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To implement a complex international treaty in Canada can be more difficult than to amend the Constitution under the general formula. This is due to the quirky 1937 Labour Conventions decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London – a precedent that has become part of the constitutional DNA of our country in a way that is foreign to comparable federations like Australia and the United States.

If Ottawa, therefore, is able to cause the implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union – and it appears that it is on its way – then our federal and provincial political classes and senior bureaucrats are to be congratulated. For to pivot all of Canada's governments – and with them, part of the national strategic imagination – toward another continent is no small task.

And yet, Canada will need to pivot not just once over the coming decades, but thrice more. We should see the CETA deal as one part of a four-part strategic game for Canada. I call this four-part Canadian game "ACRE" – America, China, Russia and, yes, Europe.

"A" is for America. To date, Canada's strategic community has been beholden to combinations of three policy paradigms in respect of our southern neighbour: first, that Canadian foreign policy ought to be conspicuously distinct vis-à-vis American foreign policy; second, that Canadian foreign policy ought to be strictly aligned with U.S. foreign policy; and third, that Canadian foreign policy ought to "link" performance by Canada in policy domain X with favours or concessions from the U.S. in domain Y. This third paradigm, which includes visions of a continental perimeter, has been ascendant since Sept. 11, with Canada maximizing cross-border commercial transit in exchange for assuring the U.S. that we are not a source of security threats.

A fourth, counterintuitive Canada-U.S. paradigm suggests itself for this century. That is the paradigm of the U.S. as a power multiplier for Canadian policy outside of continental North America. It posits that many Canadian strategic achievements in the world run through America – through the levering of America's still-superior global assets and capabilities. I say this in light of two observations: first, while the U.S. is a receding strategic power, it will remain, for the foreseeable future, pivotal to the management of important international problems; second, while the U.S. has neither the synoptic understanding required to analyze all of the world's challenges, nor the capabilities and political will to deal with most of them, its interests remain global. In many cases, the U.S. will be able to articulate these global interests only in highly general terms – in the rhetorical integument of 'motherhood' terms like freedom, democracy, rights and security.

Canada could in no sense disagree with any of these characterizations of what is in its very own strategic interest in any corner of the world. Where the U.S. government is heavily engaged in a region, the strategic program underlying each of the U.S.'s ends will be detailed. In this event, Canada will find reasons to support or oppose the programme, depending on its own assessment of the problem at hand. But Canada will not lead in these theatres.

However, in those theatres where the U.S. government is less energetically engaged, Washington remains generally interested, but in terms so vague that they are highly susceptible to appropriation and modification – even manipulation – by other like-minded countries that do choose to engage intensely. Such intense engagement could lever America's unparalleled assets and capabilities (the means) to achieve ends that these states – by dint of their practical presence on the ground – themselves frame and elaborate. This is the power multiplier for Canada: America's assets and capabilities (and goodwill), properly used, multiply Canadian capacity to advance around the world objectives that Canada itself can define in detail by virtue of its initiative or first-mover advantage sur le terrain; that is, opportunistic alignment on the means, and opportunistic appropriation of the ends, for Canadian strategic advantage.

What of Russia (the "R" in ACRE)? Canadian success in the Arctic is primarily a Russian play. This means that Russia is not to Canada's east – as in the Cold War – but to its north.

Together, Canada and Russia have ownership of most of the Arctic's coastline. Canada's winning play can only be to press this symmetry in order to co-operate and collude with Russia for mutual advantage. Canada's two principal interests vis-à-vis Russia this century are, first, to lock Russia into processes in the Arctic that are unlikely to issue in a Russian resort to force; and second, to opportunistically align itself with Russia to advance critical national objectives in the Arctic – including international recognition of the Northwest Passage as part of Canadian internal waters. As Michael Byers has argued in Global Brief, Russia's claim to the Northern Sea Route as internal waters is, in many respects, a mirror-image of Canada's Northwest Passage claim. Both claims are challenged by Washington, which sees both straits as international. Byers' conjecture is that if Canada were to recognize Russia's claim to the Northern Sea Route, and Russia, in turn, Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage, the legal-cum-symbolic effect would be geopolitically significant. Russian recognition could pave the way for similar recognition of the Canadian claim by other important countries, just as Canadian recognition would give Western respectability to Russia's claim. Legal co-operation with Russia could lay the foundation for a longer-term Canadian-Russian trust that could yield fruit in Arctic transportation, energy exploration and production, environmental regulation, domain awareness, and Arctic science.

While Canada does have some tradition of parting company with the U.S. on major issues, it does not have a pronounced tradition of allying with another major power – certainly not Russia – in opposition to American interests. And yet, we ought to resist being shocked by such an unusual arrangement, as the Canadian interests that must be defended are fundamental.

In Europe (the 'E'), the CETA deal is part of Canada's obvious economic interests vis-à-vis the world's largest, most sophisticated common market. Canada's other interests vis-à-vis Europe are twofold: first, to keep the continent strategically united; and second, to help prevent strategic conflict between Europe and Russia.

For the first object, while intra-European wars seem improbable today, Europe has not, in modern history, gone a single century without world-changing bloodshed. Canada will not be the lead non-European player in determining Europe's political or strategic future, but it can play a meaningful part in encouraging Europe's countries and citizens to persist in developing a European strategic imagination. If Canada cultivates a deep Arctic relationship with Russia, it is not implausible that we should carve for ourselves a vocation as the lead non-European player in bridging the strategic dialogue between Europe and Russia.

Finally, there is China (the "C"), the re-emerging great power of this century. Canada's China game forces Canada, for the first time in its history, to develop a capacity to project influence westward toward Asia.

The starting point for Canada must be the development of a system-wide capacity and culture for deep engagement with China's power structures. There can be nowhere to start but where the Australians did from the mid-1990s – with a Canadian national languages strategy, developed with the provinces under federal leadership, to develop, within a generation, a cadre of Canadian political, business and intellectual leaders who are fluent in Mandarin (among other important tongues), Asia-literate, and armed with experience and contacts in Asia that will allow them to press Canada's interests. Without language, cultural awareness and top-tier analytics, Canada will continue to play at the surface-level of most policy issues in the region, without being able to penetrate the personal-political anteroom to larger discussions about Sino-Canadian and broader Canada-Asia economics and geopolitics.

Irvin Studin is editor-in-chief & publisher of Global Brief Magazine, and also MPP Program Director and Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.