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Canada’s post-pandemic foreign policy: three big questions

Living beside a friendly superpower and prospering within a stable international order, Canadians could easily shelter from storms beyond our borders. These protections are eroding. Canada needs to prepare.

By: /
21 October, 2020
Justin Trudeau attends a working lunch on the first day of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Kiyoshi Ota-Pool/Getty Images

The revival of Open Canada as a platform for discussing Canada’s foreign policy comes at an important moment. Our country has long benefited from a relatively benign international environment, with few external threats to our security and health, special access to our southern neighbour’s enormous economy and a system of international rules and institutions that underpinned a largely stable and open international order. These conditions can no longer be taken for granted.

Although the immediate priority for our political leaders is to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis, the longer-term prosperity, well-being and security of Canadians will also depend on how well the country adapts to a changing world. That process cannot wait. Now is the time to think through Canada’s post-pandemic foreign policy.

Good strategizing often starts with pointed questions about important things. Below, I set out three such questions. They highlight just a few of the challenges that Canada will face in the years to come.

1. How will we deal with a changed America?

Canadians have little confidence in American President Donald Trump and most want Joe Biden to win next month’s presidential election, apparently believing that Biden victory will improve Canada-U.S. relations. The Democratic candidate has indeed pledged to repair relations with America’s traditional democratic allies, including Canada. But don’t count on a return to “normal” if Biden defeats Trump. Trump will eventually leave office, but Trumpism and his America First impulses in foreign policy may remain a significant force in U.S. politics for some time. He has consolidated a loyal constituency of voters and remade the Republican Party in his own image. Biden, by contrast, is a foreign-policy traditionalist and is sympathetic towards Canada, but his embrace of economic nationalism — including campaign pledges to introduce extensive “Buy America” measures, to “reshore” certain supply chains back to the United States and to use various tax and trade instruments to protect American workers — should make red lights flash in Ottawa, given our economy’s dependence on ready access to the U.S. market.

“Don’t count on a return to ‘normal’ if Biden beats Trump.”

The period between the November election and the January 20 presidential inauguration could be tumultuous in the United States. Ottawa should do its best to stay out of American political controversies and use this period to establish or renew contacts with the victor’s entourage. Although Trudeau knows Biden personally, his government will need to expand its relationships with influential Democrats who have Biden’s ear. The work of persuading decision-makers in both major American parties that our two countries benefit from a highly integrated continental economy must continue. Ottawa should also prepare joint initiatives in key economic sectors aimed at keeping Canada “inside the tent” in case the United States implements new protectionist measures towards the rest of the world. Earlier this year, Ottawa and Washington launched a joint action plan on critical minerals, including uranium and rare earth elements — a possible model for other sectors.

These short-term strategies are important, but they do not address the longer-term challenge of managing Canada’s relations with a changed America. Could we do a better job of identifying problems in the United States before they arise — and of heading them off? Are there ways to institutionalize the kind of coordination among Canadian actors, including provinces, cities, major firms and labour unions that served Canada well during the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement? Are our U.S.-based diplomatic offices adequately resourced with the right people in the right places interacting with the right Americans? Are we ready for a potentially prolonged period of volatility in American foreign policy? The bottom line is that we will have to work harder to secure Canadian interests — not just next year, but from now on. We need to get this right; the stakes for Canada are enormous.

2. How will we handle relations with China (and the rest of Asia)?

China’s detention of two Canadians as apparent hostages in a diplomatic dispute and its behaviour in other parts of the world, and towards its own people, have shone a light on Beijing’s brutal tactics. Canada, alone, does not have the power to out-muscle China in a bilateral contest of wills; it will be necessary to work closely with allies and other countries that share similar concerns. First, Canada must define its own objectives — a process now underway in Ottawa and many other capitals — then work with partner countries to achieve  basic agreement on the boundaries of acceptable Chinese action. This might include, for example, a collective commitment to penalize China for arbitrarily arresting our respective citizens, for using theft and other disreputable means to gain control of strategic technologies or for attempting to interfere in our democratic politics or diaspora communities. Reaching agreement may not be easy, but the strategic imperative for democratic nations to coordinate their approaches — and to stand up for each other — will only grow over time.

“Canada, alone, does not have the power to out-muscle China in a bilateral contest of wills.”

Dealing more firmly with China does not mean treating it as an enemy. Although Canadians are deeply distrustful of Beijing, they do not want to sever economic relations with Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Nor will it be possible to address an array of transnational problems — from climate change to the stability of the international financial system and of course global public health — without cooperating with China. The challenge will be to push back against China’s aggressive behaviours while sustaining channels of communication and cooperation in areas of mutual interest — a difficult but not impossible task. At the same time, Canada must protect itself — its sensitive industries, technologies, communications networks, researchers and communities — from any attempts to steal secrets, gain control over vital sectors and resources or interfere in Canadian politics and the lives of Canadians by taking action at home such as strengthening national security reviews of foreign investments.

Canada must also strengthen its presence and partnerships in the surrounding Indo-Pacific area — the centre of global economic growth before the pandemic and, apparently, the first region to be emerging from the crisis. If we are serious about diversifying Canada’s trade by pursuing opportunities in Asia, we will need to identify priority partners such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam and devote sustained attention to strengthening those relationships in close partnership with the Canadian business community. To date, Canadian exporters have not taken full advantage of trade pacts with Asian countries — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement. This must change.

3. How will we prevent another pandemic?

The striking failure of global leadership during the COVID-19 crisis has exposed a long-worsening problem: the weakening of multilateral cooperation and institutions. The World Health Organization, accused of not treating the initial outbreak in China with sufficient seriousness, became a flashpoint in the mounting contest between the United States and China, damaging the organization’s ability to coordinate a global response. The race to secure protective medical equipment and early doses of prospective vaccines has also offered a glimpse of a more nationalistic, if not nastier, world.

But the magnitude of the crisis has also driven home the necessity of multilateral cooperation. How can Canada help strengthen global systems for detecting, publicizing, analyzing and responding to the next pandemic and for holding countries such as China accountable for failing to fully disclose health emergencies? Canada may not be a great power, but we have the medical expertise, global standing and diplomatic capacity to mobilize coalitions of states and private actors towards this goal. Doing so would certainly serve our interests: COVID-19 has been one of the greatest threats to the lives and livelihoods of Canadians since the Second World War. Like many international challenges, however, tackling this one begins at home: the Public Health Agency of Canada’s global surveillance function, which Ottawa reportedly suspended less than a year before the COVID-19 outbreak, should be quickly restored.

Canada should also work at fostering international cooperation in other areas of concern. The trade-dispute system of the World Trade Organization is now effectively paralyzed. The global financial system may come under growing strain as the accumulated debt from pandemic stimulus balloons. The global migration and refugee regime has been struggling for years. The harm caused by climate change is real and growing. Canada and other mid-sized powers are not bystanders: they can help devise solutions, as Canada has done in recent discussions of WTO reform. At the same time, we must be realistic about the limits of what we can do. To be effective, Canada will need to focus its multilateral efforts on a smaller number of issues, problems and institutions — concentrating on those most directly affecting the prosperity, security and well-being of Canadians. Prioritizing means doing less of other things. Are we ready to make these choices?


These three issues — managing relations with a changed United States, dealing with China and its surrounding region, and strengthening systems to prevent or respond to another pandemic — are strategic puzzles that Canada must solve as it builds a post-pandemic foreign policy. There are many others, but we must start somewhere — and these three issues are big and important.

As we approach this challenge, no one should doubt Canada’s ability to succeed and thrive in the less benign international environment that we will face. But Canada will need a strategy. And the more that Canadians contribute to this process, through Open Canada and other forums, the better off we will be.

Roland Paris and Open Canada Editor-in-Chief Michael Petrou will discuss the post-pandemic foreign policy challenges Canada faces and how it should prepare for them on October 26th, 2020 at 12pm ET. Register here.

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