (the ends depending on the government of the day), Ottawa needs embassies and, with these, strong diplomatic relations, in virtually every single world capital. Without embassies, Canada cannot enjoy serious political, economic and, of course, intelligence relations in a given country. The relationship with and analytics on any country in which Canada has no embassy are outsourced to other countries (in Canada’s case, to the US or the UK). Canada’s gaps in embassy coverage are glaring, and many of its international relationships superficial and analytics poor. Most of the former 15 republics of the former Soviet Union – from Belarus to Moldova, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan – are not covered by embassies. Embassy coverage in central and weak Africa is weak. The same weakness is coverage applies to the Pacific Islands – from Papua New Guinea to Tonga – where Canadian mining interests, among others interests, are exercised. And strategically important countries like North Korea (Canada’s Iranian embassy having just recently been reactivated), but also now Syria and Libya, have no Canadian ambassadorial presence.
Thesis 9: Aboriginal people in Canada have become foreign policy players. By dint of the Constitution Act, 1982 and a body of jurisprudence that started in the 1970s, as well as because of growing political sophistication, Canadian indigenous people and nations are increasingly influential in national decision-making on key Canadian factors of power like natural resources (and also territory tout court). The policy thinking in Canada on this connection between the Aboriginal question and Canadian international strategy is still highly underdeveloped, but in praxis this connection may soon prove just as important in determining the efficiency and credibility of Canadian foreign policy as is federalism more broadly.
Thesis 10: Diasporic Canadians and diasporic groups and movements in Canada may be politically important (Canada is, after all, a highly and happily multicultural country), but they should play a negligible role in the development of serious foreign policy. While diasporic Canadians, like many other Canadians, may bring specific talents to the development and implementation of foreign policy (e.g. linguistic knowledge, some aptitudes for intelligence, given their knowledge of local mindsets and culture, and perhaps some personal contacts in relevant countries), Canadian analytics should not be driven in any respect at all by diasporic preferences or prisms. Indeed, it is the fundamental absence of a serious national foreign policy psychology and culture that allows diasporic groups – regardless of the quality of their own analytics – to claim pride of place in Canadian foreign policy debates and positioning.
In the end, if Canada is able to fashion for itself a proper strategic psychology that allows the country to parry the great pressures of this new century, then the result will speak for itself – a bona fide Canadian school of foreign policy, as befits one of the world’s oldest and most successful countries.
Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.