Canada and the World: The Urgent Need to Invest in Canada’s Foreign Policy Tools


Image credit: Minister of National Defence Bill Blair/


by Peter Jones and Philippe Lagassé
June 2024


Table of Contents


Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the global situation looked so worrying.  And yet, Canada has not changed its basic approach to crafting and executing foreign, defence and security policy since the Cold War ended, and we chronically underfund the policies and capabilities we do have. In short, we continue to rely on our hopes for the “rules-based international order”, established in the aftermath of the Second World War, nearly 80 years ago.  But that order is under threat as never before in this century and we do not maintain the capability to make a suitable national contribution to the maintenance of it.

In the past few years numerous organizations, academics, foreign affairs experts and others have expressed concern about Canada's growing irrelevance in the world.1 A broad consensus has emerged on the need for sustained action to repair Canada’s ability to contribute to the maintenance of a global order in keeping with our interests, our values, and which honours Canada’s historic role as a supporter of freedom and order in the world.

We believe that an urgent national effort is required to make significant and sustained investments across the entire spectrum of Canada’s engagements with the world. We believe these interests are:

  • the defence of Canada and its allies;
  • the maintenance of the values and the prosperity upon which our way of life depends; and
  • the need for countries to commit to the upholding of a stable international order.

To be clear, we believe that the values and interests which are crucial to Canada are individual liberty and freedom of expression; and a fair, rules-based, free and open global trading system

In this paper we call on Canada to revitalize our means to re-engage with the world across the full range of our capabilities. In a recent paper published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute three experts outline in greater detail what 2 per cent of GDP for defence spending could look like.  The government’s most recent defence policy, Our North, Strong and Free, made a start, but much more remains to be done if Canada is to catch up with our closest allies and go beyond “exploring” a truly revitalized defence capability.

But Canada’s ability to promote its interests in the world is not just a question of hard, military power. What is required is a sustained investment in all of the areas which constitute Canada’s ability to influence the world in ways which promote our interests. These are: foreign policy and diplomacy; Official Development Assistance (ODA); security and intelligence capabilities; and defence. Investing in one area without addressing deficiencies in the others will not result in a Canada truly able to contribute to international peace, order, and security. 


The Way Forward on ODA and Defence: Fund Existing Commitments!

To start, we call upon the Canadian government to address the commitments it has already made to our allies and the international community. These can form the basis for a concerted approach in the areas of ODA and defence. 

For example, Canada accepts the UN’s call to commit 0.7 per cent of what the UN calls “Gross National Income” for ODA, but we have never come close. Our ODA has hovered around 0.3 per cent for several years. This represents slightly less than $7 Billion. To meet the 0.7 per cent target would require slightly more than doubling this figure, adjusted annually for inflation. Deploying that money in support of our national interests requires an approach to ODA which prioritizes support for those around the world who share our values and objectives, including universal human rights and gender equality, and those whose fledgeling democracies are at risk of falling back toward autocracy or authoritarianism. 

This will require a much more selective approach than we have seen to date. Canadian ODA must be targeted and spent in amounts sufficient to achieve big objectives, rather than doled out in small amounts across large landscapes. The means by which recipients will be selected will be a matter of fierce debate, but a renewed commitment to meet our ODA targets requires us, above all, to re-learn the basic lesson that ODA is not simply an altruistic gift to the world; it is an investment we make to support the development of societies which share our interests and values.  If done properly, ODA should not be seen as an “alternative” to other priorities, such as defence spending, but as a vital part of an integrated approach to creating the kind of world that is in keeping with our interests and values.  

Similarly, we officially committed to our allies in 2014 to achieve 2 per cent of GDP for defence spending. Notwithstanding notable increases in military expenditures since 2017, we chronically lounge at the bottom in any table showing what the allies are achieving. Canada is increasingly an outlier among NATO allies in not meeting this commitment. As noted in the recently published CGAI paper, if done properly a commitment to actually spend 2 per cent represents a “forcing function” which will require the government to be more effective.

This may sound like a significant departure for Canada. It is not. For example, when Lester Pearson was Prime Minister, Canada never spent less than 2.54 per cent of GDP on defence, and hit a high of 3.62 per cent. During the time of John Diefenbaker, defence spending went over 4 per cent. In comparison with what we have done before, 2 per cent is not extreme. The loss of political will to support pragmatic defence spending coincided with the end of the Cold War. Until 1989, defence spending was consistently over 2 per cent. While some may argue that letting defence spending fall was justified with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this position is no longer tenable. Canada benefitted from the “peace dividend” that came with the end of the Cold War, but we are now faced with a world that is increasingly dangerous and conflictual and we must reinvest to secure a new peace.


Beyond Defence and ODA

But investment in defence and ODA, while necessary, is not enough. All of the components of Canada’s ability to interact with the world must be revisited and modernized.

There are no equivalent internationally accepted “targets” for foreign policy/diplomacy as there are for ODA and defence.  However, we believe Canadians must support increases here as well. A recent Senate of Canada report on Canada’s Foreign Service recommended that management be streamlined, greater expertise encouraged and more Canadian diplomats be posted abroad.2 Similarly, a report released recently by a group of eminent former U.K. officials suggested that a 1 per cent of GDP target for both diplomacy and aid would be an appropriate goal, to go along with the 2 per cent commitment to defence spending.3 This target is a useful benchmark for a similar  conversation about the future of Canada’s diplomatic capacity.

Canada’s security and intelligence community is somewhat more opaque with regard to spending, but there is an emerging consensus that services such as the RCMP, CSIS, CSE and others within this community require a critical examination of whether they remain fit for purpose and are adequately resourced.4 Furthermore, the establishment of a foreign intelligence service is generating discussion and should be considered.

As we make these critical investments, we must recognize the rapidly evolving nature of security.  A changing climate means that the Arctic will be opened up for a variety of new uses and we must re-think what it means to “defend” it, as Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly has recently stated. A rapidly transforming knowledge-based economy means that we must regard the collaborative R&D capacity of our universities and industry in fields like AI, space, cyber and many others as strategic assets to be both developed and protected as a key part of any approach to national security. As we have seen recently off the coast of Yemen, non-state actors, armed with weapons that were heretofore unavailable to them, can wreak havoc on global trade.   



The threats we face today directly affect the well-being of Canadians. All of them require responses across the broad spectrum of our capabilities in terms of diplomacy, development assistance, intelligence and defence. As of today, we cannot meet these threats, or even make a serious contribution to allied efforts to meet them which is in keeping with our national interests or with our status in the world. We are, by history and necessity, an Allied nation. As we benefit from our Alliances, so too must we be prepared to contribute to them.

What is required urgently is a broad national consensus around the need for Canada to set serious targets and develop a plan to meet them in a clearly-defined and short time-frame. We recognize that these spending targets represent substantial investments. We believe Canadians are ready to make them, if they properly understand the issues. Canadians have always risen to the challenge of defending freedom when they have been called to. There is too much at stake for us to fail to rise to that challenge today. 


End Notes

1 See, for example: Edward Greenspoon, Janice Gross Stein, and Drew Fagan, “Canada needs a plan for the U.S., no matter who becomes president. That starts with making us matter more,” Globe and Mail, 27 April 2024, available at:; Rigby, V. and Juneau, T., A National Security Strategy for the 2020s; Report of the Task Force on National Security, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, May, 2022, available at:; Shull, A. and Wark, W., Reimagining and Canadian National Security Strategy, Centre for International Governance Innovation, December, 2021, available at:; Gilmour, J., “Does Canada Need a New National Security Policy?” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, July, 2021, available at:   

2 Senate of Canada, “More than a Vocation: Canada’s Need for a 21st Century Foreign Service,” Dec, 2023, at:

3 “The World in 2024: Renewing the UK’s Approach to International Affairs,” 7 April, 2024, available at: The World in 2040: Renewing the UK’s Approach to International Affairs | UCL Policy Lab - UCL – University College London

4 A recent report by the Business Council of Canada makes these points, particularly with respect to the ability of this community to safeguard Canada’s economic interests in a changing world.  See, Business Council of Canada, “Economic Security is National Security: The case for an Integrated Canadian Strategy,” Sept 07, 2023, at:


About the Author

Peter Jones is a Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Philippe Lagassé is an Associate Professor in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.


Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email