The liberal case for CANZUK

A closer partnership between Canada, Britain and Australia isn’t about imperial nostalgia. It’s a strategy for Canada to advance its values and increase its influence in the world by working with like-minded friends.

By: /
November 18, 2020
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak with Britain’s Princess Anne at a Buckingham Palace reception in 2019. Yui Mok/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The idea of a renewed partnership between Canada and its oldest friends, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, abbreviated by its supporters as “CANZUK,” is coming to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic. In Canada, the new leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole, is an enthusiastic supporter. Meanwhile, in London, the growth of the CANZUK movement among Conservative MPs hit a critical mass with Jeremy Hunt, the former British foreign secretary and leadership contender to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, signing on as one of its parliamentary supporters. While it is tempting to dismiss this idea as imperial nostalgia, that would be a mistake. Closer cooperation with London and Canberra is an idea that Canadian liberals should take seriously, embrace and make their own. 

Canada, Australia and Britain of course have a shared geopolitical history. But do they really have a future together — especially one that would be attractive to liberal-minded Canadians who aren’t swayed by appeals to history and tradition? And would such a partnership be useful to Ottawa’s foreign policy in today’s world?

Diplomatic events of 2020 have shown that they very much do. First, over Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and Britain issued joint statements criticizing national security legislation China imposed on the territory. They did so without the United States, which later joined them. In September, London and Ottawa coordinated sanctions against officials in Belarus, following an election they viewed as fraudulent. America and the EU imposed sanctions of their own days later. Britain and Canada also issued joint statements over the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway ethnic Armenian-run territory located in Azerbaijan. And they launched the Global Media Defence Fund, housed at UNESCO, a new tool for human rights. 

“There are important trendlines pushing Canada closer together with Australia and Britain, whether it likes it or not. Canada is going to find itself increasingly turning back to the old and stable friends it can rely on.”

These will not be one-offs. There are important trendlines pushing Canada closer together with Australia and Britain, whether it likes it or not. In a world of activist authoritarians, with what Damir Marusic at the Atlantic Council has called “an erratic America” no longer fully at the helm, Ottawa is going to find itself increasingly turning back to the old and stable friends it can rely on. 

Events over Hong Kong encapsulate these trends. We see a more aggressive China that is willing to break international law to get its way. America is intent on confronting it but veers between Trumpist indifference to human rights violations and, perhaps soon under Biden, a rediscovered humanitarian zeal. Traditional European allies, meanwhile, seek accommodation with Beijing. Critically, this is not a path open to Canada or other CANZUK nations, embedded as they are in the United States-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance and uniquely vulnerable to its demands —as Britain found out in 2020 over Huawei, a Chinese technology giant that America pressured the U.K. to ban from its 5G networks.

This is why it’s time for Canada to promote a non-partisan approach to CANZUK — one that seeks to build what the Globe and Mail has called an “emerging mini-alliance” with London into an action group with Australia and Britain that can both respond to authoritarian bullies and coordinate with the United States. It’s an idea whose time has come, as Canada, Australia and Britain are all facing a crisis in their diplomacy: Ottawa failed to get on the UN Security Council, Canberra is struggling with Chinese aggression, and the U.K. is Brexit-bruised. All three crises reflect the growing difficulty of being a middle power buffeted between China, America and the EU. A new, but crucially liberal, approach to CANZUK offers an attractive way forward.

But first, such an approach to CANZUK must explicitly reject it as a geopolitical grouping based around “kith and kin” — which is distasteful to liberal Canadians, Britons and Australians alike. The Commonwealth already acts as a “memory group,” which is why any new action group should be based on deep agreement about the way ahead and not the importance of heritage.  

This is why a liberal approach to CANZUK would leave out New Zealand, for now. Jacinda Ardern’s government has many merits, but foreign policy is not one of them. Not only has Wellington joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but it views itself as close to neutral in U.S.-China competition and has refrained from signing the Australia-Canada-U.K. statements on Hong Kong. A liberal approach to CANZUK should be about a new action group consisting of the “C-3” countries: Canada, Britain and Australia.

But can’t Canada achieve the objectives with a broader coalition of middle powers? The answer is that Canada’s foreign policy should continue to be multilateral when possible but be C-3 when necessary.

Unfortunately, similar to the case with France or Germany, Ottawa just doesn’t see eye-to-eye with other middle powers like Japan, or even Commonwealth ones like India, Nigeria or South Africa, when it comes to authoritarianism. The sad truth is that the larger the group, the less likely it is to be “load bearing” for tough policy initiatives or to take firm stances on China or Russia. Canada has plenty of multilateral venues. What it needs is a new action group.

As events over Hong Kong and Belarus have shown, when Canada has wanted to act fast, the partners it has found are ones with whom it has a deep strategic mind-meld that exists with few other countries. And in both cases, its strategy was soon adopted by a broader coalition. For Ottawa and London, doing more together did not come at the expense of doing more with others. In fact, it helped them set the wider agenda with greater force.  

What format should the C-3 take? A mini “G-Group” format, such as the G-7 or G-20, offers the most attractive way forward. This could be built around working groups, regularly scheduled foreign policy calls between ministers and leaders and, once COVID-19 abates, a regular meeting of the “C-3” leaders, which could be timed to happen before the bi-annual Commonwealth Leaders Summit, where the leaders of Britain, Canada and Australia meet anyway. Inspired by the G-7 or G-20, whose attendance list is much larger, other countries that want to sign and pitch into C-3 initiatives should be warmly welcomed to attend. 

Just like France made a priority of inviting five like-minded African leaders as well as Australia, Spain, Chile and India to the G-7 Summit in Biarritz, Canada should put a priority on inviting India, South Africa and Nigeria to any C-3 Summit. With highly distinct approaches to Russia and China, all are unlikely to want to join such an action group, but they might be willing to partner with it on specific global pushes. Persuasive politics like this would be the first step towards eventually expanding such an anti-authoritarian action group down the line. But a united C-3 has to exist and have a proven track record first to make any other middle powers go against the powerful currents pushing towards authoritarian accommodation.

What could the C-3 do? Towards authoritarianism, this action group could aim to not only jointly issue foreign policy statements, but also to coordinate sanctions policy. Towards the United States, as Erin O’Toole has smartly suggested, it should propose a joint plan for a more expansive and formalized use of the Five Eyes alliance in the future, a format which is already increasingly being used to coordinate other matters. More broadly, C-3 members should commit to supporting each other in international organizations, jointly present policy initiatives at the G-7 and G-20, and cooperate on other international initiatives, like the Global Media Defence Fund. Acting together, members of the C-3 are far more likely to advance their foreign policy goals than they would acting alone.

C-3 countries could pursue quick wins that have long been championed by CANZUK supporters. These include creating a close-to-free movement visa regime that would make it easier for C-3 citizens to live, work and study in other C-3 countries, or allowing citizens of one C-3 country to get consular assistance from the embassy of another C-3 nation if their own country doesn’t have an embassy present. None of this, of course, would come at the expense of Canada liberalizing its visa regime with any other partner.

Why has this not happened before? Now that Canada and Australia are so firmly present on the world stage, it is easy to forget that in the mid-twentieth century there was a real desire to disassociate from Britain to prove national independence. Britain, too, felt it didn’t need its old friends to be a world player. Today the power dynamics, indeed the population balances, are totally different. Britain would be far from the leader of such a group. Reputationally battered by Brexit and now the looming threat of Scottish independence, it would be mostly a junior partner. Deeper coordination with Canberra and London is no threat to Canadian sovereignty. What the C-3 would mean in practice is Canada supporting Australia more in Asia and Australia supporting Canada more regarding Eastern Europe. To reflect this new centre of gravity the first C-3 summit could take place in Vancouver. 

Fundamentally, this is why the liberal, or C-3 approach to CANZUK, is different. It is not about forming a new regulatory bloc along the lines of the European Economic Community in the 1970s. It would explicitly reject closing off to the United States or the European Union to get closer to Australia and Britain. Instead, it would be about foreign policy coordination and diplomatic support that does not come at the expense of other partnerships and trade deals.

A liberal approach to CANZUK departs from the belief that Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand have a single identity — and this is a good thing. Each does have an Anglo identity, but they all have distinctive geopolitical and cultural ones as well: Canada is North American and also francophone; Britain is a European country; Australia is an Asian country, and so on. The C-3 approach to CANZUK aims to enhance the identities members share without weakening what is unique about them. It would seek to make each a stronger North American, European and Asian player by leveraging deeper ties and coordination with each other.