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What, exactly, does Canada want to achieve in the world?

Without a comprehensive foreign policy strategy, it’s impossible to know

By: /
28 April, 2021
Marc Garneau, Canada's minister of transport, speaks during the International Economic Forum Of The Americas in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. The conference promotes free discussion on major current economic issues and facilitates meetings between world leaders to encourage international discourse by bringing together Heads of State, the private sector, international organizations and civil society. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Foreign policy review envy may not be a recognized condition, but I suspect Canadians who were paying attention might  have experienced a twinge of it last month with the release in the United Kingdom of “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.”

The report is what its title suggests it is: an attempt to articulate the role Britain should play in the world and a proposed roadmap to achieve this. Whatever one’s opinion of its specific contents, the thinking behind it is impressive. For starters, it is built on the idea that a cooperative approach by different arms of the British government is needed to effectively promote the nation’s interests and values abroad.

Canada has produced nothing similar — at least not lately. This country last saw a comprehensive foreign policy review in April 2005 with then-prime minister’s Paul Martin’s International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World. The shelf life of this document was cut short by the election of Stephen Harper’s government the following year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government issued separate defence and development policy reviews in 2017 without tackling Canada’s broader foreign policy. This ran counter to the traditional view that defence and development should be tools of foreign policy and not the reverse. Few picked up on this discrepancy at the time, and the Liberal government made a half-hearted gesture towards the usual hierarchy by having Chrystia Freeland, then foreign minister, make a statement to the House on the eve of the release of the defence policy review.

“In a democracy, the government pursues a foreign policy in the name of its citizens. It should inform those citizens what that policy consists of.”

In the absence of a foreign policy review, there is no authoritative, comprehensive statement on what the government’s intentions are on the international scene. There is also nothing parliamentarians and the public can use to judge the government’s actions on matters of foreign policy. This may in fact be the point — from the government’s perspective — of not articulating a comprehensive strategy. But in a democracy, the government pursues a foreign policy in the name of its citizens. It should inform those citizens what that policy consists of.

In reading the U.K. policy document, one is struck by its clarity about goals, which include sustaining a strategic advantage through science and technology, shaping the “open, international order of the future” and strengthening Britain’s security and defence capabilities.

Britain will try to achieve these goals in a global environment increasingly defined by “systemic competition” between states over interests, norms and values. It concludes that Russia poses “the most acute threat to our security,” while China, “an authoritarian state, with different values to ours,” is the largest state-based threat to Britain’s economic security.

The review charts an “Indo-Pacific tilt” and promises to establish a larger and more persistent presence in that region than any other European country — a move that will be welcomed the United States and Britain’s Asian allies. Resources will shift from international development to support for emerging technologies and defence. Spending on foreign aid will drop from 0.7 per cent of GDP 0.5 per cent, while defence spending will reach 2.2 per cent, ahead of NATO’s two per cent target. Recognizing that its global objectives cannot be achieved alone, the report says Britain will use its “convening power and work with partners to reinvigorate the international system.”

What might a Canadian foreign policy review look like? It should start by reflecting the reality that a state needs to integrate all components of its foreign policy resources to optimize its impact abroad. It should also address long-neglected areas of contemporary international affairs, prominent among them the cyber and space realms.

Canada announced that a cyber foreign policy would be prepared when it issued its first “National Cyber Security Strategy” back in 2010. It has yet to see the light of day. Ottawa did release a “Space Strategy”in 2019, but it is essentially a domestic science, technology and industrial policy that ignores the diplomatic and security dimension of outer space.

More broadly, a review would oblige the government to describe how its oft-proclaimed support for “the rules-based international order” is to be advanced in an international context in which multilateral institutions are under pressure and at times attack. A review would also force a reckoning as to whether the government’s diplomatic resources are adequate to carry outs its foreign policy ambitions.

The British review is not perfect. Its plan to increase Britain’s nuclear arsenal, for example, is detrimental to global non-proliferation efforts. An imperfect strategy, however, is better than none at all. On the night of the 2015 federal election, Trudeau told the world Canada was “back” on the world stage. It’s past due for his government to explain what that means.

Editor’s note: At Open Canada, we’re convinced that all Canadians should have a role in shaping our foreign policy. The Canadian International Council is hosting a deliberative democracy exercise to give citizens that voice. You can read about it here.

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