Canada's foreign policy choices in an era of disruption



by David Carment, Joe Landry

The Hill Times
March 22, 2017

OTTAWA—With Donald Trump’s election as United States president, Canada finds itself in an exciting position. Trump is both disruptive and catalyzing; implicitly cajoling Canada’s leaders to, reluctantly and hesitantly, embrace change. If there is discomfort in that, it comes largely from the stark choices Canadians must confront in reacting to Trump’s policies.

Consider, for example, trade. Renegotiating NAFTA is inevitable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if it means Canada becomes more prosperous (though that strengthening will likely come at the expense of a weakened relationship with Mexico). But the Trump administration has also negated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that would have provided access to 40 per cent of the global economy as a rules-based regime for expanding Canada’s trade into the Asia-Pacific.

Notwithstanding the Canada-Europe trade deal success story and the fact that Canada has proven capable of striking deals with small economies in emerging markets such as Colombia and Honduras, working with the likes of China and the new U.S. administration presents more daunting and unanticipated challenges.

The collapse of the TPP is especially problematic for a country realizing migration patterns deeply influence its trading relations, specifically in regards to China and India whose peoples are increasingly calling Canada home. While we are historically dependent on trade with the U.S. and Europe, our multicultural population and its well-organized diaspora communities hold the key to Canadian prosperity. If Canada’s changing demography portends future policy choice, then surely there is merit in looking beyond North America.


But the demand for change is fuelled by more than these demographic considerations. By mid-century it’s estimated that Asia, led by China, along with Brazil and South Africa, will have a combined gross national product larger than the G8. The brief moment with the U.S. as the pre-eminent world power at the turn of the 20th century, is now a multipolar system, dominated by rising giants that dwarf Canada militarily, economically, and politically.

To add uncertainty to the mix, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambitious multilateral agenda faces unprecedented challenges from Trump, who prefers to negotiate bilaterally because it more clearly exploits American leverage over weaker partners.

In contrast, Canada counters American influence through a multilateral agenda with its emphasis on the establishment and enforcement of collective rules guiding state conduct. To be sure, defence and border security co-operation between the two countries are deeply interwoven, but on collective global issues such as climate change, Canada is more multilateral.

It is through multilateralism that Canada has typically addressed questions of peace and security. Unfortunately, the world is seeing a decline in the coherence and effectiveness of such organizations.


An example is the potential for bilateral free trade arrangements to weaken the World Trade Organization. Another example is the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and its implications for European Union integrity and coherence, along with a perceived deterioration of the UN system.

The real purpose of such institutions is to sanction, monitor, and co-ordinate the management of public goods and to ensure harmonization among states to overcome collective-action problems such as climate change and security. But without leadership, such efforts will continue to fall apart. The U.S. appears to have neither the capacity nor willingness to provide that leadership globally. Because of that, it could become the architect of its own demise.

Faced with a recalcitrant and reluctant U.S., Canada’s leaders are at a loss on how to develop a coherent strategy to kick-start multilateral renewal. Despite the Canadian government’s desire to seek a seat on the UN Security Council, there are countries such as Ireland and Norway that have done more to justify membership.

If peacekeeping was the path that would put Canada back on the council, that strategy appears to now be on hold. Commitments to training Ukrainian soldiers and deploying several hundred of our own in the Baltic states under NATO command are meagre substitutes for fixing a broken system. A solution to weakened global governance remains elusive. At the same time, uncertainty in the global order represents an important opportunity for Canada to strike a new path and embrace change openly and willingly. If we succeed we may well end up thanking Donald Trump for that. 

David Carment is a Canadian Global Affairs Institute fellow and editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. Joe Landry is with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Portions of this op-ed will appear in a volume celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary from UBC Press edited by Philippe Tortell and Max Cameron.

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