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Canada’s Four-Point Game, Part II

Winter 2018 Features

Canada’s Four-Point Game, Part II

ILLUSTRATION: DANTE TERZIGNIAmerica-China-Russia-Europe, or ACRE: prudent, porous and promiscuous engagement for national survival and advantage this century

Five years ago, in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of GB, I proposed a new framework for understanding and developing Canada’s interests and pressures in the 21st century. The thrust of the article was that if Canadian policy and strategic leaders did not have the right ‘mental map’ of Canada’s international relations, and if Canada did not master the enhanced strategic complexities associated with its new-century ‘strategic game,’ then the country would either not survive the century, or would emerge from the century as a strategic cripple, unable to meaningfully determine the terms of its own existence.

Let us recall, as established in previous issues of GB, that modern states last an average of about 60 years, after which their ‘statehood’ is ended or transformed unrecognizably through one or both of war and constitutional collapse. At over 150 years of age, then, the Canadian federation, which is internally very complex but which has, among all the nations, known very few external existential pressures – and virtually no war at all on its territory in over a century – will have to work hard to secure its future on terms familiar and acceptable to itself.

What is new in this Canadian mental map? First and foremost, the ‘C’ and the ‘R’ – plus the resulting interrelationships between the various letters (countries and regions) that come with these additional two relationship vectors.

Canada’s four-point game this century is dictated by the country’s borders, newly conceived. I call this four-point game ACRE. To the south, we have the obvious ‘A’ in America (the US), with which Canada has been at peace since the 1871 Treaty of Washington. To the west, there is China, or ‘C.’ To the north, across the fast-melting Arctic ice, is Russia, or ‘R.’ And finally, to the east, is Europe, or ‘E.’ On this conception of things, Canada is surrounded this century, on all sides, by nuclear powers, three of which are arguably great powers. The core Canadian strategic objective, in order to survive and succeed, is to minimize the frictions (or ‘threats’) at its borders, and to maximize the strategic rents flowing from its management of its many-vectored relationships.

What is new in this Canadian mental map? First and foremost, the ‘C’ and the ‘R’ – plus the resulting interrelationships between the various letters (countries and regions) that come with these additional two relationship vectors. In other words, Canada is interested this century not just in each of the four vectors A, C, R and E, but indeed in the six additional vectors AC (the America-China relationship), AE (America-Europe), AR, ER, EC and RC. (We could easily add combinations of three-country relationships, within the ACRE universe, to this mix.) In total, Canada’s game this century turns on at least 10 vectors, with the individual ACRE vectors being primary in strategic importance, and the additional six interrelationship vectors of secondary importance.

The very articulation of a Canadian mental map or relationship-vector strategy is also arguably new, as modern Canadian strategic thinking tends to flow from projections of interests from Ottawa outward, with the interests (the ‘ends,’ as it were) driving the national strategic concept, but without this national strategic concept necessarily embedded in any ‘systems’ framework of international affairs. The four-point game construct instead privileges a means-oriented approach to Canada’s international relations. Canada must be interested in, and must invest in, all of the 10 relationship and interrelationship vectors commended to it by its mental map – with the varying intensities of Canadian investment over time expressing themselves as a function of deliberate strategy, rather than through improvisation or circumstantial fetish – always in order to minimize the aggregate friction and maximize strategic rents. In effect, the relationship itself (the means) logically precedes the interest (the end), with the underlying understanding that Canada must master all of these relationships and interrelationships in order to survive and succeed this century – and, almost as importantly, that Canada cannot properly know its ends without proper investment in the means (the relationships) themselves. How, for instance, can Canada know what it wants from, say, China or Russia this century? At the time of this writing, it does not know either sufficiently well to be able to make any serious determination in this regard.

What should Canada’s posture be in negotiating its four-point game this century? Answer: Canada must be prudent, porous and promiscuous. Prudence is a counsel to national humility, moderation and proportionality in Canadian engagement across its ACRE and secondary relationships. Porousness means that Canada must, barring war and national emergencies, remain open (non-dogmatic) to the exchange of ideas, products and people. Finally, strategic promiscuity means that Canada must be ever-opportunistic and flexible in determining the intensity of its key relationships over the course of the century.

What should Canada’s posture be in negotiating its four-point game this century? Answer: Canada must be prudent, porous and promiscuous. Prudence is a counsel to national humility, moderation and proportionality in Canadian engagement across its ACRE and secondary relationships.

Of course, China (or ‘C’) has, for all practical intents and purposes, always been in the same physical and geographical spot vis-à-vis Canada (west of what is today British Columbia), but it has never, over the last 150 years of the Canadian federation, formed part of Canada’s essential strategic algorithm. Why? Answer: Because Canada’s modern formation in 1867 occurred shortly after China lost the second Opium War. Bref, the entire century and a half of Chinese instability and strategic weakness and marginality coincides almost exactly with the 150 years of the modern Canadian state. No longer…

As for Russia (or ‘R’), while it too has always been to the immediate north of Canada geographically (in three state forms – imperial, Soviet and now republican post-Soviet, the second lasting only 70 years), the melting of the Arctic ice has, for the first time in history, created a direct physical juxtaposition between the modern Canadian and Russian states. Canada and Russia are the two Arctic giants of this century – far ahead of the US in this respect – and the relationship between the two will determine much of the fate of huge swathes of land, water, seabed and sky in the Arctic and northern territories of both countries (and in the Arctic commons more generally).

Let us also note that the ACRE framework is not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive in its coverage of Canada’s strategic relationships this century. One might rightly ask: Where is, say, Indonesia? Where is Israel? Where is Brazil? Where is India? Or African countries? (See the Query article by Jocelyn Coulon on Canada’s Africa strategy.) Answer: They may all be relevant or even important to Canada in the 21st century, but they are in all cases of subordinate strategic significance. In other words, these relationships have no existential import for Canada, and are unlikely to command as much strategic attention and as many strategic resources as the fundamental ACRE and ‘ACRE-plus’ web of relationships. Moreover, much of the importance of these subordinate relationships will turn on the ways in which, and the degree to which, they are connected (or not) to the primary ACRE relationships.

‘A’ is for America

The US will remain Canada’s most important economic partner and strategic ally for the foreseeable future. However, the strategic standing and capabilities of the US in the broader world are fast diminishing. It is not just the economic weight of the US that is in relative decline, but indeed two other critical elements of American power and prestige, particularly as considered by Canadian analysts: first, the attractiveness and achievements of the American political system; and second, the judgement of its strategic elites.

In this context, what is the Canadian interest vis-à-vis the ‘A’ vector? It is to maximize economic and strategic advantage from the American relationship, while methodically, systematically carving out enough space from this naturally close relationship in order that Canada develop the capacity to ‘think for itself.’ This Canadian capacity to think for itself includes the capacity to manage the contradictions between Canada’s relationship with the US and Canada’s increasingly important relationships with the other three primary vectors of its four-point game this century: with China, with Russia and, more comfortably, with Europe. It includes the ability to ‘defend ourselves’ – whatever the means to that defence.

Three key moves are required of Canadian strategic leaders in order for the country to begin to think for itself: first, conscious investment in the idea that, for all the historical commonalities and affinities between the two countries, Canada’s strategic vocation and project are, as anticipated by Canada’s founders and articulated in its constitutional framework, separate and different from America’s strategic vocation; second, that, in a pinch or in times of existential or strategic crisis, there is, in the absence of clearly overlapping interests, no obvious reason to presume that the US will defend Canada; and third, as a logical consequence, that Canada ought to see its relationship with the US as instrumental rather than constitutive – that is, we use American power and prestige (and America’s typically superior assets and relationships) where this is useful and suits us, to Canadian advantage (and possibly to mutual advantage). But we must never view, nor should we be perceived as viewing, American power and prestige as identical with, or indistinguishable from, Canadian power and prestige.

‘C’ is for China

There is a school of Canadian strategic thinking that holds that Canada should minimize or limit its engagement with China for reasons of moral or political difference. This school of thinking patently misunderstands China’s new-century importance globally and to Canada in particular, and condemns Canada to painful isolation or provincial irrelevance at best, and strategic castration at worst. (The same applies, to a far less formidable extent, for Canada’s border relationship with Russia in the Arctic this century.)

As mentioned above, Canada has never had to reckon with a serious China. It has also never had a border relationship with a country whose political system and traditions are so fundamentally different to the constitutional-federal-democratic framework that governs modern Canada. And yet the China that finds itself effectively at Canada’s western border is not only the most serious strategic power in the world today, but it also has – for its many pathologies, and if we ourselves are properly porous – much to teach Canada and other democratic states about planning and administration (to which we return below), infrastructure, environmental science and policy, logistics and, to be sure, education. This is not a hagiography of China, but plainly an empirical fact, given certain comparisons between American (or Western) and Chinese achievement in these fields over the last two decades. Indeed, this is a fact that, despite the manifest dynamism and industry of American society and civilization, has led to a plurality of states in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet space and Africa pivoting to adopt certain Chinese (and Singaporean) characteristics and processes in their constitutional-strategic and administrative frameworks, while seeking to preserve the strong popular feedback and legitimating features of Western democratic systems.

A good portion of the Canadian strategic elite – particularly those based in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto – fancies that Canada is not ‘in’ Asia (as it were), or that the country has no meaningful Asian strategic vocation. They may be surprised to learn, however, that Vancouver is physically closer to Beijing than Sydney, and only slightly less close than Brisbane. (Indeed, Whitehorse in the Yukon is closer to Beijing than all of these other cities.) This is meant to prove that the notion that Australia is somehow ‘in Asia’ while Canada is ‘not in Asia’ is largely constructed. Australia very consciously constructed its Asian identity and vocation, and with growing velocity after the Keating prime ministership, over the course of several decades after strategic abandonment by the British in WW2, in the face of Japanese bombardment and faced with the growing strategic, economic and demographic importance of Asia (see the Tête à Tête interview with Kevin Rudd in GB’s Fall/Winter 2015 issue). Canberra, too, once presumed that its longstanding, more powerful ally would defend it in a pinch…

Bref, Canada will need to construct its own Asian strategic identity this century. Of course, Canada’s Asian identity will only be partial, rather than the near-total one fashioned by the Australians, given our far more complex strategic game. However, as in Australia, the construction of this new Asian strategic identity will turn on immersion and learning. As discussed below, many Canadians, and many Canada’s strategic leaders in particular, will need to become fluent in Mandarin and other Asian tongues. They will need to develop deep professional relationships and networks across Chinese society, in all sectors. And they will need to be able to work with and within the Chinese mentality – a patent inability today for Canadian strategic elites, who are culturally and intellectually trained strictly in Western (or, more narrowly still, Anglo-American) thinking and references, and who are highly inflexible and uncomfortable in their strategic imagination and literacy outside of Western frontiers.

What do we wish to achieve in the Chinese relationship this century? Three things. First, Canada will want to maximize its inclusion in – and ability to help shape – any and all description of Chinese international regime-making – in respect of international trade and investment, infrastructure and, to be sure, matters that emanate from Canadian humanitarian and rights traditions. Second, Canada must, quite obviously, maximize economic returns from the massive and increasingly wealthy Chinese consumer market, from Chinese corporate and state investment, and also from various species of joint ventures and partnerships with Chinese universities, research institutes and companies. Third, Canada must be the first among the major democracies, and especially among the major federal democracies, to incorporate into its political and policy culture and operations the key advantage of Chinese and Singaporean algorithmic governance – to wit, the ability to think, plan and deliver over the long run. How to do this in a democratic context this century? More complicated still, how to do this in a democratic and federal context? No Western democracy has yet answered these questions persuasively in this early new century.

Such a conception of the relationship would mean that Ottawa could evidently and properly disagree with Moscow on a host of matters and files, but that the overall relationship should remain kinetic, porous and forward-looking.

‘R’ is for Russia

Canada’s Russia relationship turns not on any serious strategic renaissance of Russian power, as with the Chinese case, but rather on the brute fact that the Arctic ice frontier with Russia is fast melting, with the ice expected to be in full recession during summers in the coming decades. This means that, as a matter of strategic fact, the country with the greatest territorial, military, economic, environmental, scientific, cultural and people-to-people exposure to Russia, among the large Arctic states this century, will be Canada.

In the Canadian strategic mindset, then, Russia is no longer to the east of the EU and Ukraine, but rather immediately due north of us – at our doorstep, as it were. Indeed, had Canada the appropriate mental map in preparing its position on the Ukraine-Russia-West conflict over the last several years, it would have been less frontal and dogmatic in breaking relations with Moscow, realizing that Canada has before itself an entire century of complex, highly varied transactions with Russia (some of which may acquire existential import before long). Such a conception of the relationship would mean that Ottawa could evidently and properly disagree with Moscow on a host of matters and files, but that the overall relationship should remain kinetic, porous and forward-looking – with deep and regular points of bilateral contact and communication at all levels of government and society, and with all prospects of militarization of conflict marginalized.

If one accepts the thesis that Ukrainian success is largely impossible without a reconstitution or resoldering (granted, on new, more equal terms) of Ukrainian-Russian relations, and indeed that the future health or survival of the EU is compromised by a poor or hostile relationship between Brussels and Moscow, then the correct Canadian strategic position is one that advances Canadian interests in both Europe (‘E’) and Russia (‘R’), and, by extension or implication, in Ukraine in part through a strong and productive relationship with Russia – starting in the Arctic. Indeed, the Arctic relationship, properly nursed, allows Canada to pivot to meaningful engagement with Russia in the European theatre (and Ukrainian theatre), in which Canada is far from disinterested.

A Canadian position that professes to support Ukraine or advance Canadian interests in Ukraine through outright, frontal hostility with Russia is, on this logic, an exercise in strategic idiocy: it helps neither Ukraine (which cannot thrive without Russian re-engagement) nor core Canadian interests in the Arctic (and Europe, for that matter). Moreover, taken to its logical conclusion, this position could portend one of war with Russia – again, contrary to any Canadian interests in Ukraine, the Arctic and Europe – or indeed some manifestation of Russian destabilization, if not collapse. With 14 land borders and at least three maritime borders, including with Canada, the internal collapse of the world’s biggest country would result in colossal global destabilization – not unlike the 1917 October Revolution and the subsequent five-year civil war, from which parts of the world are arguably still recovering a century later.

What, then, are Canada’s objectives in the Russian relationship this century? There are at least three of them. First, Canada must develop deep professional and society-to-society discourse with Russia and Russians across the entire complex of Arctic and Northern policy issues, including economic questions, energy, mining, oceans, fisheries, Arctic wildlife, climate change, transportation and shipping, science, indigenous peoples, infrastructure, culture, sport and, to be sure, military and even intelligence matters. Second, Canada must, through its deepened relations and more sophisticated engagement, push, press and persuade Moscow to constantly privilege a non-military logic in its Arctic behaviour over the course of the century. Third, Canada must deploy maximum diplomatic ingenuity in order to engineer ‘interstitial’ connections – more precisely, international legal and institutional regimes – between Russia and the EU (the ‘R’ and ‘E’ vectors), as well as between Russia and North America (the ‘R’ and ‘A’ vectors). I return to these interstitial constructions later in the article, for they are central to global peace and stability in our time.

‘E’ is for Europe

Canada’s overriding objective in its European relationship is to keep the EU and its possible successor forms together for as long as possible over the course of this century. This means that Canada’s purpose is to continue to support the legitimacy, vitality and adaptability of the EU as arguably the world’s most important international regime for peace, and one that serves the security and economic interests of Canada in a stable and reasonably predicable international order. More granularly, Canada’s interest in a united European order is rooted in the EU’s primary and genetic imperative of locking Germany into a long-term peaceable logic – a logic that forecloses the two-front security dilemma that was at the core of the two world wars in the last century: Russia to Germany’s east, and France to Germany’s west.

If the EU remains the world’s most important peace project, its ability to adapt to the needs and pressures of this century – of external or internal provenance – will have to be supported by constant innovation within the union and its constituent countries, as well as by deep pools of theoretical and practical advice from friendly countries on other continents. For Canada, in theatres like post-Brexit Britain and Spain in the wake of the Catalan crisis, the major opportunity, in addition to the massive potential economic rents to be earned in what remains the world’s largest single market, is to become a very activist player in helping states with contested central authorities develop flexible federal frameworks – all in the general interest of preserving the viability and effectiveness of the EU as an international legal regime of peace.

If federalism – or degrees of federalism and decentralization – will in the coming decades be de rigueur for many unitary states in the EU (including, beyond the UK and Spain, Italy, France, Poland, and perhaps a post-Brexit Ireland), it is equally true that many of the EU’s unitary-state neighbours will be struggling with the very same structural-constitutional dilemma. As such, most of the countries of the former Soviet space, starting with Ukraine and Russia right at the borders of the European space, are already searching far and wide for better approaches to relations between capital and region or province, up to and including different forms of federalism. But as federalism as a felt concept is largely foreign to the post-Soviet experience, there is a major opportunity for Canada, levering deep bilateral immersion and understanding, to insert itself as the go-to authority and source of practical expertise that will allow these countries to parry their massive administrative and political pressures in order to survive and succeed. (In the medium term, Turkey is another large country that could profit from such Canadian federal engineering.) And, of course, in helping the EU’s key border countries to adapt for survival, Canada will be advancing its dominant interest in European stability.

Other Vectors and Interstitial Regimes

If Canada is interested in both America and China, then it must clearly also be interested in the relationship between these two countries. What are its central interests vis-à-vis the AC relationship? Answer: the absence of war, strategic predictability, and the maximization of openings to advance any number of other Canadian interests. Without exaggerating Canadian import, Canada can best advance these interests by deep immersion in the bilateral relationships proper, including through superior intelligence and analytics on these relationships.

Beyond this immersion, however, a key, new-century respect in which Canada can be pivotal in influencing and even shaping the AC relationship, as with other cross-relationships among the ACRE vectors, is by leading the invention of perhaps the most important missing element in the present-day international legal and strategic architecture – to wit, what we might call ‘interstitial regimes’ between existing international regimes.

In the AC relationship, there is no tendon-like legal or strategic mechanism or complex of mechanisms binding the emerging post-NAFTA economic regime in North America with whatever eventually emerges as the comparable legal regime in the Chinese and East Asian space. Contradictions between these regimes or, most brutally, competition among border countries for inclusion in one or both of these regimes may over time drive a logic of preparation for war.

Indeed, this is arguably what happened in the violent estrangement between the EU and Russia over Ukraine in 2014. Frontal, zero-sum competition between the regulatory and normative gravities of the EU, on the one hand, and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, on the other, over a weakly constituted and poorly governed space – Ukraine – led to this space being torn apart, resulting in grave destabilization of the EU and Russia alike. What should have happened to avoid this? How can such collisions and contradictory pulls be prevented in future? Answer: there must be interstitial tendons – or ideally, a proper interstitial regime – binding the EU with the Eurasian Economic Union, across Ukraine, in order to manage the inevitable contradictions (some competitive and many accidental) between these two gravities; all in the interest of peace and stability.

Similar interstitial regimes can be constructed between the Eurasian Economic Union and the new post-NAFTA architecture for North America – across the Arctic space, which if left untouched by such tendon-like mechanisms could also, not unlike Ukraine, become a theatre contested by war between large blocs (regimes) pulling in opposite directions. If Canada can summon the appropriate strategic imagination to see for itself an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to lead the development of such new interstitial regimes between international blocs, then the country already enjoys world-leading juridical capabilities and talent to support such ambitions. Now, to move with velocity…

The Domestic Game

What kind of domestic capabilities would allow Canada to negotiate its four-point game successfully, and indeed to even play a major role in managing some of the bilateral or multilateral relations among many of the great powers at its borders this century? First, the material; and then the mental.

The multiple interventions in GB in favour of a Canada of 100 million by the year 2100 are very much part of the four-point game framework commended in this piece. Canada will need a much larger population over time to populate the borders touching its ACRE relationships – especially the northern border, but also its western (China-facing) border. No country can meaningfully defend and manage a major (active) international border without a significant population living close to that border. And yet Canada has barely over 100,000 people living across its three northern territories. Of these 100,000 people, most are, in their mental map, still southward-looking – with Yukoners, for instance, tending to think more about Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa than what lies due north: the Beaufort Sea and then the Russian Federation; or indeed what lies westward, beyond Alaska – to wit, China.

If it will take time for Canada to responsibly reach 100 million people across its massive territory, it will also take time for the national strategic mentality to evolve and migrate. (Remember that the 100 million construct, beyond its obvious demographic aspects, is also a framework for more capacious, longer-term thinking for Canada.) A larger population will, barring domestic convulsions, increase the national economic, cultural, intelligence, scientific, military and diplomatic assets available to Canada’s strategic leaders to be able to increasingly shape and even dictate the terms of certain international transactions. With this increased capacity will come increased national confidence – a term-setting mentality, as it were, emerging over the course of the century.

However, until such time as Canada has both the material capacity and appropriate (or commensurate) mentality to play a supremely sophisticated four-point game, the better counsel is for humility in its positioning, avoiding existential plays that would expose it unnecessarily, and without appropriate defences, before the several great powers at its borders. Humility requires a period of Canadian learning and building – a national languages strategy across the entire population (as discussed in GB, French-English bilingualism plus one other tongue, international or indigenous); embassies in all of the world’s capitals, friendly and unfriendly alike; and a campaign among the country’s leaders and future leaders, across the sectors, to break bread and get to know, in person, their opposite numbers in the decision-making centres of the ACRE world. And then beyond.


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



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