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Not your grandparents’ world: Canada needs to rethink foreign policy

FOREIGN POLICY

Canada isn't back … yet

After a decade-long disappearing act, Stephen Toope argues, Canada must rethink everything from military commitments to economic development if we are to re-emerge as a power on the world stage

Conservative Party insiders were annoyed when, just days into his new job as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau declared on various international platforms: "Canada is back." Members of the last government responded huffily: "It never left."

But is that true? If Canadians are to contribute to any rebooting of our foreign policy, we had better start with an honest assessment of where we stand in the world.

Over the last couple of decades, Canadians haven't been hiding from the world. Business people, aid workers, diplomats and armed-forces personnel have been around the globe, getting on with their jobs. So, too, have teachers and professors, doctors, scientists and engineers.

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According to the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, more than 2.8 million of us live abroad – mostly in the United States, but in scores of other countries, too. Mark Carney heads the Bank of England; Dominic Barton leads the world's most influential management consultancy. Sheila Watt-Cloutier is globally recognized as a leading voice for the peoples of the Arctic. The Weeknd is a worldwide music sensation. So, if by "Canada" we mean its people, then there is no time when Canadians have been more active outside our borders.

But if by "Canada" we mean the Government of Canada, the picture is a little different. Stephen Harper's Conservative Party believed in small government, disdained international organizations and viewed foreign relations as merely a series of discrete transactions. It failed to build sustained relationships with partners around the world.

According to a recent study for the Canadian International Council, our country is lagging behind our peers in spending on both defence and international-development assistance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's target for spending on defence is 2 per cent of gross domestic product; Canada's spending currently stands at half that, dead last among all G7 countries, but also below obvious comparators such as Australia, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands – countries that share many of our values and cannot be accused of militarism. The strong support for the Canadian Forces that was so prominent in the last prime minister's public utterances was never matched by public spending.

If you look at the same group of peers, Canada also ranks last in international-development assistance. To be fair, the steep decline in our support for overseas development assistance (ODA) started under the Liberals, in the mid-1990s – over the past 20 years, the Conservatives outspent the Liberals, just marginally. That said, in the last year of the Harper government, spending on foreign aid reached an all-time low as a percentage of GDP.

In recent times, the Government of Canada has not promoted any major initiative at the global level, aside from the worthy child and maternal health campaign, where Mr. Harper took a leading role. Even here, however, there was ideological baggage – funding restrictions related to abortion – that made the campaign less than fully inclusive. Canada was largely absent from climate-change discussions. Our contribution to the war in Afghanistan, while major by our own accounts, barely registered internationally. In arms control, where Canada has historically been a major player, we became the only G7 country not to ratify or even sign the Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to impose standards of accountability on conventional arms sales.

As we pursued regional and bilateral trade deals (the major ones not yet ratified), our influence in the World Trade Organization waned. In 2010, Canada was dealt a major blow to prestige when, for the first time ever, we failed, after a concerted political campaign, to win a seat on the UN Security Council.

Over the past decade, the Canadian government has lacked ambition and been largely irrelevant in global affairs. Canada is not the player it once was.

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Pierre Trudeau with the man he succeeded as prime minister in 1968, Lester Pearson.

Pierre Trudeau with the man he succeeded as prime minister in 1968, Lester B. Pearson.

TORONTO PUBLIC LIBRARY

BACK TO THE FUTURE?

If Canada is to be "back" in both ambition and influence, we need to avoid one looming hazard: nostalgia. The most obvious risk lies in lazy comparisons with the era of the current Prime Minister's father. In his first meeting with Justin Trudeau, Chinese President Xi Jinping harkened back to Pierre Trudeau's 1973 visit to China, which helped open the way for its re-integration into global affairs. Mr. Xi suggested that this history was a harbinger of good times ahead.

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But Pierre Trudeau did not confront a China with powerful economic interests across Asia, Africa and Latin America with a newfound military assertiveness in the South China Sea, or with an army of cyber warriors and spies intent on gaining commercial and political advantage. Nor could Trudeau père imagine working with a China that has the capacity and interest to become a major contributor to global institution building and economic development.

The circumstances today are fundamentally different, and the younger Trudeau had best be wary as he settles on a China policy.

Two former Canadian ambassadors to Beijing, Joseph Caron and David Mulroney, have separately implored Canada to pursue a nuanced strategy with China. We need to build enhanced trade and investment links, of course, for China already accounts for 10 per cent of Canada's exports and a third of our commercial services sold abroad. However, we must be quietly "tough" as well, both in protecting our interests and in asserting our values, including democracy and human rights.

But if a wistful longing for the first Trudeau era is a risk, the much greater one is a backward-looking invocation of the diplomacy of Lester B. Pearson. For many Liberal old-timers and, it seems, even for some of the millennials who are advising the new government, the Liberal Party is defined by Pearson's legacy of liberal internationalism. Being "back" means leading in a world of robust multilateral organizations and well-defined Western power.

That was then. Our era is one in which middling powers like Canada are going to have to struggle to find a voice in global affairs. To be effective, our foreign policy will require two key components: focus, and strong relationships.

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A Canadian corporal is surrounded by curious Afghan children as he and Canadian military engineers tour local villages around their base camp in Kabul Afghanistan, on Aug. 18, 2003.

A Canadian corporal is surrounded by curious Afghan children as he and military engineers tour local villages near their base camp in Kabul in 2003.

TOM HANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

NOT YOUR GRANDPARENTS' WORLD

Canada's internationalist moment, from the 1940s to the 1960s, was the result of a constellation of factors that no longer obtain. After the Second World War, our economy was strong and our direct military contributions to the Allied victory were widely acknowledged. We had the resources and political will to invest in a highly professional diplomatic corps, and in the promotion of international development.

Even more important, from the war onward, we were tied at the hip to the unchallenged global leader, the United States of America, a leader that sought to build strong institutions of financial and political governance such as the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization), and the United Nations and all its subsidiary organizations, including the World Health Organization and Unicef.

As revealed by the inability of the UN member states to address the Syrian fiasco, the utter failure of the WHO to foresee the Ebola crisis, and the stalemate over the current round of trade negotiations in the WTO, postwar institutions are stagnating. Revitalization will require enormous effort, and Canada will be only one of many players in that process.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is still the only international superpower, but is fading in relation to other growing powers, especially China. With all its remaining might, the U.S. simply cannot dictate the terms of the global order. We live in a world where many countries are important, with relevant coalitions being defined on an issue-by-issue basis. Canada's connection to the U.S. is still an inestimable asset, but can't be our defining feature.

And let's be honest: Even in North America, Mexico is becoming more and more important to the U.S. Mexico will likely overtake Canada as a trade partner for the Americans within the next 20 years. In the past decade, total U.S. merchandise trade with Canada has grown by 19 per cent, while its trade with Mexico has risen by 68 per cent. It is no surprise that Robert Pastor, a leading scholar on the North American economy, has suggested that for Canada "the best path to Washington is through Mexico City."

When New York Times columnist Roger Cohen suggests that, with the election of the Trudeau Liberals, Ottawa "has turned away from Harper's weird Canadian unilateralism toward a rediscovery of Canada's traditional multilateral, United Nations-focused approach to foreign policy," we better ask some hard questions.

"Traditional" multilateralism may no longer be available when its institutions are under such strong pressure to reform. They need to include the voices of non-Western countries and peoples who are increasingly important on the world stage. The voting structure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with its guaranteed Western control, is unsustainable. The five "permanent members" of the UN Security Council were identified in another era altogether; aside from the U.S. and China, the grouping is simply illogical today. Canada could build its influence were it to champion institutional reform to address these widely recognized problems.

We should work actively to help China find its proper place in global institutions, assuming that China is willing to be a productive and collaborative player – by no means a sure bet, as its refusal to assist politically in the Middle East demonstrates. Canada could also push for permanent membership on the Security Council, without a veto, for India and South Africa (perhaps in alternation with Nigeria).

More and more, crucial decisions are being taken through networks that include sub-state actors like cities and provinces, non-governmental organizations and corporations. The time of centralized state control of global initiatives has past. That is why the climate-change agenda, after the Paris meetings, is being shaped by actions defined within countries, not by imposed (but utterly artificial) global commitments, as it was under the failed Kyoto Protocol. And that is also why so much of international banking regulation is occurring through the Basel Committee on Financial Regulation, a network of independent regulators such as central banks, and not political actors.

If Canada is to come "back" globally, it cannot be through the same processes and mechanisms that Mr. Pearson used. The tools today are different, and Canada's relative position is not as strong. I suspect that this caution would not surprise or discomfit Mr. Pearson himself. As Anthony Anderson, one of his biographers, has argued, "we need to do more than just invoke the name of our greatest diplomat to reframe our place in the world. We need to understand Pearson's subtle, complex and pragmatic approach to foreign affairs."


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa.

Justin Trudeau walks from Parliament Hill to a news conference.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

ASSETS, INTERESTS AND VALUES

As the Bretton Woods financial institutions were being designed after the Second World War, Canada was a major player. Bank of Canada governor Louis Rasminsky served as an effective mediator between the U.K.'s John Maynard Keynes and the U.S.'s Harry Dexter White. A Canadian plan provided for significant changes to the U.S. draft, increasing the size of the IMF, allowing it to borrow from members, and permitting greater flexibility in exchange-rate arrangements. This "honest broker" role proved successful.

The new Canadian government can learn from this historical experience. But it is not enough simply to flatter ourselves. Canada's efforts in Bretton Woods were well supported with good technical advice, consistent over a multi-year span of negotiations, and highly targeted. That is the primary lesson to learn from those days of influence.

Any government will be confronted by unpredictable crises. In a memorable warning, when asked about how government priorities are shaped, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied: "Events, my dear boy, events." Yet, a government that has no ambition or focus is unlikely to be remembered for much, unless the "events" it confronts are spectacular. Hitler made Churchill. War and the Great Depression made Roosevelt. Separatism made Pierre Trudeau. On the other hand, 9/11 probably unmade George W. Bush and in so doing profoundly damaged the world, given the disastrous consequences of failed transformations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the spillover effects in neighbouring states and beyond.

Ambition is important, but so, too, is pragmatism, and an honest assessment of capacity.

Trudeau at Davos: See the highlights of his speech in two minutes

2:27

In his recent door-stopper history of Canada, Rise to Greatness, Conrad Black asserts that Canada is one of the 10 or 12 most important countries in the world. Perhaps, but there are many on the rise. Switzerland has far more global commercial brands than Canada, and a reputation for innovation as well as neutrality. As the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia has influence that is likely to increase. Its economy grew by 4.67 per cent, year over year, in the second quarter of 2015. Although that is not a blistering rate, Indonesia has almost 250 million people, so the implications of its continued economic expansion are important for the whole East Asian region. Meanwhile, Norway continues to use its extraordinary sovereign wealth fund, the world's largest, to influence markets and infrastructure development globally. And Norway's confidence allows it to exercise its diplomacy in Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Latin America in ways that Canada has not been able to do in decades. The examples could continue, without even coming to the obvious major players like China, India and Russia.

If Canada is really only an actor of middling status in our era, this does not mean that it has no leadership role to play. But we need to focus on our assets.

Our close relationship with the United States is an asset that should remain the first priority of Canadian foreign policy. That sounds simple, but is not. In the absence of strong irritants (like terrorists who enter the U.S. from Canada), we will never be top-of-mind for the Americans. That may be just fine on most days, but we do not want to be ignored completely.

We must expend significant diplomatic resources not only in Washington, but in various regions within America. And we have to pay more and more attention to Congress at a time when the U.S. political system is dysfunctional. Things will only become harder if either a nativist or a Tea Party Republican is elected president. And even Hillary Clinton could be a tough partner for a Trudeau government. She is more of a hawk on international security, more of a protectionist on trade, and more willing to tighten borders than the Canadian government would like to see. The U.S. relationship is going to be hard work for Canada over the next few years. But absolutely necessary work.

Our bilingualism is also an asset, allowing us to build strong connections to key states in Africa and Asia. Given the instability in northwest Africa that has already cost Canadian lives, we must use our Francophonie contacts to build partnerships that help to promote the safety of our aid workers, tourists and business people. Commonwealth connections may serve a similar function in Southeast Asia, with Malaysia and Singapore. It has long been popular to dismiss both these organizations as historic relics. But they can be useful and efficient places to strengthen key regional relationships that can protect Canadians and Canadian interests.

The new government has already declared that our pluralism is a primary asset to bring to our global engagements. This is true if we move beyond the lofty and too-often smug assertions that "diversity is our strength."

Although our historical record is by no means pure, by world standards Canada has created a society that is generally inclusive of newcomers. Sadly, we have done far worse as concerns indigenous peoples. Our relative success with social pluralism is an asset only if we avoid preaching and use our diversity constructively.

That means making investments in development assistance that allow us to showcase and share how Canadian pluralism works. It means contributing actively in intergovernmental forums where migration and refugee issues are thrashed out. Above all, it means finding ways to mobilize our diaspora communities to create stronger linkages for Canadian business, culture and educational institutions with countries around the world. That is not the same as cynically pandering to narrow foreign-policy interests of those same communities in the hope of gaining domestic electoral advantage.

Ever since the financial crisis that struck in 2008, Canadian business and political leaders have been crowing about the relative stability of our financial system. The irony is that, for much of the previous decade, some of those self-same leaders were bemoaning the "heavy-handed regulation" that actually kept our banks from entering into some of the businesses and transactions that ultimately led to the financial debacle.

Finance Minister focused on growing economy as dollar slides

1:09

Nonetheless, there is truth to the claim that our very lack of innovation in financial structures and products has given Canada a reputation for probity. In addition, with some limited and unfortunate exceptions in the extractive industries and infrastructure world, Canadian businesses have largely acquitted themselves with integrity in their global dealings. As we negotiate further trade liberalization and push for a higher flow of inward and outward investment, a reputation for financial and commercial integrity is a real asset.

Canada's military tradition, our experience in two world wars in Korea and Afghanistan, and as peacekeepers or peacemakers in conflict zones such as Bosnia, East Timor and Haiti is another major asset. However, there is a crying need to better define our current aspirations. Mr. Pearson would have known that we are neither exclusively warriors nor peacekeepers. We have to set priorities that reflect our need for border security, our desire to be constructive contributors to addressing global threats and our willingness to pay for a military with a clear mandate.

How important is active NATO membership to us, compared with security interests in Asia? Is "inter-operability" with the U.S. armed forces the most important consideration in military procurement? Is Russia a threat in the Arctic? Is national security our top priority? If so, how much emphasis should we place on equipping our military for disaster response? Could we imagine pushing finally to create the United Nations rapid-response force, designed to take action against threats or breaches of the peace, envisioned in Chapter VII of the UN Charter? We require an honest policy review that relies in part on independent advice to answer these fundamental questions.

Despite the common perception, Canada has done a terrible job for many years in using "soft diplomacy" and "public diplomacy" to project Canada's brand and interests.

The French, the British, the Germans, the Spanish, the Scandinavians and the Australians have all used culture, educational exchange, people-to-people ties, online communication campaigns, and tourism promotion to create a strong public awareness of their countries all around the world. We have no Canadian equivalent to the British Council or the Goethe Institute. Canadian embassies and high commissions effectively have no program budgets. The last government cut funding to the Commonwealth Scholarship, and reduced support to Canadian studies programs around the world so much that they are now on drip feed.

We shouldn't resurrect tired models, but a new approach to promoting the creativity of Canadians globally is sorely needed, backed with increased resources. Canadian culture could be connected to that much-vaunted pluralism to create excitement around contemporary Canada. That is a major asset. We should strike while the positive and fresh Trudeau brand is putting Canada back on the global radar screen.

After identifying and focusing upon our assets, we then need to connect those assets to the projection of both interests and values. In a world where more and more Canadians are connected beyond our borders in value-based environmental, religious or human-rights networks, and where devastating events that take place halfway around the world are known immediately, it is no longer plausible to argue that nations have only economic or other material interests. One picture of a little Syrian boy dead on a Turkish beach forced a Canadian response. Our foreign-policy calculations are not only rational, but emotional as well, rooted in shared perceptions of who we are as Canadians and, increasingly, by who we define as allies, partners and friends.


The Rainbow Bridge crosses from the United States into Canada near Niagara Falls. The United States is Canada's largest trading partner.

The Rainbow Bridge crosses from the United States into Canada near Niagara Falls. The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner.

JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

WE NEED RELATIONSHIPS

In a world with no solid hegemonic centre and a growing number of countries with every bit as much to offer as Canada, if we are to get "back" into global affairs, Canada will also have to adopt a more expansive view of who we need to cultivate as friends or partners. The United States, of course, and Britain, France and Germany because of their cultural and economic power. They are strategic, long-term partners.

We should also rebuild ties to some traditionally like-minded friends such as the Nordic countries and Australia. We have allowed those bonds to fray, and have lessened our influence on many issues as a result. Here's one example: In the trade negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Australians managed to protect their intellectual-property regime relating to so-called "biologics." Canada was not so successful. Might a joint Australia-Canada position have better advanced our interests?

But Canada has to look beyond its traditional friends and partners if we are to move forward, helping to shape outcomes in a world of many somewhat-influential countries. These relationships may well be more tactical than strategic, in the sense that they are built up around specific shared objectives or interests, but they are still important.

I happened to be in Beijing the day the Chinese government celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There was a massive parade in the capital, involving more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft. All very impressive, if rather old-style in its goose-stepping militarism. But I was struck by something quite different.

In the reviewing stand, on one side of the Chinese leader, next to his wife, was Park Geun-hye, the President of South Korea. China is the only remaining supporter of the North Korean regime, and fought a war with the South Koreans that has never officially ended. Yet, by 2014, bilateral trade between China and South Korea had reached $290-billion (U.S.). In 2015, the two countries concluded a bilateral free-trade agreement, that promises a real bump in economic activity. One year earlier, and after prolonged negotiation, Canada finally got its own FTA with Korea, but in 2013 our bilateral trade was only worth $10.8-billion – and the Koreans sent almost twice as much to us as we sold to them.

Meanwhile, Korea has become an active player in international development across much of Asia. As an example, the World Bank reports that in 2013 Korea provided $11.7-million (U.S.) in bilateral aid to Myanmar. That aid program is set to increase over the next few years, supporting the country's transition to democracy and helping to develop its staggering economic potential.

By contrast, in 2014 Canada identified Myanmar as a country of focus for ODA. Yet according to the OECD, average Canadian assistance from 2004 to 2012 was only $ 4.3-million (U.S.). And Canada has been slow to increase its ODA, with disbursements still well below those of Korea as of 2015 – we were doing little before and aren't doing much more now. What is more worrying is that, over the past eight years, as I co-chaired an annual Canada-Korea forum, Korean diplomats kept asking for Canada's help to build an aid program almost from scratch. Canada's reputation for delivering aid is good, but our government simply didn't respond to the request for policy assistance. Now we are playing catch-up in Myanmar and elsewhere to Korea, a country that once sought our help.

If Canada wants to build stronger economic ties with one of Asia's largest economies, we have to work at the whole relationship, not just concluding free-trade agreements and ignoring everything else. Relationships are more than transactions, and we need to consciously develop them with partners who are growing in influence.

Canada is going to need a few partners in Africa as well. During the anti-apartheid struggle, thanks to the efforts of both Conservative and Liberal governments, Canada built powerful ties across the continent. They have unravelled. Yes, there are terrible problems with corruption, mismanagement and violence. But it is not an accident that Chinese investment there reached roughly $40-billion (U.S.) by 2012. That investment is concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria. Of course, they are important for their resources, but they are also regional powers that have the potential for global influence on issues that matter to Canada, such as fluctuating energy markets, climate change, combating violent extremism, and reform to the governance of international financial institutions.

Another set of relationships will also be important for Canada in the years ahead – one that may surprise most Canadians. Global affairs are no longer the exclusive purview of countries. There are a number of issues, from financial regulation to energy security to health, where many of the most important players are from non-governmental organizations, corporations and philanthropic foundations. Examples include the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, whose civil-society partners like the Gates Foundation and corporations like Coca-Cola are as important as many countries; or the Energy for All Partnership of the Asia Development Bank, which draws together states, corporations and NGOs to "provide access to safe, clean, affordable modern energy to an additional 100 million people in the region." Canada must develop and strengthen relationships with many of these key networks if it is to be effective in exerting its influence.

In a world that is no longer dominated by one state or even by the West collectively, where the dividing lines on issues can be economic, regional, ideological, religious, and cultural, the day of fixed alliances has passed. Although for the foreseeable future Canada will look first to old friends like the United States, Britain and France, on any given initiative or in response to a particular crisis, we will have to rely more and more on new partners to advance our interests and values. Investing in relationships and working hard to build temporary groupings of interested and capable countries and other global actors is the new way to do foreign affairs.


Stephen J. Toope is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. This is the first instalment of a two-part essay examining Canada's foreign relations.


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