Foreign policy challenges Canada will face in the year ahead

COVID did to countries what it did to people: reveal pre-existing conditions.

By: /
December 16, 2020
U.S. President-elect Joseph “Joe” Biden, left, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Dec. 9, 2016, when Biden was the U.S. vice-president. Chris Roussakis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For many, 2020 has become a curse word or an insult. It started with Australia on fire and America nearly getting Canada involved in a shooting war with Iran — when, in retaliation for America’s assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran launched missiles at bases in Iraq that have housed Canadian troops. And then the pandemic spread across the world. With vaccines on the horizon and a new president in the White House, 2021 promises to be better.  How much better? It is not clear yet. With a minority government in Ottawa, we can’t even predict with certainty which party will be governing the country this spring. But the first step in figuring out the year ahead will be assessing the patterns from the last year and which ones are likely to change. 

Everything in 2021 will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has killed more Canadians than any of its wars since World War II, and it will continue well into 2021. Canada has ordered more vaccinations than it has people. Some production lines may not bear fruit, leaving Canada with just enough to inoculate only its own residents. But the possibility of having ordered more doses than are necessary at home may put Canada in a position to help with the distribution of a vaccine to countries with fewer capabilities. Canadian officials are working now to figure out a plan to distribute the vaccine quickly, effectively and fairly at home and abroad. This is one of those cases where doing the good thing, the right thing, can be good and right for Canada. A successful delivery of vaccines will help Canada’s reputation in the world. And if Canada delivers vaccines to those who cannot otherwise get them, it will help offset some of the stark global inequities the pandemic has worsened. This will not be easy. Transparency, a scarce commodity, will be key.

There is no doubt that Canada will be better off with new American leadership. Donald Trump created great uncertainty for four years, causing the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to spend almost all its foreign policy energy on managing that relationship. Gone will be the threats and tariffs aimed against Canadian steel, aluminum and cars. There is already concern that President-elect Joe Biden’s “Buy American” infrastructure program will cut Canadian firms out of that lucrative market, and those concerns are legitimate. Ongoing efforts to revise that campaign promise to “Buy North American” should continue. But this is a much better problem to have than the one Canada faced during Trump’s presidency, when Ottawa’s efforts were geared toward trying to stop America from sanctioning Canadian firms. Yes, there will continue to be controversies over pipelines that move Canada’s oil resources to markets in the United States, but on most other issues cooperation will be easier and less fraught. NATO meetings will be spent on how to adapt NATO to the threats of the day and of the future, rather than just flagellation sessions in which the president of the United States abuses allies for falling short of an imperfect standard — the two per cent guideline for defence spending. 

G-7 meetings will also be more productive, simply because leaders will not spend their time trying to avoid a presidential tantrum. The question for Canada and for the Prime Minister is where should Canada seek to nudge the G-7? Returning to the first theme, the G-7 should aim for better coordination of global vaccine distribution. The G-7 can also be one forum for developing a better response to the challenge posed by China.

China proved in 2020 that it is not going to provide the world with useful leadership. China’s disinformation about the pandemic, its hamstringing of the World Health Organization, repression in Hong Kong and continued belligerence aimed at Canada and others make it clear that Beijing will be a tough challenge for any Canadian government.

“It is easy for the opposition to rail against the Trudeau government for being too soft on China, but any new government would have to address the central reality of the relationship: asymmetry.” 

China is also a challenge without obvious solutions. It is easy for the opposition to rail against the Trudeau government for being too soft on China, but any new government would have to address the central reality of the relationship: asymmetry. China is not only far more powerful than Canada, it also has far less stake in Canada than Canada does in China. China is not just an important market for Canadian goods and services, Canadian institutions have also become dependent on China on matters ranging from filling supply chains to providing foreign students who pay higher tuition at most Canadian universities. This combination — of Chinese power and Canadian vulnerability — means that Canada has little leverage on its own. We cannot expect China to moderate its behavior because of Canadian complaints. This is where a new U.S. president will help. There will be far more potential for cooperation among the democracies with America supporting such efforts instead of undercutting them. 

Other than the pandemic, the greatest threat to Canada is the one that it is least able to address: climate change. The pace of climate emergencies continues to accelerate, matching the patterns of ice melting. Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre warned in January that the frequency with which the Canadian army is called on to help Canadians deal with natural disasters could affect its ability to defend the country — and this was before dealing with the pandemic and planned vaccinations made further demands on military resources. Yet, it is unlikely that Canadian politicians will make the hard choices that are necessary. Energy politics interacts with provincial-federal politics and party politics in ways that make significant responses to climate change close to impossible. The last election produced a lot of stories about western alienation, which, in many ways, comes down to pipeline politics and whether to address the oilsands’ contribution to carbon emissions. In the year ahead, it is almost certain that there will be more natural disasters — fires and floods — that can at least partially be attributed to climate change. Yet it is also quite clear that neither Justin Trudeau nor Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will put forward policies that make a dent in Canadian emissions. 

COVID did to countries what it did to people: reveal pre-existing conditions. We have long known that Canadian federalism makes national responses difficult. We knew relations with the United States were in bad shape. And we knew Canada was in a poor position to handle Chinese belligerence. The pandemic made all those existing weaknesses far more problematic. In 2021, the pandemic will continue to exacerbate Canadian weaknesses even as vaccines weaken its grasp. On the other hand, new American leadership will mean Canadian leaders can spend more time and effort developing ideas and policies for addressing everything else in the world.