Skip to main content

Greg Donaghy is the director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Thomas Axworthy is the public policy chair at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

Canada has always been lucky with its great power allies.

Confederation created a country best described as a semi-autonomous member of the British Empire. Although Canada was fully self-governing at home, its diplomacy remained in imperial London’s safe hands, an arrangement that suited a small country preoccupied with domestic matters. Over the next 50 or so years, as the new country ventured onto the world stage in fits and starts, Great Britain was rarely far from its side. When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier offered Canadians closer ties with their neighbours in the United States in 1911, they promptly turfed him from office.

But starting with the First World War and accelerating through the “low dishonest decades” of the interwar period, the U.S. – finally coming into its own as a world power – increasingly replaced Great Britain as Canada’s principal ally. This transformation was bolted into place during and immediately after the Second World War.

Washington, however, has never been the perfect ally. U.S. foreign and domestic policy has been insular and parochial and has sometimes resorted to a primitive unilateralism. Too often, the U.S. has favoured war over diplomacy, badly straining the patience of its allies over Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq in the 2000s.

And it has been notoriously prone to overlook its smaller northern partner. “The phrase ‘consultation with allies,’ ” wrote Charles Ritchie, our envoy in Washington during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, “is apt to mean, in U.S. terms, briefing allies, lecturing allies, sometimes pressuring allies or sounding out allies to see if they are sound. The idea of learning anything from allies seems strange to official Washington thinking.”

Yet, there is much to admire. On balance, the U.S. has proved to be a “tolerant ally.” Its idealist notions of a rules-based international order have helped create and sustain the postwar United Nations, ironically providing a ready platform for legions of anti-American critics. For half a century, the U.S. was steadfast in its defence of liberal democracy in the North Atlantic region, where two generations of Canadians had fought and died. Washington has also battled for a liberal world trade order with binding rules – championing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade from the 1940s to the 1990s, then its successor organization, the World Trade Organization – which all aligns with Canadian interests and values.

Moreover, despite being tough and self-interested negotiators, the United States’ leaders and diplomats have often been ready to acknowledge the peculiar needs of their Canadian ally. They were generous in giving Canadian producers access to the vast and rich U.S. market through projects such as the Auto Pact in the 1960s and free-trade agreements in the 1980s. Similarly, presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton went out of their way to accommodate Canada’s obsession with national unity in the 1970s and 1990s.

‘Perhaps if Canadians didn’t treat the United States with such distaste, we would have a strong and loyal ally.’ Readers debate: On the world stage, has Canada been left to stand alone?

Sadly, we can no longer count on our great-power ally to the south to have our back. Republican President Donald Trump is certainly part of the problem. Impetuous and iconoclastic, he is deeply ignorant of Canada-U.S. relations – and couldn’t care less. But the shift is more deeply rooted and more troubling.

Since the end of the Cold War, a school of increasingly influential U.S. intellectuals and policy makers has championed the notion of America First, disdainful of the very idea of valued allies. There are grounds for worrying that U.S. trade policy, which historian Douglas Irwin has shown to be subject to long, slow swings between open and protected markets, is about to change significantly – and not to our benefit.

But an ascendant China is not a substitute. For the past year, Beijing’s disdain for the accepted rules of international engagement has been on full display. In December, 2018, Washington requested that Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, be extradited to the U.S. while passing through Canada. Ottawa complied by taking the executive into custody; her hearing is scheduled for next week in B.C., more than a year after her arrest. In almost immediate retaliation, two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – were detained in China, and Beijing soon imposed tough trade restrictions targeting key Canadian exports. At no time since Pierre Trudeau first recognized the Communist regime in 1970 have Canadian-Chinese relations been worse.

For the first time in our history, Canada is virtually alone in the world, creating unprecedented challenges for our foreign policy. We need to get more serious about our diplomacy than ever before. The hard, big-ticket items are obvious: increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP to meet our North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations and bolster foreign aid to much more than the current paltry 0.26 per cent of GDP.

But first, let’s rebuild our alliances. One place to begin is the Arctic Council, where Canada shares interests with countries such as Norway and Sweden and where it remains a credible actor, as the Arctic Council itself was a bipartisan Canadian initiative. Another is with Mexico and other countries in Latin America, where many feel ignored by the U.S. and where former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland recently reinforced our profile. Africa, too, has largely been overlooked by Canada in recent years, and organizations such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie give us a base from which to relaunch our presence on that continent. And across the Pacific, there’s Japan, almost as alone as we are.

With the U.S. on the sidelines and China so antagonistic, Canada has rarely been so in need of friends. The 21st century is unsettling enough; facing the future alone threatens to make it all the more uncomfortable.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe