“Canada is in a unique position to be a, if not the, world leader in preparedness. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to reframe our thinking of what a pandemic represents, and in so doing, we can potentially create a revolutionary and science-driven health economy.”
The piece goes on to describe a series of medically-informed steps that Ottawa could take in order to position itself at the forefront of “the advancement of global responsiveness.”
Schipper’s argument for Canadian leadership is, on its surface, compelling:
“Our biological and medical sciences expertise is, on a population and expenditure basis, world leading already… our diversity both provides the test bed for new interventions and links to other countries that no other country can match. Moreover, as a middle power with a track record of trust and success in forging new concepts for global well-being … we have specific advantages in terms of engaging the international community.”
His thinking harkens back to the logic underlying the functional principle, a Canadian recipe for foreign policy influence that was articulated with moderate success in the 1940s.
Canada, the story went, was not a great power, but there were times when it had the capacity to contribute just like one.
In such cases, should Ottawa invest the necessary political and/or human capital, Canada deserved to be recognized as a leading player on the world stage.
According to Schipper, when it comes to pandemic preparedness, the capacity is there. And there is no denying that Canadian interests will be well-served by better preparation in anticipation of Covid-19’s inevitable successor.
Presumably, then, all that is needed is political will.
Between 2013 and 2019, I made a similar – albeit far less eloquent – suggestion in lectures at my home institution, the Canadian Forces College.
If Canadians insisted on looking for global leadership opportunities, I argued, they could do worse than becoming the world’s pandemic preparedness experts.
Ever since Covid-19 hit, however, I have dropped pandemics from my text.
Ironically, my thinking can also be traced to the functional principle.
Only I am thinking about its less well-known caveat: opportunities for smaller countries to exercise global leadership are typically contingent on the degree of great power interest in the issue in question.
Put bluntly, the more the great powers care, the less space there is for everyone else.
Notwithstanding the underwhelming response from the White House, it seems to me that Covid-19 has brought pandemics to the direct attention of many of the world’s most powerful states.
It follows that the likelihood of a China or a Russia, or a new administration in the United States, tolerating Canadian efforts to dominate the preparedness realm is slim to nil.
Schipper’s call for Ottawa to embrace the opportunity to make an already capable public health sector “more resilient, flexible, innovative, and responsive” is still well-taken, but I suspect that the opportunity for Canadian global leadership on pandemic preparedness has long since passed.
I have been interested in the functional principle since graduate school. My most recent work on it can be found here.
If global leadership opportunities for Canada interest you, take a look at the work that the University of British Columbia’s Karen Jessica Bakker does on water security.
Recently, I was fortunate to get a sneak peek at some of the draft chapters from Stephanie Carvin, Thomas Juneau, and Craig Forcese’s forthcoming book, Top Secret Canada: Understanding the Canadian Intelligence and National Security Community. If you teach Canadian national security and intelligence, or if you want to understand how our system works, this book will be indispensable. Kudos to them for putting it together, and to all of their contributors for the great work.
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