It was a clever turn of phrase, but it also helped explain why, during the Cold War, Ottawa was well-positioned to pursue a middle-power-like agenda.
We looked like a serious country, but when it came to international security, to borrow a phrase from my father, we weren’t busy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea recently in the context of ongoing public criticism of Canadian foreign policy.
Just last week, John Ivison of the National Post wrote: “The hard truth is that Canada doesn’t matter that much anymore.”
In The Line, Jen Gerson and Matt Gurney suggested something similar:
“The world is a dangerous, complicated, and challenging place, and getting more so with each passing day. And while our allies and partners are rolling up their sleeves and preparing to meet these challenges head on, they aren’t even bothering to give Canada a call.”
They went on to cite Ottawa’s exclusion from AUKUS; a call by President Biden on Ukraine that included the UK, France, Germany, Poland, the EU, and NATO (but not Prime Minister Trudeau); and a meeting in Norway on Afghanistan that brought together the US, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the EU, but again, not Canada.
Gerson and Gurney claim that Ottawa has failed to take international relations seriously:
“We don’t spend the money, or put in the effort, or adopt the required policies that would cause our friends and allies to take us seriously. We’re seen as feckless, or free riders, or both, and instead of acknowledging the problem, we spin obvious snubs as signs of our deeper virtue.”
There’s certainly some truth in what they’ve written. Historically, our country has too often pursued a foreign policy that, to crib from my RMC colleague and defence policy expert Joel Sokolsky, has started with the question: How much is just enough?
To make matters worse, too many Canadian governments have framed such frugality in absurdly self-congratulatory terms.
But I think that part of the challenge is also structural.
Take Canada’s rather accidental membership in the G7.
Being part of the G7 implies a degree of international importance.
But Canada is a country of less than 40 million people. The next smallest G7 member, Italy, has a population of about 60 million.
Put another way, the difference in population size between Canada and Italy is about the same as that between Canada and Mali, or Romania, or Chile.
The difference in population size between Canada and the smallest of the original G5 members is about the same as that between Canada and the Dominican Republic.
But shouldn’t those numbers make it easier for Ottawa to play the role, in Ivison’s terms, of “middle power interlocutor”?
Not really in 2022 – we’re too rich for that.
Canada has the world’s 10th largest economy, and we have economic interests everywhere. We cannot claim to be the disinterested, smallish impartial state we could in the 1950s when we traded almost exclusively with the United States and the United Kingdom, and Canadians of European descent formed the overwhelming majority of our population.
Norway has one-quarter of Canada’s GDP and is significantly more homogeneous. With that much less skin in the international game, it can make a more credible case to the world when it presents itself as a disinterested and well-meaning global problem solver.
So we’re a regional power without a region; a G7 country lacking the population necessary to keep up; and a middle power that has grown too wealthy and internationally-invested to appeal to the smaller states.
All of this is not forgive successive Canadian governments for their collective failures to take our international obligations sufficiently seriously.
And there is no question that most states would give anything for Canada’s “problems.”
But perhaps it wouldn’t hurt – at least occasionally – to judge political Ottawa with a touch of empathy.
For some thoughtful ideas on where Canadian foreign policy should be heading, take a look at this essay by the former ambassador and current Canadian Forces College mentor, Kerry Buck. For more on the “golden age” of foreign policy, you could try this essay that I wrote a while back.
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