Canadian Foreign Policy: Developing our strategic map

  • National Newswatch

In the first instalment in this three-part series, I outlined some of the reasons why Canada should embrace a more realist foreign policy orientation. In this regard, two facts are particularly important to keep in mind. First, realism implies that our foreign policy will be Canadian – and not ideological – in nature. Its modus operandi will be to pursue policies that simultaneously advance our country's strategic interests and help to secure the foundations of a stable world order.That being said, it should be recalled that realism is a corrective to idealism, not a replacement for it. Hence, a realist foreign policy does not imply a return to an unpredictable world absent any sort of agreed-upon norms. To the contrary: One of realism's core insights is that we must deal with the world as it is. There is nothing contradictory about believing in liberal principles and internalizing the realities of great power politics at the same time. Nor is there anything wrong with attempting to find ways to reconcile the evolving global balance of material and normative power with the rules-based character of today's international order.Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States embarked on what many consider to be a revisionist course, with the forced transformation of other countries' internal political arrangements becoming a legitimate foreign policy aim. Over the course of this unipolar moment in history, Ottawa's budgetary constraints and Washington's enhanced normative power chipped away at our country's ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. Our aversion toward nation-building initiatives following the 1995 Quebec referendum did not help matters.If a realist orientation is to be any different from a more heavily liberal internationalist inclination, Canada must develop the capacity to provide a unique and substantive contribution to world order. This does not preclude remaining an integral member of the power structure that underwrites the stability of the global system – what we have come to know as “the West”. But it does mean that our country needs to craft a detailed plan across time and space to increase its international clout.To achieve this, two core premises must be kept in mind: (a) although we are a country of limited resources, we possess more power potential in some regions than in others, and (b) the Asia-Pacific region will likely be the central battleground for global geopolitics in the twenty-first century.Any balance of power contains both material and normative components. Regarding the former, American unipolarity in the Asia-Pacific since the end of the Cold War has been preserved partially by Washington playing the region's indigenous powers off against one another – a task that will become increasingly difficult if China's rise continues. And as for the latter, Beijing's approach – from its assertiveness in the South China Sea to its philosophy of privileging order over human rights – is beginning to challenge the way that state sovereignty is globally interpreted.If world order is about determining the rules of the game, then China's material and ideational advances put the Asia-Pacific at the heart of global geopolitics this century. Unfortunately, Canada's relative influence in the region is limited, especially when it comes to issues other than trade. It is, however, more pronounced in North America and in the Arctic, where we are one of just three and eight actors respectively. There, our comparatively greater weight remains an asset into which we can tap, even if our tangible capabilities remain underdeveloped at present.The limited nature of our resources suggests that our focus be zeroed in on a small number of key regions. A strategic foreign policy map for Canada thus becomes clear: In order to obtain the ability to participate substantively in the Asia-Pacific region, our country must use its North American and Arctic “home bases” as power multipliers.This strategy would operate according to a logic similar to that employed by the Obama administration's pivot to Asia: evaluate which regions remain worthy of sustained strategic attention, devote energy toward the development of long-term resources, and then refocus the country's recharged batteries toward a geopolitically critical theatre. If anything, this game plan should proceed even more smoothly in the Canadian context than in the American one, as the stakes are lower and our post-Cold War history has been less traumatic.All of this will take time. It will also require an understanding that diplomatic issues cannot be dealt with in isolation, but rather must be viewed through the lens of a comprehensive strategy. That strategy will be elaborated upon and detailed in the final instalment of this series, taking the realities of a Trump presidency into account.This is Part II of a three-part series on Canadian foreign policy.  (Click here for Part I.)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.