PERRIN BEATTY, BESSMA MOMANI AND KIM RICHARD NOSSAL
CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL October 9, 2023
Perrin Beatty is president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Bessma Momani is professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. Kim Richard Nossal is professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University. They are members of the Advisory Board of the Canadian International Council.
It has not been a happy time for Canada in international affairs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusation that Indian officials had been behind the murder of a Canadian citizen in Surrey, B.C., in June has sent our relationship with India into a deep freeze. To make matters worse, Canada found itself largely alone, with our friends and allies, who all have an interest in further developing a geostrategic relationship with India, hardly offering Canada their full-throated support.
Then, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the House of Commons, the Speaker acknowledged a 98-year old constituent in the gallery, introducing him as someone who had “fought the Russians” all his life. At those words, MPs from all parties rose to give a standing ovation, embarrassing themselves and the rest of us by forgetting (or worse, not knowing) that after 1941, Canadians and Russians were allies against Nazi Germany, and that they were thus applauding a former member of a Waffen-SS unit. Because this fed the Russian Federation’s propaganda that Ukraine needed to be de-Nazified, Canada once again found itself very much alone and embarrassed as friends and allies rolled their eyes.
While they differed, the events of the past two weeks demonstrate Canada’s increasing international isolation. And the problems are both more deep-seated and long-standing than these two incidents. The world’s geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting quickly and dramatically, and we continue to find ourselves unprepared. Under Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China is increasingly assertive at home and abroad. The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has embraced a policy of naked aggression in its efforts to undermine the global order. And complicating these broader geostrategic shifts is the very real possibility that Donald J. Trump and his America First movement could return to power in the U.S. in January, 2025. These developments have already focused the attention of smaller countries everywhere.
But in Canada, where we have become complacent about geopolitics because we snuggled comfortably for so long in the embrace of the United States, we are not taking these shifts seriously. It has been a long time since we’ve engaged in an honest assessment of how our country performs on the international stage, and why we are increasingly seen by others as unserious. Given our lack of national self-awareness, our politicians are happy to play politics with Canada’s place in global politics and economics while we lose what relevance we once had.
We got here because Canada’s foreign policy has too often become purely performative, embracing ear-candy sound bites designed to make Canadians feel good about themselves rather than putting in the hard work of crafting policy for an unpleasant and increasingly dangerous world.
Worse yet, successive Canadian governments have spent as little as they can get away with on international affairs and defence, leaving Canada underequipped to deal with the evolving global order. The world is taking note.
And all too often, foreign and defence policy is simply framed as a hunt for votes. This is a long-standing issue in defence procurement. Likewise, the deeply entrenched practice in Canadian politics of playing diaspora diplomacy festers, even though diaspora games in Canada can have damaging consequences beyond our borders.
Not taking our international performance seriously may have worked when global politics offered the kind of relative predictability and security that we experienced during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. But that is well behind us, and we need to adapt to the unpredictability of the contemporary global system where we see the rise of authoritarianism and illiberal democracy, the return of protectionism and a populist reaction against globalization, and the corrosive effects of digital disinformation. Most importantly, we see the emergence of great-power competition that always runs the risk of breaking down into great-power conflict.
We need to strategically rethink where we would like to see Canada in the world in the 2020s and 2030s – diplomatically, militarily, and economically. We need to think about how we can make a constructive contribution to the emerging global order – not for performative reasons for the benefit of domestic politics, but to ensure that Canada is able to prosper and protect the interests of Canadians in the years ahead.