[Analysis] A Fortified or Pearsonian Middle Power? Canada’s Strategic Dilemma with Hard Power Politics

Andrew Erskine
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Hill Times, 2021.

“Strong, Secure, and Engaged” are three words key to understanding Canada’s national security and defence posture. Incorporated into a long-term comprehensive defence and security policy in 2017, Canada has sought to use these three words to respond to the emerging threats to its national security and provide the necessary tools to keep Canada’s territorial integrity, political system, and its people safe from the emerging threats of a precarious international order.

However, with the ongoing war in Ukraine still raging; Russian seemingly undeterred and more determined to maintain a vigorous geosecurity posture in the wake of its military setbacks; and China maintaining a watchful eye for achieving regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, Canada needs to recognize that its national security and defence strategies are outdated for a modern international order that reaffirms the utility of hard power politics. 

In this final instalment of a three-part analysis on Canadian foreign policy, this article builds off the call for Canadian security and defence strategies to return as a vital instrument of its foreign policy and the need for Canada to posture itself as a multi-peripheral middle power through the incorporation of hard power politics into its national security and defence planning and operations.


Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Ottawa Citizen, 2017.

Canada’s national security and defence strategies have long been characterized by doctrines made famous by Canada’s 17th Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson. Learning from his experience as a diplomat, a career that won Lester Pearson a Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the first United Nations peacekeeping force and defusing the 1956 Suez Crisis, Canada developed a reputation of being ideal peacekeepers, peace-builders, and humanitarians – resulting in Canada’s self-perception of being a middle power. 

Over the years, Canadian politicians and the general public have vigorously held onto these Pearsonian ideals in their foreign policy to reinforce Canada’s international identity. For instance, by following through with its Pearsonian foreign policy, Canada won a non-permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat once every decade until 2010. A Pearsonian foreign policy also led to Canada becoming a pivotal internationalist in the rules-based order, using the system’s multilateralism to mobilize international consensus on pressing humanitarian issues. One of Canada’s lasting post-war achievements was the Ottawa Treaty that banned anti-personnel mines.


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears onstage with video links to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden during a joint news conference in CanberraWashington Post, 2021.

The recent subpar showing by the Harper Conservative (2006-2015) and Trudeau Liberal (2015-2021) governments to not invest in its foreign policy, national security, and defence capabilities beyond the traditional Pearsonian middle power ideals have hampered Canada’s ability to respond to the shifting nature of global and regional geosecurity issues. Uniquely, rather than adapting to the geosecurity realities of a rapidly shifting geopolitical order, the past governments sought to cash in on Canada’s past Pearsonian middle power image and experience as a cheaper and more cost-effective tool to attain and advance its foreign policy and national security and defence interests.

In his recent European trip following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked that “the power we [Canada] have that we have built up over the past 75 years…means that we have the tools to damage the Putin regime far more effectively than we ever could with tanks and missiles.” These remarks also play into the statement by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly when she told a TV interviewer that Canada is “not a military power…and that the country was good at convening and making sure that diplomacy is happening.” Although Canada’s economic sanctions are instrumental in hindering Putin’s war machine, Russia is still undertaking offensive military operations in Ukraine. 

Unlike its historical role in the World Wars and the post-war period, Canada is currently not recognized as a pivotal diplomatic partner. For instance, in the Indo-Pacific, Canada’s like-minded partners have not sought out Canadian diplomatic engagement in new regional security and defence organizations, like the Quad and AUKUS. Moreover, Canada’s two consecutive failures to attain a non-permanent seat on the UNSC and its fiasco to uphold its pledge of 600 peacekeepers for UN operations, including for a 200-member Quick Reaction Force (QRF), strengthen the inept of Canada’s ability to bridge and convene diplomacy and policy to geosecurity anxieties.


In the annual review of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Canada’s foreign policy received a C grade average, with its diplomatic and defence policies obtaining a D+. Although there are traditional and logistical reasons for these poor marks, a noteworthy explanation can be attributed to Canadian politicians and bureaucrats unwillingly or deliberately lacking an understanding of hard power politics and its use in a rapidly aggressive-looking global order. 

For many Canadians, the Pearsonian ideals echo a less realist attitude to the horrors of war and armed conflict that plagued the first and second halves of the 20th century. Instead, these ideals offered a more liberal and internationalist perspective in dealing with armed conflict that shouldered more dignified ways to conclude or prevent wars.

However, the overreliance on these ideals mitigates the unavoidable assistance that hard power politics offer when dealing with revisionist, antagonistic and revanchist powers that seek to use the inherent weakness of liberal-democratic middle and lower-tier powers that prefer megaphone diplomacy to robust force. 

Despite the United States asking Canada to meet the two per cent of GDP spending on the military, Canada has been lackluster in physically meeting that commitment. Since World War II, only two Canadian prime ministers, Louis St. Laurent and Brain Mulroney, have spent two per cent of GDP on military infrastructure, assets, and capabilities. The Government of Canada’s Budget 2022 has promised to boost defence spending by $8 billion over five years, increasing Canada’s military spending to 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2026-27. While this increase is welcomed across security and defence circles, the budget is still well off from its two per cent commitment, with Canada needing to spend an additional $16 billion to achieve the latter.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holding a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. CBC, 2022.

It is odd that a middle power like Canada, which has three large geosecurity peripheries, alliance commitments, and a history of being a force amplifier, has a relatively delicate military posture and “firepower” – Canada ranking 21st from the top and one of the smallest militaries in the G7. For Canada to avoid becoming the weak link in its collective security alliances and timid in its regional engagement strategies, Canada needs to embrace hard power politics as a viable tactic to attain and advance its national security, defence, and foreign policies. When thinking of hard power politics, Canada must not assume that it will compel a country to obey and give in to its interests. Instead, hard power politics must be heeded through a lens that ensures a country’s survival, prosperity, and stability through self-help initiatives that bring forward competitive technologies, economics, and military assets and capabilities to emphasize a state’s geosecurity posture with non-state actors, peer- and non-peer states.

Furthermore, it would be beneficial for Canada to observe hard power politics through Chase Freeman’s structural notions of competitive relationships – rivalry, adversarial animosity, and enmity analogies – that characterize a state’s relationship with peer- and non-peer states. Chaseman argues that rivalry pits states, or a party of actors, against each other in a competition to excel, often leading to the self-improvement of the involved powers. Adversarial animosity, on the other hand, refers to zero-sum competitions that focus on one country, or geopolitical bloc, to gain strategic advantages over the other competitor. A competition that evolves around enmity poses the gravest threat to a state’s survival as competitors reject all notions of compromise and regard the strategic interests of adversaries as illegitimate.

Despite these relationships taking on bleak terms to associate state-to-state interactions, the latter’s candidness offers categorical levels that Canada, and its collective allies, can use in assessing the geopolitical landscape and evaluate the best tactics to ensure it attains and advances its unique security, defence, and foreign policies. For Canada, Chaseman’s analogy offers the most pragmatic way to capture the essence of being a multi-peripheral middle power by offering a near- to medium-term pas de trois outlook that can be used to asses its geosecurity, geoeconomic and diplomatic status among allies, partners and opponents in a shifting global order that is noticeably multipolar. 


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walking with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in 2017. CVS, 2017.

On its transatlantic periphery, Canada must declare any forthcoming military deployments to NATO allies as logistical and joint deterrence operations instead of humanitarian assistance. In these proclamations, Canada should directly identify Russia as the key security threat and indicate that the deployment of Canadian personnel and equipment is to amplify the defensive force of NATO. Canada should also be one of the first NATO allies to ratify the membership bids of Finland and Sweden and, upon their admission, should offer its military assets, capabilities, and infrastructure to mitigate any vulnerabilities to the Alliance’s new members and its new territorial jurisdiction. Lastly, Canada needs to continue its military procurement to ensure that its assets and capabilities maintain high interoperability with its allies. The recent announcement of Canada selecting the F-35 to replace its CF-18s is a promising step in the right direction.

In Canada’s high north, attention must move beyond the calls for modernizing NORAD – a joint military organization between Canada and the US that provides aerospace warning, and air sovereignty, and protects the territorial integrity of North America. Building off its interests to update NORAD, Canada should invest in an Arctic navy consisting of patrol icebreaker vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard, anti-submarine frigates for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and miniature unmanned maritime drones armed with surface and subsurface missiles. A Canadian Arctic Navy with these assets and capabilities, acting alongside NORAD, would be tasked to patrol the vast territory of Canada’s high north while also being equipped to deal with any maritime armed conflict arriving from the Arctic and Russia.

In the Indo-Pacific, Canada needs to strengthen its external relationships with regional middle powers, alongside its traditional partners. Specifically, Canada must approach prominent middle powers like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand to establish a discrete Indo-Pacific middle power bloc through multinational and minilateral organizations. These organizations should be formed around multiple 2+2 dialogues that will bolster Canada’s military and diplomatic ties with the region’s middle powers and its geosecurity architecture. Lastly, Canada needs to invest more substantially in the RCN by equipping it with modern naval weapons and operational systems that provide comprehensive offensive capabilities in all three areas of naval warfare – conventional, unconventional, and hybrid. It would also be strategically beneficial to launch an Indo-Pacific Command Center along the Canadian west coast.

Canada should also militarily reinforce its presence in the Indo-Pacific by heightening its hard power posture when undertaking multilateral missions. For instance, in conducting aerial logistics in support of Operations NEON, sponsored by the UN, China has been provocative in “buzzing” close to the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) for no other foreseeable purpose than to be a disruptive and hawks actor. Although the Canadian government has indicated its displeasure against these Chinese actions through diplomatic channels, Canada should instead signal to China that it will double down on its commitment to Operation NEON by having RCAF fighter jets escort the slower CP140 Aurora surveillance planes during their missions, signaling that Canada’s military will not be bullied, harassed or intimidated in maintaining a rules-based order.

A Canadian icebreaker vessel belonging to the Canadian Coast Guard. The Hill Times, 2015.


Canada needs to shed its last reminisce of its Pearsonian identity and set out a desire to achieve a competitive edge in international geopolitics, especially when it comes to geosecurity. Canadians should recall its history, recognizing that Canada fought its major wars in extra-regional theatres close to its geosecurity peripheries – World War I & II and Afghanistan in the transatlantic; the Korean War in the Pacific; and the Arctic during the Cold War. 

As hard power politics becomes more pronounced in the international rules-based order, Canadians need to anticipate that future wars will extend outside Canada’s traditional geopolitical comforts and force Canada to project hard power politics in out-of-area theaters to defend its national interests and normative ideals. 

Only by initiating a review and hard power reforms in its national security, defence, and foreign policies can Canada become more successful in deploying the Canadian Armed Forces and its diplomatic corps faster, efficiently, and pragmatically within and outside its geosecurity flanks, transforming Canada into a fortified power in a growing assertive world.

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[Analysis] A Fortified or…

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 9 min