Canada's foreign and defence policies will figure in the 2006 federal election, but they will not be discussed at great length and will not garner much attention, at least not explicitly. Canada is engaged internationally with an expanding variety of issues and there is much that Canadians will not grapple with in this election. We will hear about some of the issues during the campaign, but for the most part, the 'international' will only be relevant to the election to the extent to which Canada's relationship to the United States is discussed and debated. This is, as it should be given that Canada-US relations have long been intertwined with almost all other salient Canadian political issues. From softwood lumber, BSE border closures, passports for Canadians entering the United States, the Byrd Amendment, transboundary water issues (Oldman River and Garrison Diversion are of interest in the West), there is plenty in the Canada-US relationship to exercise the passions of Canadian voters.
These do matter, but there is something far more ubiquitous, powerful, subtle, unpredictable and, most importantly, little understood by the general public about our relationship to the United States: our relationship with a United States that is struggling to define itself in the world.
As appealing as it might be to some, the fact of the matter is that the United Nations is not a world government. Nevertheless, the international system is governed. Since 1945, the United States has taken the lead in managing the international system; as the most capable international actor in terms of the major sources of international political power, the US has been able to, and has in select geographic or issue areas been authorized to, govern international affairs.
United States governance was not exercised alone or in a vacuum. There have always been partners and opponents. A key variable in determining what US leadership looked like for most of the Pax Americana period was the Soviet Union. The mode, tenor, style, and extent of US leadership reflected the opposition of the Soviet Union. Whether it was the international monetary regime, the post-WWII reconstruction of Europe, understood spheres of influence, or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the US lead in relation to the opposition of a contending great power.
When the end of the Cold War saw the demise of the Soviet Union, the US was caught unprepared in an environment in which the leadership of the international community could change. Since then, Americans have debated how much their country should provide direction in international affairs: will the international community of states and the people who reside in them fail to prosper and even suffer if the US does not take a lead in making difficult decisions or will affirmative US leadership simply engender animosity, encourage opposition and hasten the end of this opportunity for effective international leadership?
This debate has run across party lines in the United States. The Bush senior and junior administrations have both been engaged internationally: the former with an internationalist agenda (the New World Order) and the latter with a domestic agenda (homeland security). It should be instructive to Canada to note that the striking differences between these two administrations are differences within the same political party.
The problem for Canada and the international community is that a change is underway. The leadership of the international system is ill-defined: we are in an interregnum. E.H. Carr suggested that the international system would go through a period of crisis (an interregnum) when a former leading power could no longer set the rules of the international order and a rising challenger had neither the will nor the power to assume this responsibility.1 The current interregnum arises from a situation where the leading power is uncertain what its responsibilities and opportunities are when there is no evident and immediate rising challenger. The last interregnum took the form of a twenty-year leadership crisis following WWI when the exhausted great powers could no longer govern and the new great powers (USSR and the USA) were unprepared to assume the mantle of leadership. The outcome was the global great depression and WWII.
Let us be unequivocal, the US will lead in international affairs because it can; because it is necessary; because it is expected to. It led during the Cold War. What has changed is the opposition party and the size of the majority. The minority government situation in Canada that has just come to an end tells us something about the problems that arise during a time of change and uncertainty: the rules, both explicit and implicit, for MPs became unclear. One of the fascinating things about international politics is that even in settled times, state behaviour is never entirely predictable. Therefore, the uncertainty inherent during a turbulent period is pronounced because of the absence of constraining principles and practices. In an interregnum the rules and norms of the international order are difficult to discern and the normal constraints and influences attributed to the system structure may not operate.
The United States has been as lost as other states when it comes to understanding and operating successfully and safely in the current environment of change. Thus, a debate goes on in the United States between those who want the state to take a bold step towards more pronounced and independent leadership, and those who favour a less confrontational, less potentially antagonistic and more multilateral approach. Within both camps, there is a debate about the extent to which force ought to be used to achieve goals.
What ought and can Canada do in this situation? What foreign and defence policy will enable Canada to contribute to the development of a new international order with rules and norms that best protect and promote Canadian values? How will Canada contribute to ensuring that this process of change is concluded peacefully; that the ambiguity and uncertainty of change do not result in unintended conflicts of disastrous proportions? What do the major federal-level political parties have to say on the subject?
I chose the words 'federal-level' rather than 'federal' political parties on purpose. As a party whose raison d'être is sovereignty for Québec, there is very little in the Bloc Québecois platform to consider in relation to Canada in the world. When it comes to foreign policy, the Bloc tells us that an independent Québec would abide by all the international treaties, military alliances and free trade agreements that Canada adheres to. The Bloc priorities do not explicitly include the United States. We know that the Bloc did not support Canada's participation in the deployment of a North American missile defence system with the USA, but the Bloc is silent on the issue of an international crisis of leadership.2
In contrast to the self-absorbed silence of the Bloc Québecois, the Conservative Party sees Canada's future inextricably bound up with that of the United States over the short and long term.
The Conservatives argue that the country needs to "…develop a Made in Canada foreign policy that emphasizes our most important values—democracy and the rule of law, individual freedom and human rights, free markets and free trade, and compassion for the less fortunate…."3 For the Conservatives, the focus is very much upon security in a turbulent world and the key to achieving improved security so as to protect and promote our most important values is better ties with the US. Expect the Conservative platform to be premised on the fact that we share much in common with our southern neighbour and that this is, in itself, a sound reason for improving our relationship. However, the Conservatives have not advocated closer ties with the United States simply because we are 'good friends.' The Conservatives make it clear that there are significant issues for Canada in the relationship and believe that those will be best addressed in a cordial rather than antagonistic manner: "We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States and other allies when we should, in order to sit eye-to-eye with them when we must."4
The Conservatives see the current state of flux, the present interregnum, ending in the formation of rival trading blocs. Consistent with the belief that Canada is situated geographically and historically such that it is intrinsically tied into a North American economy, the Conservatives unabashedly wish to see Canada work closely with the United States to improve the competitive position of the continent. Therefore, the Conservatives promise to build a strong North American trading partnership with the United States by going beyond the promotion of free trade.
So the short of it is that the Conservatives accept American leadership and advocate partnering more closely with the United States in order to influence their decision making, both as it affects Canada directly and the international system as a whole.
In contrast to the Conservatives, the Liberal position on how Canada ought to relate to the United States during this period of change is a little more difficult to identify. This however, need not be a criticism. The issues are complicated, and in an environment of complex interdependence we ought to be cautious of simple truths and simple answers. Nevertheless, the Liberal platform remains confusing for two reasons: one has to do with message delivery, the other with message content.
As the government, the Liberal's policy statements are bound up intrinsically with government and department statements. This means that the Liberals have far more to say about Canada's international policy and some of it is academic, detailed and lengthy. In addition, there are the Liberal's platform statements about international policy in speeches and on their website, which, owing to their brevity, may not always appear to align well with government documents especially as the Liberals continue to try to distance themselves from the Jean Cretien governments.
Secondly, the Liberals would appear to be playing a wait and see game about US behaviour and the evolution of the international system: another opportunity for opponents to slap the 'Mr. Dithers' label on Paul Martin. The Liberals state clearly that the U.S. and Canada share many goals and that the U.S. has a history of benign international leadership justifying the prescription that Canada can and will collaborate with the U.S. However, the government, through rhetoric and practice, is hedging on U.S. leadership. The Liberals advocate reaching out to emergent great powers such as China, India and Brazil so that Canada's voice in international affairs does not diminish.5
The great danger here is that the Liberal's foreign policy falls between two stools and accomplishes neither. The Liberals assert the importance of remaining true and confidential allies of the United States and working within the international governance regimes the United States creates and maintains (alone and in partnership). At the same time, the Liberals have been beset by a number of injudicious MP statements about the United States and have flip-flopped on at least one issue of real substance: ballistic missile defence.
The NDP has not paid attention to the subject of interregnums as described here, but the party's perspective on US leadership is clearly articulated as something to be very wary of. The repeated tone of NDP statements is that Canada does not share basic US values and therefore its leadership is to be assuaged. The NDP is clear in stating that it does not want to see Canada any closer to the Americans than it already is, criticizing the government's Foreign Policy Statement as reflecting "a desire to drive us further into integration with George Bush, and model our economy on that of the U.S."6 The NDP appear only to concede that we ought to co-operate with the US in border security.
The great risk to the NDP strategy is the reverse of the Conservative one: exaggeration of the divisions between Canada and the US so as to unnecessarily sour relations. What reason is there to believe that opposition focused on our disagreements will produce a more benign (vis-à-vis Canadian interests) US foreign and defence policy. In the current climate where the U.S. has made it clear that 'you are either with us or against us' we need to pause and think. Does Canada not reinforce and strengthen the hand of the current brand of U.S. Neocons to go it alone by playing the internationally vocal criticism card?
The NDP restricts its discussion of international politics and defence to the argument that Canada needs to ensure that it remains an honest broker peacekeeper (as though it ever was), and develop a military force structure consistent with stereo-typical views of what traditional 1960s style Pearsonian peace keeping looked like.
Does a force structure oriented exclusively towards peacekeeping actually serve Canada's interests? Is abrogation of our ability to militarily intervene with partners not inconsistent with Canadian vital interests?
There are irritants in the Canada-United States relationship, but again, I have chosen my words carefully, they are irritants: alone, none of them is a mountain to die on. In the big scheme of things, our disputes with the United States amount to a tempest in a teacup. On the major international and domestic issues, Canadians and Americans share core values: democracy, free markets, the rule of international law, etc. We are close allies far beyond the military sphere. I often describe American bashing as a time-honoured Canadian pastime, but the fact of the matter is that, looking at the vast array of interests and values exhibited by word and deed on the international stage, the views of Canada and the United States have been very close for a long time. University students new to thinking critically on this subject continue to impress me with their ethnocentrism: Canada is good; United States is bad. Voters need to make sure that the issues that divide us from the United States are not allowed to hide our commonalities.
Now this is not to say that the teacup tempest is not important. After all, we live in this teacup, and so its turbulence is serious business. Still, we should expect our government to focus its energies on the really big foreign policy and, by implication, defence questions that confront Canada: the international leadership interregnum. What is our strategy to encourage our neighbour to maintain and strengthen multilateral and inclusive decision-making structures? Even the currently much maligned Bush Administration struggled through the UN Security Council to secure endorsement for the use of force to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. We and our other allies chose to say 'no' and squandered an opportunity to:
'grant permission' for intervention and strengthen the position of the multilateralists and UN supporters in the United States;
set some modest limits on the US invasion and occupation; and
support the potential emancipation of Iraqis from an undeniably despotic regime.
The invasion of Iraq will not be the last issue of this sort that Canada will confront nor will it be the messiest. The Bush administration's interest in international affairs is founded primarily in a domestic agenda: security at home. If you think the current US government has an interventionist foreign policy, just see what happens when an outward looking Democratic government decides to be engaged in making the world a better place.
It is not enough to say, as our most recent defence white papers and foreign policy reviews do, that change is underway. Canada needs to address the issue of how the US will define its leadership role. We have an opportunity to look back in 15 years and say that we peacefully concluded a 30-years crisis. Just because the US has the capability to lead does not mean that it will lead effectively. Also do not think for a moment that because Canada has less power that it is any more likely to be able to see clearly what leadership is required. Being less powerful, and not needing to exercise principal responsibility for the management of the international system does not make Canadian policy prescriptions inherently more erudite or virtuous.
Canada has a long way to go in putting together a coherent strategy to deal with the US global leadership issue. The challenge for Canadian foreign policy is to:
survive the interregnum;
influence US decisions regarding the resolution of the interregnum to avoid crisis: something Canada has some skill born of experience at doing (i.e. influencing Washington); and
influencing rising power decisions regarding the resolution of the interregnum to avoid crisis (something that Canada has little experience with, remember that Canada clearly stood on one side during the Cold War).
In going to cast our ballots with the important matter of defining US leadership in mind, we know that:
the Bloc does not care until Québec is a sovereign international actor;
the Conservatives seem to believe that the U.S. government will care what Canadians think simply because we support the U.S. and, moreover, that our interests lie in the continuation of an activist security-conscience U.S.;
the Liberals are willing to follow the United States, but are not sure about where Americans are going and might believe that Canada really could jump ship to cozy up to a new rising power; and
the NDP wants to reject US leadership as suspect and retreat further from the responsibilities that a wealthy developed state ought to bear for securing the international order by perpetuating the myth that Canadians are altruistic peacekeepers.
Enjoy the election campaign.
1 E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the study of international relations, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1993), pp. 224-5 & 232-9.
2 Bloc Québécois, 'Un parti proper au Québec - Summary of the election platform ,' at http://www2.bloc.org/archivage/plate-forme_bq_english.pdf retrieved from the www 26 October 2005.
3 Conservative Party, Demanding Better: Conservative Party of Canada, Platform 2004, http://www.cbc.ca/canadavotes/pdfplatforms/platform_e.pdf retrieved from the www 26 October 2005.
4 Conservative Party, Demanding Better.
5 Government of Canada, Overview: Canada's International Policy Statement: A role of pride and influence in the world http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/cip-pic/ips/ips-overview3-en.asp retrieved from the www 26 October 2005