It’s time for Canada to stop sleepwalking across the global stage
by Colin Robertson
September 27, 2015
Canada’s international brand needs a make-over. It starts with a strategic plan, focused priorities and specific initiatives for international re-engagement.
In preparing for Monday’s foreign policy debate, our party leaders should read Roland Paris’ letter to the next prime minister, Ian Brodie’s After America and a recent study by Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan assessing Canada’s global engagement.
Greenhill and McQuillan observe that spending on defence and development assistance has fallen by half since 1990. The drift downwards — from 2.4 per cent to 1.2 per cent of GDP — began in 2000. Canada, they argue, has become an international “free rider”.
Earning our way back into good global citizenship requires money and time. Budgets, especially for defence and development, require sustained commitments. The next prime minister must devote time to building relationships with his counterparts, most importantly with the U.S. president.
Our first priority must be developing a plan for Canada’s international re-engagement. Start with three questions:
- Where do we want to play a role in the world and why?
- What do we want to achieve?
- How much will we spend?
Any international re-engagement strategy needs to keep in mind the following:
- One in five Canadian jobs depends on trade. Trade — both exports and imports — accounts for more than 60 per cent of our GDP. Despite expanding our trade agreements, our share of global exports has fallen in recent years.
- Shielded by the U.S. security umbrella, we do defence on the cheap — spending just one percent of GDP. Our continental and collective security obligations, especially maritime, need attention. When it comes to military procurement, especially for our navy, we need to put defence readiness ahead of the jiggery-pokery of industrial and regional benefits.
- Our birth rate is below replacement level, so we need a vigorous immigration program to attract talent with commensurate programs to help newcomers settle into Canada. Half of the people living in our largest city, Toronto, were born outside of Canada.
Good international citizenship means a re-commitment to multilateralism and a healthy development assistance program. Creating economic and political stability depends on democratic governance, something Canada does better than others, so we should make better use of institutions like the Parliamentary Centre and International Development Research Centre.
Our leverage in foreign capitals, especially Washington, depends on the intelligence and insights gathered by our diplomats. The Foreign Service needs to be revived and resourced, with more overseas offices. Let our ambassadors experiment with different forms of public diplomacy.
To signal that Canada is back in the multilateral arena, we should consider the following initiatives:
- Expanding our resettlement of refugees and asking the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees what more Canada can do to help.
- Putting a battalion into blue berets in response to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s plea for more peacekeepers.
- Re-joining the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in advance of the Paris Climate conference.
- Declaring that we will soon seek election to the UN Security Council, running as a voice for the middle powers.
Our second priority should be rebuilding and expanding the North American relationship. McKinsey estimates that, by 2035 — through improving trilateral economic integration — North America could achieve cumulative productivity gains yielding another $10 trillion in trade flows and $1.5-$2.2 trillion in cumulative GDP growth. How can the three of us work together to promote our collective prosperity?
We should challenge the U.S. and Mexico to help us take North American integration to the next level — unifying our approach on economic, social and global issues. Getting the North American platform right — a different model than that of the EU — will help us grow supply chains and diversify our markets overseas.
We can lead in developing a new view for North American integration through the following initiatives:
- A North American competitiveness agreement that addresses continental labour mobility, regulatory harmonization, and infrastructure priorities. For financing we should join and broaden the scope of the North American Development Bank.
- A North American approach to the Paris climate conference that shares, for example, the best practices in tailings, water, land and greenhouse gas developed by our oilsands industry, or the regulatory excellence of the Alberta Energy Regulator.
- Strategic engagement with Mexico, starting with the lifting of the visa. Make Central America the priority for our development assistance.
Our third priority should be to make the changes at home necessary to implement our expanded global role.
While the United States will always be our main market, we need to diversify. Disputes on softwood lumber, Keystone XL and country-of-origin labeling should have taught us that dependence on one market dooms us to be price-takers. If we want a global price we need to get our goods to global markets. This means building the infrastructure — coast-to coast pipelines, LNG terminals, ports, rail and road.
Projects of national scope require national consensus. All levels of government need to collaborate with business, environmental groups and First Nations. Look to the Boreal Forest Agreement as a good example of public-spirited cooperation.
We need new ideas on managing our market economy against the changing international landscape. The Macdonald Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Union (1982-85) is the model for developing new thinking on our national and international development prospects. The Macdonald Commission generated the intellectual capital behind free trade, the GST, balanced budgets and pension security. Completing its work in less than three years, the Commission cost just $21 million.
In life’s lottery, being Canadian is the top prize. We have an abundance of land and resources and a friendly neighbour. We are a comfortable country in an increasingly uncomfortable world.
But with privilege comes responsibility. We can’t do everything — but what we do should advance our interests and promote our values. International engagement — bilateral and multilateral — accomplishes both objectives. It is with this principle in mind that the next government needs to reset Canadian foreign policy.
Colin Robertson is vice president and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute