Why Canada should embrace a more realist foreign policy

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This is Part I of a three-part series on Canadian foreign policy.With a summit on Arctic affairs having taken place in Ottawa last month between Canada and Russia, it has been pointed out that, unlike that of its predecessor after the annexation of Crimea, the Trudeau government's approach is to cooperate with Moscow in those areas where shared interests exist.  As a result, now is an opportune time to highlight why Canada should continue developing – broadly speaking – a foreign policy strategy rooted in realism.The realist paradigm has often been mischaracterized. Let's briefly address two of the most common misconceptions.  The first is that realism is an amoral philosophy, concerned exclusively with the raw pursuit of power and narrow interests.In fact, realism is primarily preoccupied with the dangers that can accompany the pursuit of universalizing ideologies, which has led many analysts to call it a “corrective” to idealism rather than a replacement for it. Since the end of the Cold War, the unbridled advance of American interests and values has resulted in a geopolitical standoff with Moscow and threatens to generate one with Beijing as well.  Realism's core insights appear to be particularly pertinent in today's world.The second myth concerning realism is that it undermines the postwar legacy built on durable institutions and international cooperation.  Indeed, the very word “geopolitics” does conjure up profoundly negative images from years gone by.  But in reality, realism as a philosophy of foreign policy is traditionally rooted in a belief in historical contingency: there should not be rigid adherence to universal laws, be they political or anthropological.  The principles that govern international politics must evolve to meet the demands of each era.Keeping all of the above in mind, there are several reasons why Canada should embrace a more realist foreign policy orientation.First, the American economy is not heavily dependent upon trade.  This means that, at some point, it is likely to abdicate, curtail or redefine its leadership role in the liberal international order that has prevailed throughout the postwar era.  Combine this with the rise of China and other powers, and it becomes clear that Canada must become more strategically promiscuous.The election of Donald Trump is as sure a sign as any that the United States is growing tired of shouldering the costs of underwriting global stability.  If Canada were to focus much of its foreign policy energy toward the pursuit of multifaceted and deep engagement with non-Western powers, this would help to fill an emerging international vacuum while increasing Canada's international clout in the process.Second, realism is a philosophy that emphasizes the limitations of state power.  This makes it particularly relevant today, following failed Western attempts to remake the Middle East in its image.  It is even more germane for a country of limited resources such as Canada.  A realist foreign policy would encourage our country to focus on concrete policy objectives that reflect our specific capabilities, which in turn would inspire us to enhance and expand those capabilities.We appear to be witnessing the renewed advent of state competition in the global system today.  For Canada to earn the respect of important players, as well as for it to play a substantive role in contributing to the preservation of international peace, Ottawa should direct the bulk of its energy toward two or three strategically important theatres, and then outline how it intends to contribute tangibly and consistently to the safeguarding of regional order in each case.  Actions speak louder than words.Third, Canada has been most successful on the world stage when each incoming federal government built on the successes and commitments of its predecessor.  By contrast, since the premiership of Stephen Harper, we have observed a stark polarization of Canadian foreign policy visions between left and right.  A realist approach could attract individuals from across the political spectrum, helping to breed a new bipartisan foreign policy and to generate a consistent and reliable image of Canada in international affairs.Finally, a realist mindset would reflect Canada's domestic experience.  Just as our country was founded through – and continues to be defined by – compromises between different cultural groups, Canadian foreign policy should attempt to harmonize the diverging conceptions of political legitimacy that exist in international society today.  This would represent a significant contribution to the struggle to stabilize today's embattled liberal world order – a system that has done so much to increase peace and prosperity across the globe over the past seven decades.In the next instalment of this series, we'll explore what a realist international predisposition implies for Canadian grand strategy.Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is an editor at Global Brief, a leading international affairs magazine. He is also a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent, where his research focuses on Russian and Chinese conceptions of state sovereignty and the future of the liberal world order.