contributor perspectives

The Remarkable Consistency of Canada's Foreign Policy

Philip Leech-Ngo
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READMay 21, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
This photo shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
(DAVE CHAN/Getty Images)

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference on March 7, 2019, in Ottawa.

Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • Despite efforts to sell their international approaches as different, Canada's Liberal and Conservative parties have pursued a consistent foreign policy for decades.
  • Mutual security and economic ties with the United States mean leaders from both of Canada's major political parties give priority to their country's relationship with Washington even when it runs counter to their electoral interests or political convictions.
  • Regardless of which party wins Canada's federal election in October, the foreign policy status quo will endure.

At a victory rally on election night 2015, the leader of Canada's Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, invoked one of the country's greatest statesmen, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, by promising a future of "Sunny Ways." At the time, Trudeau's epithet seemed appropriate. Following nine years of rule by the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper, during which Canada had suffered a series of setbacks to its usually positive international reputation, Trudeau's upbeat language and media appeal appeared to offer a welcome change of direction.

Immediately upon taking office, the new Liberal government set about trying to restore Canada's international image. However, with five months to go before a new general election in October, the shine appears to have come off. A growing movement on the political right — apparently fueled by a mix of grievances — has manifest both electorally in six out of 10 provincial governments and in the form of a high-profile Canadian "yellow vest" movement. Moreover, an ongoing scandal involving alleged political interference in the judiciary has cost the government two widely respected ministers and tarnished Trudeau's image.

Canada's Place in the World

In terms of Canada's place in the world, initial optimism about the Liberal government's impact has also been tempered by experience. Trudeau's honeymoon period was characterized by a so-called bromance with U.S. President Barack Obama and global acclaim following Canada's welcome of Syrian refugees. More recently, however, Ottawa has been buffeted by more powerful states. For example, after Canada called out human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh responded with a series of high-profile, albeit mostly symbolic, retaliatory measures.

Similarly, Ottawa found itself the target of Chinese hostility following its arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport, based on a U.S. request. China responded by curbing agricultural imports from Canada and using its judiciary to clamp down on Canadians in its territory. Further, since Donald Trump's election to the White House in 2016, cross-border relations have soured. Though Trudeau's first visit to Washington was seen as a relatively successful charm offensive, subsequent disagreements over trade, particularly relating to the renegotiation of NAFTA, led to tensions and an embarrassing public spat.

However, it is unlikely that any other Canadian government would have pursued a significantly different international agenda. Indeed, while there are some differences between the two main political party's foreign policies, Canada's global role has been remarkably consistent for decades. This is because, for Canadian foreign policymakers, geopolitical concerns rule. In other words, given Canada's proximity to the world's only superpower, Ottawa's primary focus is always its relationship with Washington.

Lopsided Interdependence

To be sure, the Conservative and Liberal parties make efforts to sell their approaches as different. For example, under the Harper administration, the government shunned international organizations like the United Nations and propagated an almost Manichean worldview, while the current government's position — articulated by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in a speech to Parliament in 2017 — embraces multilateralism in the face of threats to it from across the globe. However, in practice, since just before World War II, Canada has prioritized its relationship with the United States.

Canada is a middle power that borders a great power; thus it must maintain a cordial relationship to ensure both its prosperity and even its basic survival.

The rationale for this is obvious. Canada is a middle power that borders a great power; thus it must maintain a cordial relationship to ensure its prosperity and even its basic survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the current prime minister's father) told a Press Club meeting in Washington in 1969, Canada's experience living next door to the United States is like "sleeping with an elephant" because "no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast … one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

There is a high level of interdependence between Canada and the United States. In terms of security, this dates back to an exchange of assurances in the lead-up to World War II, when both President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King articulated their countries' commitments to mutual security in August 1938. Of course, this became manifest when the United States entered the war in 1941 but came into their own during the Cold War as U.S. defense planners sought to take advantage of Canada's geostrategic location — in the path of any potential transpolar attack launched by the Soviet Union — to augment its defense. This began with a joint project to build a series of early-warning radar stations and air force bases in the early 1950s and developed into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in 1958.

Moreover, Canada and the United States are also two of the most integrated international economic partners with a mutual trade balance valued at more than $2 billion per day and which is the basis for more than 9 million American jobs. While in general terms, Canada is much more heavily dependent on the United States than vice versa, the United States has historically relied on its northern partner's hydrocarbon industry to meet its energy needs (though the current U.S. production boom is rapidly reshaping that balance).

Geopolitics Rules

It stands to reason then that political leaders from both of Canada's main political parties would prioritize the relationship with Washington even if this runs counter to their immediate electoral interests or political convictions. Evidence of this is present even during moments of apparently peak tension between the two countries. Indeed, even as Canadian leaders have publicly disagreed with the United States on occasion, they have usually refrained from more meaningful practical resistance. For example, even though Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker argued for U.N. involvement in the Cuban missile crisis and was reluctant to put Canadian forces on alert despite President John Kennedy's requests, he subsequently accepted the need to ready the military and joined a NATO blockade of Cuba. Further, while two Liberal prime ministers, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, spoke against U.S. policy in Vietnam, 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight there (though this was technically illegal under Canadian law). Canada also continued to supply materiel to support the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia and was engaged in secret missions and weapons testing and, finally, it sent troops as part of the peacekeeping force to help enforce the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

Moreover, while Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien decided not to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — much to the irritation of Harper, the future Conservative prime minister — he did not withdraw the Canadian armed forces personnel already deployed on secondment to the U.S. and British militaries and allowed three Canadian warships to remain part of the task force patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Thus, while there are some rhetorical differences between the two major Canadian political parties concerning foreign policy, regardless of who wins the election in October there will be no serious challenge to the status quo under either. As decades worth of evidence suggest, Canada's foreign policy is driven primarily by geopolitics and its overriding concern is to remain close — but not too close — to its southern neighbor.

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