CANZUK as a failure of middle power imagination

It is increasingly difficult for countries like Canada to exert influence on the world. CANZUK seems to offer a way to make that possible again.

By: /
January 25, 2021
Game and Fur Trophy in the Canadian Court
Vintage engraving of the Game and Fur Trophy in the Canadian Court of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 in London. Getty Images

CANZUK — the budding idea of an agreement (of some kind) between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain around some combination of cultural, economic and military affairs — is an interesting anomaly. International relations experts generally dismiss the concept, not least because it clearly echoes the Victorian ethos encapsulated by the “Anglosphere.” Problematic, too, is the gravity model of international trade, which holds that wide geographic distances impede deep economic ties.

On the other hand, supporters defend against charges of imperial nostalgia by focusing on the perceived benefits of liberal international organization. Rather than an empire, CANZUK embodies the supposedly anodyne liberal order that speaks for good without recourse to power and violence. For its supporters, this liberal order is helpful rather than dominating, and only good can come from cooperation between states that support rights, economic freedom and common-cause.

The problem is that both the dismissal of CANZUK and its embrace miss a key fact: The limitations and challenges facing foreign ministers in CANZUK states are structural — they emerge from the shifting nature of global politics — and not ideational. What these states face is an environment in which the forums and approaches that served them in the past are either eroding or are now contested by actors far more powerful than they are. CANZUK is not dangerous because it offers some yet-specified (and seemingly innocuous) agreements on trade and symbolic diplomacy. It is dangerous because its conservative and thin approach to international order is all its adherents can offer as a vision for their geopolitical strategy.

It’s not clear how coordination would shift the geopolitical position of member states. Supporters like historian Andrew Roberts rely on a bit of rhetorical numerology to conjure the economic and security benefits of the potential CANZUK bloc. For Roberts, “CANZUK would immediately enter the global stage as a superpower.” This largely stems from its projected US$6 trillion GDP and combined US$100 billion defence budget.

Though seemingly large, these are both paltry where it really matters — in comparative terms. The bloc’s total GDP would only be a fraction of the U.S. (US$20.54 trillion), China (US$14.14 trillion), and the EU (US$20.4 trillion). Economic integration would therefore do little to mitigate tensions facing foreign policy makers in Ottawa and Canberra, where a balance between American and Chinese relations must be found. Nor is it sufficient to offset a future in which Britain does not have unfettered access to the EU common market. Integration might bring some benefits, but it won’t shift the larger geo-economic challenges facing these states.

A similar story bears out around national security. CANZUK’s combined defence spending would equal something like US$100 billion a year. Further, if cooperation on technological development in the vein of the F-35 program were developed, perhaps through something like common support for projects such as the Canadian Surface Combatant Naval Procurement Program, the military might of CANZUK would indeed be considerable. Even so, it would not change the orientation of these states or alter the larger geopolitical context in which they find themselves. And, again, this spending is a trifle in comparative terms.

The U.S. spends just shy of US$1trillion dollars on defense. China invests US$178 billion. While the U.S. is investing in blue water force projection, China has made massive investments to deny western states at least the practical ability to operate in its coastal waters. How this balance between offensive and defensive military development plays out in the Asia-Pacific will define the global balance of power. This is a scale far too large to be meaningfully affected by four states whose naval spending and development are focused on securing their home waters. While British journalist Ben Judah’s claim that these groups could symbolically stand up to authoritarian bullies like China is interesting, the terms of this will still be set by realities of global economic and military power, which CANZUK will not change.

So, are the detractors are right? Is CANZUK a fanciful appeal to remembered greatness? Not exactly. While there has been much talk that CANZUK is a rhetorical balm to soothe the tumult of Brexit, the attraction to politicians in Ottawa and Canberra speaks to something deeper. Middle powers like Canada and Australia are facing a world far more challenging to the kind of diplomatic and security efforts that once allowed them to achieve much on the world stage as notable middle powers.

Middle power anxiety is what makes CANZUK attractive.

Middle power identity and its attendant approach to the world are products of the post-war liberal order. This order is increasingly contested and disorganized. Anxiety is what makes CANZUK attractive despite — not necessarily because of — its nostalgic resonance. It is increasingly difficult for middle powers to exert influence on the world. CANZUK seems to offer a way to make that possible again. But it is misguided.

The very idea of a “middle power” depends on a liberal international order. International institutions, the rule of law and respect for democracy and human rights had been the organizing principles of this order. As such, by becoming champions of specific issues, providing technical support to realize key parts of global coordination and adding depth to the chorus of politically liberal voices on the world stage, middle powers could advance their foreign policy agendas in surprising and effective ways. This was contingent on forums — specifically international organizations, regimes and regional blocs — in which to engage in this kind of diplomatic activity.

But, as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has argued, global institutions face a legitimacy crisis because of their inability to provide for world citizens. The 2008 global financial crisis, the failure of the Doha Round of WTO expansion, the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, not to mention COVID-19, have illustrated the shortcomings of current international organizations, state groups and regional blocs.

The answer for Haass (as it is for Judah) is leadership. But middle power leadership is not the same as great power leadership. Middle power leadership cannot trade in vague (if lofty) ambitions or general concepts. To be effective, middle powers must be focused, detail-orientated and technically proficient. This was the approach Canada used to lead on peacekeeping, organizing the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines and the Responsibly to Protect. All of these were clear-eyed, focused attempts to improve the international system. By leveraging their technical acumen and accumulated diplomatic capital, Canada and other middle powers got things done. These successes built international reputations and skills that could then be applied to parochial state interests. CANZUK’s supporters do not have this focus. Instead, facing complex problems, they offer vague gestures to shared liberal values.

Past middle power triumphs leveraged asymmetric resources and a peripheral station in geopolitics by focusing on specific technical issues that mattered to the international community. By delivering on these it was possible to achieve other, wider foreign policy goals. The real danger of CANZUK is therefore not what it is but what it isn’t. It is not a sober assessment of the nature of global politics but a symbolic reaction to waning influence and an increasingly fraught geopolitical position. It assumes cooperation and leadership are accomplishments in and of themselves rather than means of accomplishing something concrete.

A viable alternative is to identify particular ways in which CANZUK states can contribute to specific international problems. These must be initiatives that are topical and globally relevant. With long experience dealing with divisive political issues at the ballot box (namely independence referendums in Quebec and Scotland), Britain and Canada could become thought-leaders in how we might stabilize democracies across the world at a time when they are in decline. Australia’s tensions with China could become a resource as it counsels others on working with Beijing, countering its intrusions and pushing for concessions. Perhaps CANZUK could become a working group for identifying and coordinating such efforts. But the more ambitious goals of its adherents are possible only in a different world than the one middle powers currently inhabit.

For a liberal defence of CANZUK, see Ben Judah’s November 2020 essay in Open Canada.