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Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks as Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds looks on during a press conference, revealing a state-based cyber attack targeting Australian government and business, at Parliament House in Canberra, June 19, 2020.

STRINGER/Reuters

Jenni Byrne is the former deputy chief of staff and national campaign manager for prime minister Stephen Harper and current CEO of Jenni Byrne + Associates.

It is not often that foreign policy becomes a point of discussion across Canada. But a convergence of recent events – China’s bogus espionage charges for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and Canada’s failed bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council – have given lie to the notion that soft diplomacy is an effective approach for us.

Those events have opened a space for a long overdue conversation about how Canada can best exert its influence around the world – and why we’re so mired in the myths of our past, rather than the challenges of the future.

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There has been a persistent fairy tale about Canada’s place in the world that dates back to the end of the Second World War, when we boasted the third-largest navy and fourth-largest Allied air force. We were a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, and spent blood and treasure during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Canada was punching above its weight.

But in the six decades since, that cherished legacy has become more a matter of perception than fact. We’re not contributing through the United Nations – we rank 77th on that front – or vaunted peacekeeping missions. So, where do we go from here?

There are examples to draw upon. Australia, for instance, has begun to carve out a robust niche for itself as a middle power by speaking truth to China. It was the first country to ask for an inquiry into how the novel coronavirus started and spread around the world. The Australian government is also devoting money to its national defense, outspending Canada by close to $20-billion.

Australia has not shied away from reporting recent “state-based” cyberattacks, either. While it did not explicitly publicly accuse any country for a vast, sophisticated hacking effort last week, government agencies and a state-funded think tank believe China – which Canberra had held responsible for a 2019 attack on its national parliament and political parties – was behind it.

This comes on the heels of Australia’s 2018 decision to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from working on the construction of its new 5G network, a decision Canada should have made a long time ago to prevent China from having a potential backdoor to our telecommunications. All of this is part of an emerging “tech war” between Australia and China; a recent poll by the Lowy Institute found that 44 per cent of Australians want the government to protect the country from “foreign state intrusion” as it considers who should be allowed to build its new infrastructure.

There are risks to this strategy, of course. But the approach caught the attention of Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, who told Global News in May that compared with Australia, Canada has been a bit of a “laggard” in its engagement with China. “We’ve endorsed some of the things that Australia and others have been saying,” he noted, “but we haven’t been in the lead.”

While Australia’s tough, principled stand enjoys widespread bipartisan support, many among our chattering classes have called for Canada to bend to China’s pressure. Nineteen high-profile Canadians even signed a letter calling for the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in exchange for the two Michaels. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was wise to firmly close the door to this scenario. Such a swap would turn the Canadian flags on backpacks around the world into targets.

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Instead, Canada could build on the international pillars laid by three former prime ministers. Under Paul Martin’s and Jean Chretien’s Liberal governments, Canada fought beside our NATO allies in Afghanistan, losing 158 members of the Armed Forces over the course of a campaign that was longer than the First and Second World Wars combined. As prime minister, Stephen Harper then established a principled foreign policy to make clear where Canada stood on any issue. He took a leadership role in the debate to expel Vladimir Putin’s Russia from the Group of Eight countries after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and committed Canadian troops to fight against the Islamic State.

It is clear that Canada has played an important role in foreign policy at different times in the past; we can ultimately punch above our weight once more. But it is time for a new approach that leaves behind the naivety of “the world needs more Canada” in order to embrace a tactical, targeted and tougher stance that brings in results based on our interests, rather than seats or symbolism.

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Editor’s note: June 27, 2020: A previous version of this story erroneously said that at the end of the Second World War, Canada had the fourth-largest army in the world. Canada had the fourth-largest air force among the Allied coalition at the time.
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