Three Theses on Canadian Foreign Policy

  • National Newswatch

Despite immense progress in global equality and development over the course of the past seven decades, the world today is characterized by uncertainty and apprehension. This international context is defined above all else by a liberal order in crisis.Non-Western powers are beginning to assert their norms and values – ones that tend to privilege the pursuit of stability over justice – more forcefully, even as the United States is becoming more reluctant to shoulder the burdens of global leadership and trust in domestic institutions is declining. The moral ties that bind are eroding, both at home and abroad. In this more unpredictable climate, countries will be more concerned with the pursuit of their interests, narrowly defined.Our country is no exception. The world is not self-regulating. Canada therefore must decide what tangible role it wishes to play in helping to secure the foundations of international order, and then devise a plan to achieve the means necessary to implement those ends. In this vein, three principles should guide Canadian foreign policy thinking over the years – perhaps decades – to come.First, we must become more strategically promiscuous. The liberal order that has prevailed over the past seven decades has been heavily Washington-centric. By contrast, a world in which this order is in crisis will be characterized by overlapping and varying partnerships. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent attempts to reconcile with Russia, even as he seeks closer ties with the Trump administration, is a case in point.The world of today – following events such as the collapse of order in the Middle East, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Brexit referendum – would be unrecognizable to an observer from a decade ago. It will continue to change rapidly.Some countries or coalitions of countries will remain committed to liberal principles, but the conclusion here is clear: Canada can no longer be reactive when it comes to foreign policy. The predictable international structures and blocs to which we have become accustomed are shifting. We must identify our own unique interests and develop our own specific grand strategy. In short, we must learn to think for ourselves.Second, altering our mentality is just as important for our country as developing policy. The rapid pace of global change makes it difficult to anticipate the precise nature and structure of some of the political arrangements that Canada may have to negotiate with other international players down the road. What matters is whether we are capable of independently crafting our country's foreign policy vectors: which international partnerships we wish to develop substantially and how we plan to balance between them.For example, the recent signing of CETA opens the door to greater strategic cooperation between Ottawa and Brussels in the years ahead, particularly as protectionist voices continue to emanate from the White House. What form this collaboration ultimately takes is less important than whether we internalize the fact that, if we wish to increase our ability to make a difference in global affairs, we must engage and integrate deeply with major players other than the United States.Third, we collectively need to consider the big picture when making foreign policy decisions. Discussion of Canada's unique strategic imperatives does not currently occur with any regularity in the mainstream media. In today's increasingly complex world, a piecemeal approach to foreign policy will result in our country being left behind.When the debate arose over whether to join the international coalition against ISIS, our country's columnists weighed in, offering mostly moral or practical arguments. There was virtually no talk of how our participation would fit into Canada's overall international grand strategy. For instance, would it divert our limited resources and focus away from regions of greater strategic importance to us, such as the Asia-Pacific? Such a question was never raised, let alone deliberated.A bigger Canada – one more confident at home and more influential abroad – is possible. The question is whether we are prepared to devote the material and mental resources necessary to achieve it.Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is Assistant Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent and an editor at Global Brief magazine.