Great Power Rivalry and Canada’s Global Strategy
In a recent op-ed, the University of Ottawa’s Roland Paris noted that the conditions that have facilitated Canadian security and prosperity for decades are decaying. These include “few direct threats to our security, privileged access to the world’s largest and richest market, and international rules and institutions that sustained a relatively open and stable world order”, all of which are fraying in part due to the return of great power rivalry.
Canada’s longstanding reliance on access to the US market and a stable international order suggests that it has been content to operate on terms set by other countries. This is no longer a sustainable strategy. The current spat in Canada-China relations has Ottawa caught between the competing interests of two great powers. The resulting fallout has damaged Canada’s ability to diversify its trading and diplomatic partnerships, thus limiting the country’s independence and sovereignty in international affairs. Maintaining a largely reactive global posture will directly – and negatively – impact the Canadian government’s ability to secure core national interests.
Canada’s longstanding reliance on access to the US market and a stable international order suggests that it has been content to operate on terms set by other countries. This is no longer a sustainable strategy.
In an unpredictable and evolving global context, a new Canadian global strategy should return to first principles, taking the changing balance of power as well as the realities of geography into account. What follows are three principles on which such a strategy could be based. The aim is not to provide an exhaustive list of policy recommendations, but rather to initiate a discussion on what sort of international order would best serve Canadian interests and, therefore, what the broad contours of the country’s international posture and strategic mentality should be. These could eventually lay the foundations for an indigenous Canadian theory of global politics as the basis for enhancing Canada’s international term-setting ability.
If the initial post-Cold War decades featuring Western dominance were ones in which Ottawa largely outsourced its decision-making to Washington, then to a certain extent the gradual emergence of a more multipolar world represents an opportunity for Canada rather than a threat. A drift toward a bipolar confrontation between the United States and China would damage the rules-based character of the international system and exert significant limitations on Canada’s international freedom of action. As such, working to constrain the trend toward bipolarity in partnership with the European Union, Russia, India and others represents the best means of generating an international environment favourable to independent Canadian term-setting.
Such a task would not involve the construction of a broad alliance – an impossible task considering Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing and the current state of EU-Russia relations. Nor would it be aimed at containing China: Beijing’s order-building initiatives and contributions to global governance should generally be welcomed and its ability to exert hegemony over Eurasia is already severely constrained by the supercontinent’s natural trend toward polycentrism. Rather, it would entail deepening cooperation with leading actors in Europe and Asia to promote international integration, connectivity and institution-building, with the goal of limiting the impact of the Sino-American rivalry on global politics.
While the pursuit of a polycentric Eurasia reflects Canadian interests in the context of the current balance of power, Canada also possesses immutable interests that flow from the realities of its geography, including its geographic isolation from the Eurasian landmass. American naval supremacy may continue to act as a buffer against traditional threats for now, but as global power shifts eastward into a different geopolitical and cultural context, Washington’s approach to alliance- and order-building in the Asia-Pacific theatre is likely to differ from the institutions- and rules-heavy focus that characterized its engagement with Europe during the Cold War. Once again, it becomes clear that the status quo in Canada’s foreign policy is insufficient.
As I wrote in my previous Geo-Blog, a smart Canadian geo-strategy is one in which Ottawa uses its relationship with Washington to maximize its leverage toward Eurasia, and vice versa. If the outcome of multi-partner hedging is effectively to delineate China’s role in Eurasia, then dual balancing aims to circumscribe American hegemony in the theatres that abut Canada’s borders by enhancing Ottawa’s international clout. This strategy bears a certain conceptual resemblance to the European system of the 19th century, which featured a continental balance of power in which France was an integral player in addition to an overall equilibrium designed to constrain French power managed by Britain.
Canada must learn to enhance the strategic dimension of its relationship with China while also strengthening its engagement with other actors in the Eastern Hemisphere. Russia currently employs a similar strategy, using its partnership with Beijing as a power multiplier at the global level, even as it hedges against over-reliance on China by deepening ties with a diverse set of regional players […]
Taken together, Canada must learn to enhance the strategic dimension of its relationship with China while also strengthening its engagement with other actors in the Eastern Hemisphere. Russia currently employs a similar strategy, using its partnership with Beijing as a power multiplier at the global level, even as it hedges against over-reliance on China by deepening ties with a diverse set of regional players including Japan, India and ASEAN. For Ottawa, this could involve efforts to harmonize fledgling trade blocs such as the Chinese-backed RCEP and Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union with the recently implemented CPTPP deal of which Canada is a leading member. Ottawa could also initiate institution- and confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific region, to complement and simultaneously balance against Washington’s more containment-focused posture.
GB Editor-in-Chief Irvin Studin has written about the need for Canada to become more “strategically promiscuous” – in short, to diversify its international partnerships. It could also profit from adopting a posture that is more strategically ambiguous, accruing benefits both from its membership in NATO and from deep engagement with other powers, slowly positioning itself as a bridge between them. This would be similar to the current strategy of Belarus, which maintains a military alliance and a customs union with Russia but uses these as a base from which to establish gradually improved relations with the United States, the European Union and China.
Strategic ambiguity should not be confused with an anti-American posture, which would only reinforce Washington’s position as Canada’s primary psychological reference point. Canada would remain firmly entrenched within the Western bloc, but not to the point where it has effectively outsourced its international decision-making to other capitals. Just as India’s foreign policy culture has often been accused of being overly committed to non-alignment, Canada in the post-Cold War context has adopted an Atlanticist outlook almost to a fault.
Such positioning would mirror the similarly ambiguous layout of contemporary global politics, which feature a Sino-Russian rapprochement on questions of how to structure the international order even as Moscow attempts to maintain its status as an independent great power. It is in Canada’s interest to preserve this ambiguity, as a return to the status quo ante in Russia-West relations is no longer possible, while the emergence of a full-fledged alliance between Moscow and Beijing would constrain Canada’s foreign policy options by dividing the world into rigid blocs.
The strategy outlined here conceives of Canada as lying at the centre of three concentric circles: in descending order of importance, the United States represents the innermost circle, followed by China, and finally other key players across Eurasia. This conception therefore militates against a largely Western-centric foreign policy, even as it acknowledges Washington’s continued role as Ottawa’s most essential international partner. To lay the groundwork for a more independent national foreign policy culture and strengthen the long-term foundations of Canadian security and prosperity in an uncertain world, Ottawa must calibrate a careful equilibrium between all three of these circles, with any two of them balancing against the third exceeding the bounds of its relative importance to Canadian interests.