Canadian governments have been
unsuccessful in describing their foreign policy. Prime ministers
Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin each published
glossy booklets outlining Canada’s role in the world. All were
full of incoherent generalities and all were quickly forgotten.
Efforts to define foreign policy flounder because no big idea or
central purpose shapes Canada’s role in global affairs. American
presidents dispense grand visions to meet international crisis
or opportunity, but not in Canada, where flexibility and
adaptability are the goal of policies made in response to an
always changing world.
Canadian leaders speak sincerely of values such as human rights,
but what really determines foreign policy is a combination of
concrete interests, domestic realities and international
Location, Location, Location
Canada is a vast transcontinental country with few people and a
harsh northern climate. Unifying the diverse parts, building the
nation and defending sovereignty are immense challenges. Sixty
percent of the Canadian population lives on about two percent of
the land mass within 150 kilometers of the United States border.
During the Cold War, Canada was sandwiched between the United
States and the Soviet Union.
The United States
Sharing the North American neighbourhood with the United States,
Canada’s best friend and also its natural adversary, is the
central fact of Canadian existence. Canadians want to have the
best of both worlds: to oppose the United States when convenient
or necessary, but also to embrace the material benefits that
flow from the relationship. Anti-Americanism is a tempting
tactic for Canadian politicians. “It’s me against the
Americans,” prime minister John Diefenbaker exclaimed during the
1963 election campaign. Some Canadians applauded, but
Diefenbaker lost the election.
Making A Living
With their small internal market, Canadians live by foreign
trade. Exports account for almost forty percent of the national
economic output; one in three jobs depends on global trade.
Since the 1940s, Canada has become increasingly dependent on a
single trading partner, the United States; along with Mexico,
Canada and the U.S. have a free trade arrangement, the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Allies and Alliances
In the First and Second World Wars, Canada was a vital part of
the British alliance. During the Cold War and after, Canadians
contributed to international security through the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) and to continental defence in the
North American Air (now Aerospace) Defence Command (NORAD).
Canada participated as a coalition partner in the Korean War
(1950-1953), the Gulf War (1991), the Kosovo campaign (1999) and
the war in Afghanistan (2001- ). The Canadian Forces are largely
inter-operable with those of the United States, Canada’s main
An Immigrant Country
Canada is a country built by immigrants. More than 20 percent of
Canada’s population is foreign born, compared with 10 percent in
the United States. “Look into the face of Canada,” said prime
minister Martin, “and you will see the world.” When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited China and
India in 2009, he had in his mind the hundreds of thousands of
Chinese Canadians and Indo-Canadians back home.
Politics and Provinces
Canada was born in 1867 as a tough minded political arrangement
between diverse and soon strong provinces. The provinces
frequently squabble with the federal government over foreign
policy, and national unity is a perennial concern. Quebec’s
large francophone population has been particularly influential
in the making of Canada’s international policy, as in the 2003
decision not to join in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.
The national government is in firm control of the army, navy,
and air force. Seldom do military leaders attain stature in
Canadian life (General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence
Staff from 2005-2008, was a notable exception), or challenge the
civilian government through resignation or public protest.
Peacetime governments, aware that the public is usually
unconcerned about defence questions, tend to take the military
Canadians at the turn of the 21st century began to take a more
positive attitude towards military matters, and Paul Martin and
Stephen Harper were the first prime ministers since the 1960s to
make defence a high priority.
Canada is an active member of the United Nations, the G-8 and
G-20 groupings of states, the Commonwealth, la francophonie, and
the Organization of American States, as well as a partner with
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The
international engagement of Canadians is deeply felt, in part
because it seems to offset the powerful influences coming from
the United States. The US, however, remains the pivot around
which Canada’s world spins.
The raw facts that lie behind the positions that Canada takes in
the world limit rather than liberate decision-makers, having
much more to do with intense pressures coming from close to home
than events far away. The result is a foreign policy that is
pragmatic, moderate, and balanced — like Canadians themselves.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs
at Carleton University. Kim Richard Nossal, The Politics of
Canadian Foreign Policy (Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice Hall, 1997)
and Norman Hillmer and J. L. Granatstein, Empire to Umpire:
Canada and the World into the Twenty-First Century (Toronto:
Thomson Nelson, 2007) explore the making of Canadian foreign
Next Instalment: Canada’s Great War
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