By the year 2100, Canada could be among the world’s five most important countries. Canadians in the year 2013 may find this suggestion incredible, if not absurd. After all, apart from the odd rhetorical flourish, Canada is fast retreating from an ever-more complex world. It is at present neither taking the country’s strategic potential and future challenges seriously, nor being taken seriously by the world’s leading powers.
This year, work by the prime minister of Malaysia to broker a major peace agreement between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has made him a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. This peace agreement – which may be finalized in the next week or two – is a major achievement that ends a long-standing conflict that affect tens of thousands of lives across Southeast Asia. Of course, Canada is no Malaysia: Canada is richer, larger in population and resources, more sophisticated, and enjoys a superior global reputation. Anything Malaysia can do, Canada should be able to do tenfold better. And yet despite the scores of important conflicts in the world, from Congo to Nagorno-Karabakh, Canada is not leading a single peace negotiation. It not only appears completed uninterested in the world’s problems, but also appears oblivious to the need to invest in the instruments of power, deep relationships, deep analytics, or developing the talent required to get things done internationally.
The irony is that, in the decades to come, Canada will have an unprecedented opportunity to make a real difference in the world. The country has everything necessary to transform itself into one of the world’s leading states. But to get there, we must get some important things right. Above all, Canada needs to recover the same building spirit that created the country almost 150 years ago.
Sir John A. Macdonald and his colleagues were pragmatists who had the imagination to engineer a transcontinental political union – despite ideological divisions and harsh geopolitical conditions. They understood that, because Canada had one-tenth the population of the United States and a similarly small economy, the country to be continuously built and rebuilt – politically, institutionally, psychologically – in order to survive and eventually thrive.
Canada has benefited from a century and a half of geopolitical good luck and prudent domestic administration, allowing the country to grow and avoid warfare on its home soil. The absence of serious threats on our borders – by contrast with the hostile border realities of, say, India, Israel or Singapore – has allowed Canadian leaders to plan for the future in relative strategic leisure. (In principle, a Canadian prime minister can declare a war and then comfortably proceed to a local Tim Horton’s to consume a coffee, confident in the knowledge that a far-off foe will not return fire.) To be sure, we made significant contributions in the First and Second World Wars, and also in the Cold War, but, by contrast with France in 1914 or Britain in 1940, Canada has not faced an immediate threat from an enemy bent on conquering us since the Treaty of Washington was signed with the Americans in 1871.
The same good fortune that allowed us to prosper has gradually sapped the building spirit that was second nature to the fathers of Confederation. We happily outsource our strategic imagination to more energetic countries that will, in turn, happily build our sports leagues, provide our entertainment, fill our bookshelves, and invade our political rhetoric. (Why do Canadian leaders, federal and provincial alike, consistently prefer to quote from John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill in lieu of the heroic pioneers of this country?) Many Canadian politicians today seem unable to transcend short-term political squabbles in order to address the country’s long-term challenges. They refrain from making ambitious proposals or demanding much at all from Canadian citizens. No surprise, then, that in the time it has taken China to build some of the world’s highest-speed rail lines down its entire eastern seaboard, Toronto has barely been able to expand its ageing subway system by a few stops.
Yet there’s a real risk that our geopolitical luck will run out in the century ahead. The circumstances that have shaped our long-standing assumptions about Canada and the world will change beyond recognition. The melting of the Arctic, China’s development of missile and cyberwar capabilities (which could see North American cities credibly targeted in future wars), and the relative decline of American power will challenge the status quo in North America. Other international players will compete aggressively for influence and resources in North America, beginning with the Arctic. The increased pressure on Canada will present both challenges and opportunities. Failure to prepare for these challenges may cripple Canada – in strategic terms – and force us to live on the terms of other more energetic states. Their interests, rather than our own preferences, will shape Canadian policy.