A Prominent Middle Power No More: Canada’s Fledgling Foreign Policy

Andrew Erskine

With Canada entering into an election on September 20th, there are many public policy initiatives at the forefront of the major federal parties of Canada that desire to govern. From indigenous rights and sovereignty issues, public health and COVID-19, education, the economy, and climate change, it is clear that the election will strictly focus on domestic issues. 

However, early on in the election, the presiding Liberal Government of Canada, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, witnessed and took part in the ill-mannered withdrawal of military troops and civilians from Afghanistan. Although the stories and images from news broadcasters, social media, and first-hand accounts were shocking, the event did not have significant implications or points of discussion for the political parties or leaders partaking in the ongoing election. 

Against the backdrop of deepening strategic competition in international relations, the election showcases the lacking nature and quality of Canada’s foreign policy and services for the emerging multipolar order. From a once integrated and paramount middle power of the international rules-based order, Canada’s diplomatic and middle power status has become jeopardized as a result of Canadian political leaders, parliamentarians, and the general public’s reservation of foreign affairs’ role in preserving and promoting prosperity and peace, along with advancing and attaining Canadian interests.

As the first entry of a three-part analysis on Canada’s foreign policy, this article will examine and highlight the mismanagement of Canadian foreign affairs, the lack of interest from the Canadian public, and its values-centric foreign policy. These will form key evidence of Canada’s inadequacy among allies and like-minded partners to preserve the international rules-based order, deter significant forms of aggression from autocratic and belligerent states, and address pivotal global and regional threats and challenges to Canada’s national security.

Mishandling Strategic Autonomy & the Special Relationship

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first official meeting with US President Joe Biden
Source: Politico

Following the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers during the First World War, Canada attained the ability to project and proclaim its foreign policy interests independent of the British Empire. Maintaining this strategic autonomy in its foreign policy, Canada continued to measure its international interests against a growing bilateral relationship with the US. Although it is not easy to manage and project an independent foreign policy away from the regional and global hegemon that is the US, Canada has forged and directed its special relationship with America through shared geo-security and geo-economic interests, values, and norms. Together these initiatives helped establish the US-led post-war rules-based order without costing Canada its ability to practice and produce an independent foreign policy. 

From all previous U.S. presidents and Canadian prime ministers, such as Diefenbaker and Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau and Nixon, Chretien and Clinton, or Martin and Bush, Canada has managed its strategic autonomy to identify and attain its foreign policy interests while springing the special relationship forward. However, the special relationship has become strained due to the Harper-Obama and Trudeau-Trump years, and Canada’s strategic autonomy being undervalued. 

Under the leadership of Stephan Harper, Canadian foreign policy undertook his neoconservative outlook of managing Canada as a military power bent on reinforcing the Bush Doctrine in a period of declining state-building and growing passivity, and a strategic pivot to Asia under President Obama. Under the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau showed an incapacity to stand up to Trump’s unilateral “America First” foreign policy outlook that overtly weakened allies and like-minded partners on shared issues over trade, defence, and security. As a result of these two past Canadian governments, the nation’s political leaders and party members have abandoned foreign policy as an instrument that can guide and align the special relationship to the new realities and affairs that will manage the global multipolar order.

Mishandling Sino-Canadian Relations

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau & Chinese President Xi Jinping
Source: CTV News

Unlike the US’s pivot to Asia to balance China’s eminent great power rise, Sino-Canadian relations during the early years of the Trudeau administration sought to continue his late father’s legacy of revitalizing bilateral economic, political, and cultural ties. Although Trudeau was initially successful in attaining diplomatic invitations and meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and diplomatic officials at formal multilateral institutions like the G20, the arrival of President Trump hindered Canada’s strategic autonomy in Sino-Canadian affairs.

With Trump determined to “make America great again,” his foreign policy took on a more populist and nationalist perspective with adversaries and allies alike. In particular, the former US president sought to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico to showcase his commitment to a campaign pledge. For Trump, NAFTA was “the worst trade deal ever made” for American dairy farmers, auto and civil manufacturers. In NAFTA’s place came an updated vision called the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA).

However, unlike past free trade agreements, CUSMA also established a “China Clause,” requiring all members to notify each other of entering into a free trade agreement with a “non-market” country. Although Trump’s negotiating team dismissed the clause as a tool serving US geopolitical interests, its addition in CUSMA highlighted Trump’s growing strategic endeavour to limit Chinese intellectual dominance by deposing its ability to misappropriate intellectual property.

To make matters worse for Canada’s diplomatic and strategic autonomy, the “China Clause” was followed up by a request from the US Department of Justice to detain Chinese telecom giant and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Allegedly accused of doing business with Iran in 2013, thereby violating US sanctions against Iran, Meng was arrested by Canadian police and placed under house arrest while awaiting an extradition hearing in Canadian courts. Immediately following this event, China detained and arrested two Canadian citizens, Michael Spavour and Michael Korvig, under charges of espionage.

Whether the Trudeau government feared the wrath of Trump withdrawing from the CUSMA talks or placing stricter tariffs on Canadian public goods, the absence of Canada’s diplomatic and strategic autonomy in assessing the detainment of Meng Wanzhou with its national interests has overtly neutralized Canada’s ability to independently prioritize and set out its geopolitical relations with China going forward. Instead, Canada has become integrated into the middle of growing Sino-US power politics at the cost of two Canadian citizens and its diplomatic voice in deepening global issues over China’s belligerence to the rules-based order.

During a parliamentary vote to label the human rights abuses in Xinjiang as a genocide—an international pillar Canada helped create and lead during the Cold War—Trudeau abstained from voting to limit the diplomatic backlash arriving from China. Clearly, Sino-Canadian relations have entered into a period of agitation, uncertainty, and mistrust, a stark contrast to Pierre Trudeau’s engagement with China in 1970 that helped normalize relations between China and the developed world.

Canada & the International Community

Source: The Global and Mail, 2019

Canadian foreign policy misgivings have also seen the Trudeau government dwindle in its status as a reliable and trusting middle power globally. Declaring that “Canada is back” during his election victory speech in 2015, the global community eagerly awaited Canada’s re-emergence as a pivotal and outstanding bridger of the developed and developing world. Trudeau’s proclamation, however, would ultimately fall on deaf ears.

As prime minister, Trudeau and his liberal party have missed the OECD target of 0.7 percent of GDI for Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the past six years, providing only 0.27 percent of the country’s GDI. Moreover, Trudeau continued Stephen Harper’s policy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a recognized human rights abuser, and lacked in the country’s formal commitments to NATO’s defence spending mandate of 2 percent GDP. Coupled with Canada’s dwindling peacekeeping commitment—a historical legacy and cornerstone of Canadian middle power status—these foreign policy misgivings resulted in Canada losing, for the second time in a decade, a bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

To make matters worse, this past August further showcased Canada’s inability to develop and execute a functional foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Albeit not solely responsible for the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban, Canada’s inability to plan independently and collectively with its allies on a rational withdrawal plan illustrates the low-ranking nature of foreign policy in the Trudeau government and Canadian politics—further exemplified by the other political parties not putting forward any proposed pledges to improve and situate Canadian foreign policy for engaging in modern geopolitical, security and defence issues.

Fledgling Foreign Policy 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking at a G7 and Gender Equality Advisory Council meeting as part of the G7 summit in the Charlevoix in 2018
Source: CFR

A notable problem in Canada’s foreign policy is that the current government has executed a strategy of high diplomatic rhetoric with significantly few attainable outcomes. As a result of this process, Canada has been relatively weak in setting out diplomatic priorities and geostrategic interests in a deepening competitive and contested global order. 

“We’ve got the ability to make declarations, but [what] we really need is the ability to pursue our interests. And to do that, you have to define them first of all.”

Randolph Mank, former Canadian ambassador to Indonesia and former Canadian high commissioner to Pakistan and Malaysia.

A major criticism of Canadian foreign policy arrives from its recent values-based orientation that sees global affairs as a tool to court domestic votes in elections. During the Harper years, the conservative leader held staunch opposition to Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Although such opposition is warranted and should act as a bridging point to develop a foreign policy to defend and uphold the rules-based order, Steven Harper instead used the Russian-Ukrainian issue to cater to the Ukrainian population in Canada—the second-largest population outside Ukraine—to gain electoral votes. Justin Trudeau has taken this values-based approach to court progressives in Canada by declaring a feminist foreign policy during his election run in 2015, 2019, and 2021.

A Canadian feminist foreign policy aims to reflect on and bring forward Canada’s progress on developing feminist policies, strategies, and programs on enhanced diplomatic engagements and women, peace, and security (WPS). The Trudeau government claims that a feminist foreign policy offers a re-envisioned strategy to solve social and economic inequalities that undermine human rights, democracy, and the rules-based order’s norms, values, and institutions. However, there are two problematic aspects to Trudeau’s feminist foreign policy.

First, by catering to progressives in Canada, Trudeau has reinforced the position of foreign policy being a tool for domestic politics, thereby creating polarization on foreign policy issues that should be fundamental to all Canadian parties, politicians, and the general public—climate change, defence, security, intelligence, democratic and institution resiliency, NATO and a mandate to uphold the rules-based order. Second, the values-based nature of the feminist foreign policy produces hypocrisy. For instance, when Canada maintains an arms sale with Saudi Arabia or fails to condemn human rights abuses in China or fails to protect servicewomen in the Canadian military, it is difficult to wholeheartedly see how Canada can practically attain its diplomatic and geostrategic interests of resolving and enforcing gender norms and gender equality.

In addition, a feminist foreign policy hinders the very nature of diplomacy as it will compel illiberal, autocratic, and other democratic states—all necessary actors in addressing and solving global challenges to peace and prosperity—to observe Canada as a moralistic high-and-mighty nation that dares to dictate how they should behave to be considered a legitimate member of the international community, instead of attracting and influencing diplomatic dialogues on such issues. Values in foreign policy are vital, and they can assist in assessing and attaining diplomatic and geostrategic interests. With that said, they should not be the driving factor of a policy that is out-of-step and illogical with the realities of the rules-based order and the states that make up the international community.

The misgivings of Canada’s fledgling foreign policy emphasize the notion of Canada lacking the ability to be a geopolitically prominent country in a rapidly shifting global multipolar order. As the recent failed bid for the UNSC showcases, Canada is on track to become a “trick-a-box” nation that prioritizes “megaphone diplomacy” instead of prioritising practical engagement strategies that aim to address its national interests and those of the rules-based order. 

To paraphrase a letter from forty scholars, experts, and former diplomats from the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy to all Canadian federal party leaders: “if Canada continues to marginalize its foreign policy as a vital instrument for its national interests, it risks diminishing its ability to secure and promote the values, norms, and rules that have helped maintain global peace and prosperity.” Luckily for Canada, these misgivings can be readily corrected.

  • With deepening strategic competition, disunity among allies and an assertive China emerging in international relations, can Canada formulate a practical and rational foreign policy to attain and advance its national interests and values?
  • Is Canadian foreign policy’s destiny to remain an instrument for domestic politics?
  • Is Canada’s fledgling foreign policy a result of dwindling interest among the general public?

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A Prominent Middle Power …

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 9 min