Canada is experiencing a particularly rough patch in terms of its international relations given the recent acrimonious trade negotiations with the United States over NAFTA, the deterioration in diplomatic and economic relations with China in the wake of the Meng Wanzhou affair and the recent spats with Saudi Arabia and now even the Phillipines. Despite our efforts to reach out diplomatically to our allies and gain their support for our predicaments, no one is going to come to our aid. While some of this can be traced to the deterioration of a rules-based world economic and political order and the rise of more populist regimes, the recent setbacks suffered by Canada have another direct contributor – the United States and especially President Trump.
The United States has signaled to the world that its America First policies extend to its closest North American neighbours – Canada and Mexico – and that there are limits to any “special” relationship with Canada. The lifting today of the tariffs on steel and aluminum does not change this. The NAFTA negotiations not only saw tariffs imposed on Canada but a set of particularly personal attacks on the Prime Minister and the negotiating team. Essentially, the Prime minister was “slapped around” in public by President Trump and the message this conveyed did not go unnoticed in the rest of the world. The message was that Canada no longer enjoyed any special protection from its close affiliation with the Americans – it was just another American foreign relation.
This may all seem far-fetched to the members of Canada’s governing Laurentian elites whose views are still anchored in the Golden Age of Canadian diplomacy of Lester Pearson but then most of them probably did not attend a rough and tumble northern Ontario elementary school in the 1970s. Unlike the zero tolerance environments of today’s elementary schools, violence in the playground was quite prevalent several decades ago. If the biggest kid took a dislike to you during recess and slapped you around, it was a signal to his minions that they could slap you around too. Taking a stand on principle and shouting out the importance of fairness and values would simply get you another pummeling. The trick to survival in that environment was to lay low and not attract too much attention while still getting things done.
So, Canada is in a situation not of its own making but one in which it is going to have to work hard to forge the economic relationships we need to support our standard of living. After all, about one third of our GDP is rooted in exports which means that we cannot just take our balls and go home to play. However, we do have to be more hard-nosed about reciprocity in our economic relationships with countries that are able to use Canadian rule of law to their advantage when it comes to investing in Canada but do not extend the same privileges to our citizens and companies. Our overall diplomatic efforts to build alliances must continue but in the long run they need to be coupled with something else – we need to get bigger if we want to ensure we are not so readily pushed around on the world playground.
Canada needs to continue to grow its population to expand its economic mass and needs to do so through migration incentives that place population in centers other than Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to promote broader development. Canada also needs to spend more on its own defense if it wants to be taken more seriously. There are challenges coming to our Arctic sovereignty and unless we are planning to give the region away to Russia, the United States and China, we need to be able to effectively command access and transit through the region. We cannot depend on the United States or other allies to promote our interests – we need to do it more astutely and assertively ourselves.