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A Canadian flag flies from a snowmobile as military personnel gather during a sovereignty patrol in Eureka, Nunavut, on Mar. 31, 2007. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
A Canadian flag flies from a snowmobile as military personnel gather during a sovereignty patrol in Eureka, Nunavut, on Mar. 31, 2007. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Canada's grand strategy Add to ...

Why do nations behave as they do? This question is the pivot of foreign policy.

International affairs has two major analytical viewpoints. The first is Idealism, which typically involves a value-based analysis of the world. There are good guys and bad guys and we support the good guys. The work of Woodrow Wilson to establish a moral approach to foreign policy following the First World War is an example of the type, and so is the neo-conservative approach of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" approach to the Soviets.

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The second is Realism, a viewpoint that specifically subtracts moral viewpoints from foreign policy. Instead, Realism elevates national interest and security above ideology, moral concern or social engineering. This school goes back to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, and includes the balance of power of Bismarck, the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, and - arguably - the current policies of Barack Obama.

In his book, The Next 100 Years, realist thinker George Friedman lays out what he calls the "Grand Strategy" of the United States. This is the overriding series of goals that must be achieved to maintain American power, domestic peace and high standards of living. It is a strong example of Realist thinking that coldly calculates the factors necessary in national security, rather than what would be nice.

The list can summarized as:

1. U.S. Army controls the continental United States.

2. Naval control of the approaches to the continental United States.

3. No rivals in the Western Hemisphere.

4. Control of ocean trade routes in the rest of the world.

5. Preventing the rise of a rival hegemonic power, particularly in Eurasia.

The first step is an absolute necessity to U.S. security: control of the heartland itself. Each step builds off of the first other in sequence. So military control of the continental United States allows control of the naval approaches to prevent a foreign invasion. Control of the approaches to the United States allows the containing and destabilizing of hemispheric rivals. And so on.

Friedman describes the U.S. grand stategy a bit on his website:

"The United States operates with a grand strategy derived from the British strategy in Europe - maintaining the balance of power. For the United Kingdom, maintaining the balance of power in Europe protected any one power from emerging that could unite Europe and build a fleet to invade the United Kingdom or block its access to its empire. British strategy was to help create coalitions to block emerging hegemons such as Spain, France or Germany. Using overt and covert means, the United Kingdom aimed to ensure that no hegemonic power could emerge.

The Americans inherited that grand strategy from the British but elevated it to a global rather than regional level. Having blocked the Soviet Union from hegemony over Europe and Asia, the United States proceeded with a strategy whose goal, like that of the United Kingdom, was to nip potential regional hegemons in the bud. The U.S. war with Iraq in 1990-91 and the war with Serbia/Yugoslavia in 1999 were examples of this strategy. It involved coalition warfare, shifting America's weight from side to side and using minimal force to disrupt the plans of regional aspirants to gain power. This U.S. strategy also was cloaked in the ideology of global liberalism and human rights.

The key to this strategy was its global nature. The emergence of a hegemonic contender that could challenge the United States globally, as the Soviet Union had done, was the worst-case scenario. Therefore, the containment of emerging powers wherever they might emerge was the centerpiece of American balance of power strategy."

Friedman states that all countries have a grand strategy, verbalized or unacknowledged, achieved or impossible. Many actors in the state, even at a high level, can ignore or remain unaware of this analytical framework, but it is there nonetheless, guiding decisions that may otherwise be perplexing to understand.

As the same time, achievement of even the first step of a grand strategy is not a given. Belarus has a multi-step grand strategy that likely begins with maintaining integrity of their borders and independence from rival powers. But the political and economic dominance of that country by Russia compromises even the first step.

There are debatable points in Friedman's model. For instance, neither Serbia nor Iraq appeared to be capable of constructing a navy capable of rivaling the United States in the medium-term, but China or India do. Why would the U.S. expend time and resources on minor regional players at the expense of major potential rivals? (Friedman does lay out answers to these points in his book, which I recommend for anyone interested in geo-strategy, or the impact of physical geographic factors on international relations.)

Friedman's model raises the question of Canada's grand strategy. What is it? And how successful are we are implementing that strategy? I would argue it goes something like this:

1. Independence from the Americans

2. Political unity of Canada

3. De facto as well as de jure control of our territory

4. Strong international institutions to counterbalance U.S. hegemony

5. Open borders with the United States

Allow me to explain.

1. Independence from the Americans

The history of Canada is a story of resisting joining the Americans, either culturally or politically. From the War of 1812 to the decision not to join in the Iraq war, our relationship with the Americans has been central to our national strategy.

The 19th century saw the introduction of the National Policy, a closed border tariff regime designed to foster East-West trade and ensure our independence from the Americans. Only after the nation had solidified over a hundred years and moved through all of the other elements of our strategy, did we finally feel ready to move to the open borders policy that we currently use.

While we want to profit and learn from our relationship with the U.S., there are relatively few Canadians who actually want to join the Union. In fact, maintenance of cultural and political independence from the United States is a topic where there is broad agreement in the result people want, and a thousand opinions about the methods.

Everything from Canadian content rules in radio broadcast to the ownership structure of critical industries is about maintaining a separate cultural identity. The impact has been to create a hybrid between the global export U.S. culture of People Magazine and Glee, with a localized and satirical Canadian sensibility that plays off of and enhances our own identity.

The methods by which we maintain that separate identity - and even what that identity is - remain in debate, but the necessity of remaining independent culturally and politically is rarely questioned.

2. Political unity of Canada

The second challenge for our country is unity.

Immediately after Confederation, Canada faced a separatist threat from Nova Scotia. The Red River Rebellion and North-West Rebellion were attempts to break free from central control. More recently, we have faced the existential question of Quebec dissolving Confederation in 1980 and 1995, as well as less acute but menacing threats to unity from western separatism, particularly in the 1980s.

While some like to shrug off the impact of Quebec independence on Canada, it is painfully obvious that it would shrink the country, isolate our Atlantic provinces, and leave Canada with diminished prospects and scope at best. From currency devaluation to opportunity costs, the financial impact would be severe. As East-West trade became more difficult, our dependence on North-South trade (and the United States) would soar. Quite possibly, succession would lead to further fragmentation, economic instability, reduced standards of living, or even war.

Maintaining our sovereign nation with dominion over the Northern half of North America is the overriding agenda for Canada. More than any other potential threat, the exit of a major element of the nation would compromise the country and its citizens.

3. Defacto as well as de jure control of our territory

On paper, Canada is the second largest country on earth. But our actual control of this territory is undermined by the extremely sparse population north of Edmonton. The second major challenge for Canada is maintaining sovereignty over this vast territory. Control of all of our territory less critical than keeping all ten provinces in the fold, but it is key.

The Arctic is the most visible stage for this challenge, but control of our oceans is also important. The passage of the Polar Sea, an American ship, through our territorial waters in 1985 was a major threat to continued Canadian ownership of the land and resources there. The Hans Island dispute earlier this decade was about control of our territory. There are major border disputes between Canada and the United States in the Beaufort Sea.

Further south, the Turbot War was a political battle for control of off-shore fisheries, particularly critical at a time of chronic over-demand on the resource.

Maintaining our borders protects our access to key resources - oil, gas, fish - as well as well as reinforcing our control over the environmental stewardship of these resources. While some of the territories in question are not core to the Canadian polity, the legal and political arguments made to maintain them are the same ones that allow Canadian stewardship of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver, and the Bay of Fundy.

4. Strong international institutions to counterbalance U.S. hegemony

Living next to an elephant, as Canadians do, we natural move to support strong international institutions that can act to constrain the United States. Canada is often described as a "middle power." This has been defined as meaning "All middle powers display foreign policy behaviour that stabilizes and legitimizes the global order, typically through multilateral and co-operative initiatives."

Basically, there are "great powers" in the world, like the United States, China and - arguably - countries like Russia or India. There are regional powers, who begin to dominate a sector of the globe, like Brazil or South Africa. There are minor states who tend to get pushed around by the other two categories. Then there are "middle powers." These tend to be stable, democratic, stable, egalitarian, and distinct from the great and small powers.

Canada is a textbook "middle power" and as such, follows the textbook on being a middle power. We attempt to strengthen international institutions where "middle powers" can use our soft power influence and reason to preserve international order through gradual reform, rather than radical global change.

Pearsonian diplomacy, Peacekeeping, the United Nations and all the other Canadian touchstones in foreign policy are all about strengthening international order through institutions.

5. Open borders with the United States

Free trade with the Americans is a policy Canada long rejected and only recently endorsed. The reason for that acceptance was the successful implementation of the other four steps of our strategy. With independence from the Americans secure, the nation relatively unified, our territory secure (at least at the core) and strong international institutions like the WTO established, free trade is a far more reasonable policy than it would have been in the 19th century.

Open borders ensure access to the market where the vast majority of our exports go. Our domestic markets are simply too small and too geographically dispirit to allow for a high tariff policy unless we are willing to compromise our standard of living. The alternative to U.S. markets is far more expensive shipping of goods to Europe or Asia, or the marketing of services to nations with different time zones and languages.

As free trade becomes more ingrained, even minor shifts in border policy can have large impacts. The recent move to require American citizens to provide a passport when reentering the country from Canada had a severe impact on services in border communities on the Canadian side.

A border closure would wreck havoc on the Canadian economy. Autarky is not a good idea in a country of our size and density, and attempts to reduce our opportunities to trade with the U.S. will translate directly and quickly to our standards of living.

However, free trade is a policy we can afford only so long as the other elements in our strategy are stable. If the alternative is the loss of independence or loss of territory, we could see free trade sharply decline.

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These elements of the Canadian grand strategy can be seen in government actions throughout our history.

Canada was formed to fend off a growing threat of invasion from the United States. The decision was made to join together to ensure our political independence, the first step of our strategy.

John A. Macdonald's first term saw the use of force to end the Red River Rebellion - addressing the second element of policy unity - and the purchase of Rupert's Land - the expansion and consolidation of our territory.

Patriotic membership in the British Empire served to strengthen our first four strategic goals, until after the First World War, when the declining Empire and rising Canadian Nationalism demanded a new course.

Canada's leadership in the post-war international community was all about the fourth element: creating the United Nations, NATO, WTO and G20 to produce counterbalances to growing American power.

What is so interesting about our history is our achievement of the fifth stage in our strategy, and the ability to now engage the Americans as equals in trade without fear of cultural or political colonization.

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Certainly, this is only a quick sketch of what Canada's grand strategy may be, and I invite thoughts on alternatives.

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