Canada has not had a foreign policy review for half a century.
That astonishing oversight may be one of the root causes of Canada’s mortifying third-place finish last month for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The poor showing in New York underscored that there is no other G7 country that has boasted more about punching above its weight while scheming to do as little heavy lifting as possible. It is long past time for Canada to abandon the notion that it is a nation of nice guys and gals with big hearts.
What is urgently required is a frank assessment of where Canada is today and where it wishes to be tomorrow. The goal must be to fashion a realistic, pragmatic foreign policy that has as its top priority Canada’s strategic interests, including China. Other key interests include targeted improvements to Canada’s feeble role in assisting the developing world and addressing an almost total lack of interest in the Arctic and Indigenous people in the region, aside from a few new Navy and Coast Guard ships that can only operate in the North for part of the year.
Another weak spot is that while there have been many high-minded words, there has been little actually done on the vital issue of climate change or consideration given to how Canada must balance this with the country’s energy and economic needs.
That Canada has been a laggard on climate change has been noticed. French President Emmanuel Macron threatened this week to scupper a Canada-EU trade deal if Canada continues to ignore commitments that the Trudeau government made in the Paris climate accord.
It is also imperative that Canada must quickly develop a strategy with allies to ensure that it is never again caught without adequate prophylactic kit to be used against lethal viruses. As it is, Canada has been heavily dependent on one country — China — for most of its protective equipment.
The same safety of supply and public health issues apply to antibiotics and to the timely international exchange of accurate information about potential pandemics.
Aside from the COVID-19 crisis, which will likely batter the world for years to come, nothing challenges Canada in the security realm more than China. Historian Timothy Garton Ash said in an essay last week in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that a new Cold War was inevitable. In many ways, that collision between Washington and Beijing is already upon us.
“The question for the rest of us is: what we do about it? Do we put our heads in the sand and say: ‘Please make this go away?’” Ash asked. “Or do we recognize the reality and try to shape it towards the best possible outcome?”
Canada’s new foreign policy must, more than anything, provide a road map and the resources for Ottawa to navigate relationships with a battered old superpower that is not as clapped out as some people think, though it has lost its way, and an emergent superpower that is bound to be a colossus if it does not first turn the entire world against it by conducting an ugly, multi-front 21st-century version of guns and butter diplomacy.
Canada must begin to offer its unvarnished opinion regarding China’s mistreatment of China’s minorities, its breaking of treaty pledges regarding the independence of its judiciary and freedom of speech in Hong Kong and its growing threats to invade democratic Taiwan.
A major reason why Canada punches below its weight is that it has not been well served by many of its politicians, diplomats, academics and elder statesmen. Dazzled by the bonanza that they thought would come from closer trade ties with China, sometimes infected with schadenfreude over Donald Trump’s presidency or lacking a sophisticated understanding of the grand sweep of Beijing’s intentions, this collective leadership has until very recently dodged discussion about what to do about the elephant that is smashing down so many walls in the 21st century or has been willing to appease China in the forlorn hope that this might convince it to behave in a civil way.
Canadians are fond of talking about multilateralism. That has too often been code for not getting too close to the Americans. Yet a renewed multilateralism is the only way forward for Canada.
As is obvious to everyone, and especially to Beijing, Canada has nothing like the wherewithal to take on China directly. The best chance for Canada to manage relations with China must be to get together with the U.S. and other old partners such as Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Australia as well as potential new ones such as India, Vietnam and Taiwan.
To varying degrees, these nations are facing economic and security dilemmas from an ascendant and bellicose Beijing but are years ahead of Canada in becoming wary about China. Perhaps sensing that Canada has the least confidence or guile of any of the major developed countries, President Xi Jinping appears to have singled Ottawa out for special attention.
The communist dictatorship has pushed Canada around at will on trade, kidnapped its citizens, tried to plunder the secrets of the National Research Council during a major cyber assault, keeps a close eye on Chinese students and other overseas Chinese in Canada and is transparently preparing a big push to exploit the Arctic.
Long before the Meng Wanzhou–Huawei/Two Michaels crisis, Canada was so gung-ho for trade with China that it avoided harsh criticism of Beijing’s crazy grab for almost the entire South China Sea and control over the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Yet that disgraceful gambit, which involved building a string of heavily fortified air bases on atolls that it stole from its neighbours and promised never to militarize, as well as the biggest buildup of naval forces since the Second World War, has revealed the staggering scale of China’s ambitions.
Canada’s foreign policy reboot must acknowledge that Ottawa has been sleepwalking for years and that it has become one of the weakest links in the western alliance. Protected by the U.S. military and the booming U.S. economy, Ottawa has become a notorious cheapskate.
Nor has Canada shown much leadership in global clubs such as the G7, G20, NORAD, NATO, the Five Eyes or at a series of climate change conferences. One of its greatest failings has been its unwillingness to grasp that it is money and resolve that gets attention and respect overseas, not precious platitudes.
Canada must not now hide behind the COVID-19 debt that is accumulating, using that as a fresh excuse to again ignore the need for a properly funded and more robust and confident strategic policy.
The defining issue of the 21st century will be China’s relations with other nations. With this constantly in mind, Ottawa must start behaving like a global player and reliable partner.
The starting point must be a robust foreign policy review that throws out old conventions and, above all else, considers Canada’s place in this perilous new bipolar world.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.