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Canadian Foreign Policy in the Post-COVID World

GB Geo-Blog

Canadian Foreign Policy in the Post-COVID World

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For the past several years – if not decades – the international order has been situated in a period of transition. As such, the specific impact of the novel coronavirus on global politics remains largely to be determined. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify some early implications for Canadian foreign policy and international strategy.

The most salient development in great power relations thus far has been a clear decision made by the United States and China to privilege their own narrow interests and the dynamics of their rivalry over any agenda rooted in joint global leadership. Growing tensions in US-China relations had already begun to exert significant pressure on Canadian trade and diplomacy prior to the outbreak of the virus, curtailing Ottawa’s ability to advance its independent interests on the world stage.

The COVID-19 outbreak is not the cause of rising Sino-American hostility as much as an illustration of how both parties are likely to approach their bilateral relationship over the coming decade. Crises are now used as opportunities to advance zero-sum goals rather than solve common problems. And while it is possible that a prolonged pandemic will eventually generate momentum in favour of stronger international cooperation, the sheer speed with which US strategy toward China has changed in recent years should serve as a cautionary tale. Washington’s aim is no longer to transform China into a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs and there now exists a relatively solid bipartisan consensus in favour of treating Beijing as a rival power.

Canada has a strong interest in an international order that enables it to cultivate an independent foreign policy and a diverse range of trading partners. Such an order must feature great powers that act as stabilizing pillars rather than rival poles.

Canada has a strong interest in an international order that enables it to cultivate an independent foreign policy and a diverse range of trading partners. Such an order must feature great powers that act as stabilizing pillars rather than rival poles. Seeing as the US and China have opted to embody the latter for the foreseeable future, the vision of some sort of “Greater Europe” from Lisbon to Vladivostok should gain renewed attention. This concept – referred to by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as the “Common European Home” – was developed at the end of the Cold War, with the aim of providing the international order with a pan-European pillar on which to rest. However, in subsequent decades it fell victim to rival interpretations of the principles that the European security order should embody, culminating in the 2013-14 Ukraine crisis.

With an intimate EU-Russia relationship rooted in a common economic and political framework no longer possible, a new paradigm and shared agenda to govern their relationship must be found. As of yet, neither party is strong enough to contribute decisively to international governance on its own – the EU continues to outsource its security to the US, while Russia now relies on spoiler tactics and its strategic partnership with China as a means of gaining the upper hand in its asymmetrical conflict with the West. A more predictable and less overtly hostile relationship between Brussels and Moscow could enhance development and security in their wider shared neighbourhood, which encompasses the strategically significant regions of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and West Asia.

Developments relating to North America and the Arctic, about which GB Editor-in-Chief Irvin Studin has written extensively, inform Canada’s “internal” strategic geography. The issues laid out above, however, shape the contours of Canada’s “external” strategic geography. Looking east, the two players with the greatest impact on Canadian security and strategy are the EU and Russia. Calls to strengthen the transatlantic alliance and rules-based international order, while important, will not alter the status quo in Russia-West relations that led to the emergence of conflict in the first place. A stronger EU and more expansive EU-Russia cooperation – both of which Ottawa should encourage – would not only act as a buffer insulating Canada from conflicts on NATO’s eastern and south-eastern frontiers, but also help to constrain the geographic spread of the Sino-American rivalry as Beijing’s presence across Eurasia continues to grow.

By contrast, the Asia-Pacific theatre to Canada’s west contains no veritable equivalent to the EU, despite the increasingly central role played by ASEAN on issues of regional trade and security. As such, until a sustained equilibrium is reached between Asia’s leading players, any outside attempt at employing the states of the Indo-Pacific Rim as a buffer against China is only likely to exacerbate the dynamics of the Sino-American rivalry. Ottawa’s Asia-Pacific strategy must therefore be two-pronged, carefully navigating the relationship between Washington and Beijing while simultaneously deepening ties with other Asian players.

With time, a Canada that deepens and solidifies its presence in the Asian economic and security system will gradually enhance its ability to manage the pressures placed on it by the Sino-American rivalry in concert with other regional actors.

The downturn in US-China relations occurs at a fragile moment in the relative power balance between both countries. Beijing has not yet completed its rise, having garnered the ability to check Washington’s influence in East Asia but not to challenge American power more broadly. The US, for its part, has yet fully to adjust its foreign policy strategy in line with its gradual relative decline. Already placing Canada in a difficult position, these dynamics are exacerbated by Ottawa’s lack of sufficient engagement in Asia-Pacific affairs. Ottawa was late to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and only recently expressed its interest in joining the East Asia Summit of which the US, Russia and Australia are already members. With time, a Canada that deepens and solidifies its presence in the Asian economic and security system will gradually enhance its ability to manage the pressures placed on it by the Sino-American rivalry in concert with other regional actors.

The COVID-19 crisis has engendered a significant degree of uncertainty over the future of global order. Sovereign states remain the leading actors despite the persistence of forces favouring international cooperation and integration. Such uncertainty suggests that it would be prudent for Canada to adopt a strategy aimed at increasing the foundations of its national power – including the size of its population – in the years following the pandemic. The case for such a strategy is buttressed by the fact that, as noted earlier, current developments represent more of a manifestation than a transformation of existing trends in great power relations. If Canada wishes to strengthen its capacity to weather the challenges of the post-COVID world, it must not repeat the mistakes of a century ago, when the tragic losses of the First World War dampened the outward-looking enthusiasm and high population growth that had characterized the Canadian project in its early post-Confederation decades.

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