March 2014 Commentary

Canada needs a realistic foreign policy

by J. L. Granatstein

What must Canada’s government base its foreign policy on?

First, let us consider what a foreign policy must not be. Foreign policy is not about loving everyone or even helping everyone. It is not about saying a nation cannot do anything or cannot go to war, for example, for fear of offending some group within the country. Nor can it be about doing something only to satisfy one or another group’s ties to its mother country. 

Foreign policy, instead, must spring from the fundamental bases of a state — its geographical location, its history, its form of government, its economic imperatives, its alliances, and yes, of course, its people. In other words, national interests must be key. 

No multicultural nation like Canada can do what its citizens of Sri Lankan or Jewish or Ukrainian origin want — all the time. No nation like Canada can do what its provinces, or founding peoples, or some of them may want — all the time. A nation must do what its national interests determine it must. And that foreign policy requires that a nation like Canada know what its national interests are. 

Canadian national interests, while difficult to prioritize and harder still to put into effect, are not very difficult to state: 
1. Canada must protect its territory and the security of its people; 
2. Canada must maintain its unity; 
3. Canada must protect its independence; 
4. Canada must promote the economic growth of the nation to support the prosperity of its people; 
5. Canada should work with like-minded states for the protection and enhancement of democracy and freedom. 

These are easy to list, but they can and do fluctuate in importance from time to time. The key point, however, is that the five national interests are all always important, though with varying weight. 

The last national interest is based on our history and institutions. We have always fought for freedom and democracy, for our friends and allies, when we chose to do so. 

We did our part in the world wars and during the Cold War because Canadians rightly believed it was in our national interest to do so. Advancing freedom and democracy remain goals for Canada, but the government and people must recognize that Canada is not a great power, that it cannot save the world by itself. We need alliances of the like-minded, and Canadians have sought for this. 

But how do we do all this? Can we shape a foreign policy that advances our national interests and simultaneously meets the needs of various elements in the population? 

The Harper government is not alone in having allowed ethnic politics to shape foreign policy. Other prime ministers have frequently permitted electoral calculations to make Canadian policy abroad. 

This is not always an error, but it frequently is, not least because it leads to a rhetoric-based foreign policy with nothing to back it. 

We have seen this during Harper’s recent visit to Israel. We have seen it again during Foreign Minister John Baird’s visit to Ukraine. Both talked as if Canada would do anything and everything to help two struggling democracies, but all they had to offer was words. All aid short of help is not policy. 

In other words, our foreign policy must be cut to fit our national-interest cloth and our limited resources. Every government needs to think seriously about what Canada can do and where it should do it. 

Is the Middle East the right place for us to commit our resources, even if they are only rhetorical resources? Is Central Europe? 

Very simply, the harsh reality is that Canada will not go to war for Israel or Ukraine, even if we any longer had a military that was capable of doing so. We will not even go to the wall for such countries. It helps no one to pretend otherwise. 

Except perhaps potential voters in Canada. But even these Canadians cannot be gulled forever. Certainly our friends abroad know that Canadian rhetorical flourishes have no power behind them and, indeed, scarcely deserve (or receive) notice. A little realism, a recognition of the limitations on Canada’s ability — and willingness — to act abroad is long overdue for both our leaders and their client groups.

J.L. Granatstein is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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