There may never have been an easier or harder time to be Canadian. Never easier, in that one need not look far in the world to find all the examples of what we are not, and do not wish to be. Never harder, in that where Canada fits into this world, and how we make our way in it, has never been less clear.
Pity, then, the analyst whose job it is to make some sense of it all. Just about anything written about world affairs these days risks becoming fast outdated. Has the pandemic indelibly shifted the global balance of power? Is Trump’s “America First” past or prelude? Has climate change doomed our planet or are we finally getting our collective act together? One is reminded of the unfortunate commentators just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or on Sept 10, 2001, speculating about the near future of international relations.
“Now is the time of monsters,” Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci said of the interwar period. But it is not just the danger of becoming dated, or failing to see the monsters lurking ahead, that makes analyzing international affairs so fraught, nor is it enough to say that the pace of change in the world is yet again accelerating. That dynamic feels like it’s been with us since at least the advent of the Internet.
It is also the pervasive sense of foreboding, surely heightened by having been confined to our living rooms for nearly a year. Sources of this foreboding are now overly familiar: the rise around the world of belligerent populism; culture wars between those of us from somewhere and those of us supposedly from anywhere; inequality on a scale not seen in a century; the U.S. and China’s conscious uncoupling; the Anthropocene extinction; the steep decline in democracy, human rights and trust in our basic institutions; and the even steeper drop in the civility of our public discourse. (Also, the robots are coming.)
Documenting this season of our discontent has become a growth industry. But from a practical perspective, it poses a more serious challenge. Charting the way forward in such times is constrained by a simple problem: the map has yet to be drawn. Approaching this unknown place, we encounter not just the sea dragons of ancient maps but, as the British explorer Martin Frobisher christened the south shore of Baffin Island: “Meta Incognita” — that is to say, “Beyond the Unknown Things.” In the meantime, as societies and countries, we have no choice but to rely on the maps we have, and to try to chart as steady a course in the world as we can. This includes Canada and Canadians.
Derek H. Burney and Fen Osler Hampson’s comprehensive survey of the last four years of Canadian foreign policy is as good a present guide as any. Admittedly, the book was written pre-pandemic and before November’s U.S. election and its tumultuous aftermath (and is ripe for a second edition postscript). Still, it offers a useful 10,000-foot view of the longer-term global fissures that are shaping and will continue to shape how Canada influences and is influenced by world affairs.
The book’s central thesis is summed up by its cover. The great challenge for Canada in the world is no longer Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s famous metaphor about a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. It is now encapsulated by Burney and Hampson’s image of a beaver squeezed between an eagle and a dragon (the U.S. and China).
The world has shifted: from the relative bipolar stability of the post-Second World War period, when global power was balanced between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; through the post-Cold War’s unipolar moment; to the rise of China as a credible challenge to American pre-eminence, alongside destabilizing regional powers such as Russia and Iran. The multi-polar era we have now entered is almost certainly the most precarious since the 1930s.
The game has changed, too, and so must Canada. That is the basis from which Burney and Hampson argue for a prudent foreign policy of selective internationalism, one that will help us navigate through what, at best, is likely to be a Hot Peace between the U.S. and China. The authors describe a coming “decade of uncertainty and increasing self-interest — a stormy and precarious ‘law of the jungle’ world with less institutional glue or mutual resolve to underpin peace or prosperity.”
It is also a world whose population currently grows by the size of a new Canada about every six months. So how does a country of our size go it alone? We don’t. But we need to be more selective about whom we ally with, Burney and Hampson argue. This first principle of risk management is diversification. We need stronger relationships in Asia especially, where global economic power continues to tilt.
But first we need to double-down on our relationship with NATO, the longest-lasting formal alliance in history and the best guarantor Canada has of its own security. Even in NATO, though, which faces growing authoritarianism in some of its European member states, we have our work cut out for us.
We also need to triple-down on confronting emerging threats, like cyber-theft, espionage and outright attacks. Above all, we must do all we can to not end up as a proxy battlefield between two superpowers. That will take some nifty stickhandling and reinvestment in our international capacity right across the three D’s of defence, diplomacy and development.
The authors do a decent job of showing us where the puck has been and where they think we need to chase it, whether it’s in North America (ensuring our regional competitiveness); China (balancing commerce, security and human rights); the Middle East; or across thematic domains like energy and the environment. They also worry about anti-immigration and refugee sentiment in a world in which, by 2050, one in nine people on the planet will be displaced. Overall, it seems that in the years to come Canada will be playing a lot of defence.
So where does this leave us in the unforgiving present? Other reviewers, such as Roland Paris, have pointed out that Burney and Hampson don’t offer much by way of a detailed plan for implementing a foreign policy of selective internationalism. This imperative of moving from policy to practice does beg at least three inter-related questions, which the authors understandably haven’t fully answered. First, to return to the book’s cover image of a beaver squeezed between an eagle and a dragon: if the U.S.-China rivalry is this century’s geo-strategic leitmotif, how exactly does Canada avoid or minimize being part of the collateral damage? Where and when and how will Canada have to pick sides, or should we? Second, if we need new and strengthened ties with allies, what exactly do these look like? Assuming we cannot direct our resources everywhere, should we prioritize existing bilateral ties or aggressively pursue new plurilateral partnerships? Third, how do we align our approach across the vast spectrum of international issues — not a few of them epochal — that the authors have elucidated? Or does being selective entail a more tactical, issue-by-issue approach?
These questions may seem prosaic and technocratic. But how else do we approach the sea creatures hovering over the uncharted parts of our map? One thing at least looks clear. Sleeping next to one great animal was cause for restlessness. Now that we are navigating between two who are arguing, it will be hard to get much sleep at all.
Christopher Berzins is a Canadian diplomat. The views expressed here are his own.