Canada-US Relations and the New Cold War
As the COVID-19 crisis has progressed, US-China relations have begun to acquire a logic of comprehensive, zero-sum confrontation. Even in the event that a lengthy pandemic reaffirms the need for international cooperation, the processes that have now been initiated will be difficult to undo. Mutual suspicion has become rife and talk of a “new Cold War” is now ubiquitous, reinforced by the possibility that the pandemic could strengthen Chinese influence in Eurasia and accelerate the division of the world into new spheres of influence.
As a country that has a vital interest in a robust global trading regime and an international order rooted in a rules-based framework, Canada must forcefully resist any notion that the world is descending into bipolarity. Given the growing importance of Asian countries in the global economy, a Pacific theatre framed by Sino-American rivalry poses a direct threat to Canadian security and prosperity. Such a development would adversely affect Canada’s ability to diversify and deepen its global economic relationships, while also imposing restrictions on the independence of Canadian foreign policy.
Recent years have witnessed the revival of overt great power competition, the primary structural cause of which has been the inability of the United States to preside over an international order flexible enough to accommodate the interests and worldviews of other powers. The speed with which Washington has forged a new bipartisan consensus on China is instructive in this regard. Talk of transforming Beijing into a “responsible stakeholder” in global governance, which dominated American post-Cold War discourse on China, has rapidly been abandoned in favour of treating it as a “rival power”. In other words, one is expected to integrate into an international order rooted in US leadership, Western norms and Western-dominated institutions, or else be considered an existential threat.
For the past three decades, the guiding assumption of US foreign policy has been that any threat to American primacy is a threat to American security. Such a mentality precludes any notion of an equal relationship with other great powers. It also explains why Beijing’s natural desire to contribute to shaping the international order in line with its own interests is met with accusations of it wanting to “dominate the world”, even though it is capable of no such thing.
For the past three decades, the guiding assumption of US foreign policy has been that any threat to American primacy is a threat to American security. Such a mentality precludes any notion of an equal relationship with other great powers.
Prone to encirclement by other regional powers, China will never be in relative terms as dominant in the Asia-Pacific region as the United States was in Latin America during the Cold War. Nor will China ever come close to representing the 50 percent of global GDP that the United States held upon the conclusion of World War II – a degree of global pre-eminence that was nonetheless constrained by the persistence of Soviet power across Eurasia. In short, geography still matters.
For years, the conventional assumption has been that a rising China would eventually clash in the South China Sea with a dominant United States at some point this decade. Instead, it is Washington that has decided to launch an assault against Beijing at the onset of the 2020s, doing so not in the name of the liberal international order but rather to ensure its own continued security and pre-eminence. This American strategy is in diametric opposition to Canadian interests. A Joe Biden presidency may provide a temporary jolt to American alliances and soft power, but it will do nothing to alter Washington’s inflexible global ordering practices that are the core factor behind the emergence of great power conflict.
Canada and the United States have often been described as “best friends”. Despite important differences, voices on both sides of the border have continually emphasized that we are more alike than any other two countries, pointing to our shared welcoming attitude toward immigrants and strong cross-border contacts. This narrative has been challenged by Donald Trump’s continued popularity, hammering home the reality that Canada and the US possess two very different political cultures.
Much as Dmitri Trenin has suggested that Russia and Ukraine would both benefit from a transition from being “brothers” to simply “neighbours”, it is time for Ottawa to begin thinking about what the contours of a more normal relationship with Washington would look like and what that would imply for Canadian foreign policy more generally. While the US will undoubtedly remain Canada’s most important international partner, Ottawa should carefully calibrate a balance between Washington and Beijing until India and Southeast Asia emerge as more viable counterweights to the Asia-Pacific region’s current trend toward bipolarity. This is not a call for strict neutrality or equidistance between the US and China, but rather mere equilibrium.
If successful in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council next month, Canada should be a consistent voice on the Council in support of those countries that do not want to choose between the US and China.
Canada began the post-Cold War era by pursuing deep economic integration with the United States and hitching its wagon to a seemingly triumphant liberal international order. This strategy will need to be revised in light of changes to the global balance of power, the entrenchment of competing visions of international order, and the persistence of American economic and strategic unilateralism at the expense of Canada’s interests and security. If successful in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council next month, Canada should be a consistent voice on the Council in support of those countries that do not want to choose between the US and China.
The contemporary resurgence of rivalry in global affairs is a testament to the failure of the post-Cold War American-led order to embody genuine universalism. With the great powers now locked in conflict – pursuing their own narrow interests rather than acting as custodians of a stable global order – democracies and nondemocracies alike must work together and take up the struggle of universalism themselves.