When Canada and Britain issued a joint call this week for a ceasefire in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, it marked the third time in recent months that the two countries had stood together on a thorny foreign-policy issue.
Ottawa and London also moved in lockstep last month to announce sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his regime over election fraud and a crackdown on peaceful protesters. In May, Canada and Britain condemned China’s imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong, a statement that was also joined by the United States and Australia.
It’s a mini-alliance – two countries looking to amplify their voices on a cacophonous global stage – that reflects how isolated Canada and Britain sometimes are in a world beset by rising authoritarianism, fading adherence to international law, and a weakening of key multilateral institutions that both are members of, such as the Group of Seven and NATO.
The rise of U.S. President Donald Trump – and his deference to strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan – has left Canadian foreign-policy makers looking for a new lodestar to replace Washington, at least temporarily. Britain, because of its own decision to leave the European Union, is in a somewhat similar position, left to set a completely independent foreign-policy course for the first time in decades.
Officials and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say the co-ordination between Ottawa and London is an expression of how closely aligned the two countries are when it comes to the values they want to broadcast to the wider world. There also appears to be genuine warmth and trust between Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
But Ottawa and London are also acting together out of necessity. Both countries are members of the G7, an informal bloc of seven industrialized democracies, which has yet to make a statement on either the crackdown in Belarus or the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr. Trump has instead divided the group by saying he would invite Mr. Putin to attend the G7 summit this year, which the United States is supposed to play host to if one is held.
The NATO military alliance is similarly split, particularly on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, where France has led criticism of fellow alliance member Turkey over its support for Azerbaijan in the two-week-old conflict with Armenia, which has killed more than 500 people. Turkey has rejected all calls for a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying the fighting should end only when Armenia has withdrawn its military from the disputed territory.
Roland Paris, a former foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who teaches international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said Mr. Champagne and Mr. Raab have an “excellent relationship” – and plenty of reasons to co-operate.
“Canada has an interest in co-ordinating such statements with other countries as a way of amplifying its voice and protecting itself from targeted retaliation if the statements are critical. And the U.K. for its part is seeking to strengthen bilateral partnerships as a part of its newly independent foreign policy, and Canada is a logical non-European partner at a time when U.S. foreign policy has become, let’s just say, eccentric,” Prof. Paris said.
The mini-alliance initially took shape via the Global Conference for Media Freedom, which was first held in 2019, and sees Canada and Britain act as co-chairs of an annual forum on advancing freedom-of-speech issues. (The second conference was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic and is now expected to be held virtually sometime next month.)
Sue Onslow, deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said that while Britain has a Conservative government and Canada a Liberal one, the two countries have “a shared sense of importance of democratic institutions, freedom of expression and the media, multilateralism and a rules-based international order.” Both countries, she said, are worried by the worldwide trend toward authoritarianism and the absence of traditional American leadership.
“In a sense, this is an alternative transatlantic relationship which seeks to hedge the U.K.'s bets against Trump’s possible re-election in November, and America’s further retreat into unilateralism, isolationism and unalloyed Trumpian self-interest,” she said.
Asked about the joint statements, Canadian and British officials gave nearly identical answers. “We will continue to work with the U.K. to advocate and preserve shared values,” said Patricia Skinner, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada. “We will continue to speak out jointly with Canada to promote and defend the values we share,” Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office wrote in an e-mailed reply to questions from The Globe and Mail.
Steve Hewitt, senior lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham, said co-operating with Canada is “an approach that fits with the U.K. agenda of emphasizing its new independent voice as it moves away from the EU.” Co-ordinating with Canada is also faster and simpler than negotiating foreign policy with the 27-member EU.
The relative speed of the British-Canadian action on Belarus fits nicely into Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s narrative of a “global Britain” better able to stand up for its values outside the EU. London and Ottawa announced their sanctions on targeting Mr. Lukashenko and senior members of his regime on Sept. 29, while the EU was still struggling to take action, with planned sanctions held up by the threat of a veto from a single member country, Cyprus. The EU eventually pushed through sanctions three days later, targeting a longer list of Belarusian officials, though not Mr. Lukashenko himself.
The sternest test of the Ottawa-London relationship will likely come from China. Both countries signed on to a statement that was delivered to the United Nations General Assembly this week by Germany, on behalf of 39 states. The signatories said they were “gravely concerned” about China’s detention of more than a million of its Uyghur Muslim citizens in indoctrination camps in the Xianjiang region, as well as the continuing crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Mr. Raab has raised the idea of going much further and boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are scheduled for February, 2022. Asked whether Britain might skip the Winter Games, he said his “instinct is to separate sport from diplomacy and politics. But there comes a point where that may not be possible.”
Britain wants to “work with our international partners” to consider “what further action we need to take,” Mr. Raab said.
There’s a push for Ottawa to be one of those partners. In September, a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which includes current and retired legislators from around the world, was co-chaired by former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and sitting Conservative MP Garnett Genuis. The agenda included discussion of an Olympic boycott. The 18 countries whose parliamentarians have joined the alliance on China could form a basis for joint action on the Olympics, Mr. Cotler said in an interview.
“There is a common interest among the community of democracies in terms of not rewarding Beijing with the Olympics,” he said. In 1980, Canada joined the U.S. and others to skip the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“There are far more compelling grounds for us to pull out now than there were in 1980," Mr. Cotler said, citing Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
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