Canadian Foreign Policy in the American Millennium

By Rajan Phillips | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

One hundred years ago, when more countries were colonies than independent, Cecil Rhodes projected the vision of a world empire based on an Anglo-American partnership. He was followed, in 1913, by Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador in London, who called for an Anglo-American Alliance so that the "world would take notice to whom it belongs and-be quiet." In the unfolding new millennium, when colonies have disappeared and every country is legally independent, the Bush administration in Washington seems to be saying to the world to take notice who is in charge and - "be quiet."


A year after Ambassador Page announced his design for a new world order, few remained quiet and the world burst into the first war of the 20th century. It was during World War I that Canada's Prime Minister Robert Borden began asserting Canadian sovereignty and equality of nationhood vis-a-vis its colonial progenitor. Canada had no say in the British decision to wage war against the German Empire, but the legal involuntariness of Canada's involvement hardly mattered in the context of an overwhelmingly popular and political support to join the war. As Wilfred Laurier, leader of theopposition, summed up Canada's response to the war, "Ready, aye, ready!" But Canada's assertion of sovereignty arose not so much as a result of economic or political conflicts with Britain but as a consequence of the country's commitment to its soldiers sent to fight and perish far beyond its borders. For wartime Prime Minister Borden, the commitment to Canada's soldiers was more personal than political, and their cause supervened any other consideration. His commitment to the colony's fighting men drove Borden to fight the colony's way into imperial councils and establish Canada's and other Dominions' autonomous status in the British Empire. It was the same commitment and his determination to send reinforcements to the war front that forced him into the divisive conscription crisis at home. Laurier did not support conscription despite his "Ready, aye, ready" war cry, and the Tories so alienated Quebec over conscription that national unity became a key factor in the foreign policy of Mackenzie King, Canada's prime minister during World War II.

King's concern with national unity and Canada's sacrifices in World War I, including the lives of 60,000 soldiers, led him to a play a more cautious role in international affairs. Canada's prestige and membership in the League of Nations were used to minimize and avoid involvement in European power politics and the wars they led to. This approach resonated well with the public

mood that wanted to be left alone in the "fireproof house" of the Americas, although a prominent group of Canadians, scholars, and activists associated with the League of Nations Society wanted to avoid a new war through a more active foreign policy that pursued "peace ... founded on justice between nations." During the inter-war years, Canada used its independence in foreign policy to stay silent on foreign policy, but was drawn into fighting alongside Britain and its allies for the second time in thirty years.

Mackenzie King managed Canada's second war effort far less divisively, through calculated muddling and incremental conscription which he famously described as "conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription." For Lester Pearson, then a rising star in External Affairs who would go on to become Canada's Nobel Prize-winning foreign minister and, later, prime minister, the outbreak of World War II confirmed that peace and security in the world were achievable "only by collective international action and by a consequent limitation of national sovereignty through the acceptance of international commitments."


The second world war also marked what has been described as Canada's passage "from the British century of (our) history to the American century." From its founding, Canada had used Britain and America as two convenient counter-weights, using the colonial ties with Britain to ward off the military threat from America, and establishing economic ties with the latter as a counterweight to British overlordship and economic domination. For international purposes, Canada fancied itself as the base or the hypotenuse, depending on who was drawing it, of the North Atlantic triangle. With the end of World War II and the advent of the Cold War, Canada began to be drawn closer to the United States, both economically and militarily. This transition also coincided with Canada's decline in its external power and influence-from being one of the six or seven most important players in international affairs between 1945 to 1960 to becoming one of world's "middle powers" noted for its "quiet diplomacy." Churchill had waxed eloquent as usual, describing Canada as the "linchpin of the English-speaking world," which in practice, however, was to mean, as Mackenzie King was to find to his consternation, being nothing more than an international acolyte to America and Britain. King protested, but he never dissociated his insistence on respect and an independent role for Canada from his real purpose of non-involvement. It was left to Lester Pearson to pursue a policy of involvement and play a prominent middle-power role in international affairs.

There have been two continuing themes in Canada's postwar adjustments to the colonial withdrawal and the new reality of neighborly American hegemony. They have been called the "quiet approach" and the "independent approach." The quiet approach emphasizes Canada's "special relationship" with the United States; accessing the inner corridors of Washington; and accepting America's ultimate goals without challenging its foreign policy framework. The independent approach concedes the need to co-operate with the United States on continental issues but to act independently in its relations with other countries. An independent role in the world and being part of multilateral initiatives, it has been argued, will make Canada more effective in Washington than cultivating a special dependency with America. Politically, the two approaches have overlapped, with both the Liberal and the Conservative governments adopting either of the two approaches in dealing with different issues. Canada's multilateral involvement in international institutions, its participation in peacekeeping missions, diplomatic efforts, pressure from businesses, and prime ministerial idiosyncrasies have defined Canada's alternating approaches to foreign policy and its relationship with America. On a number of important issues Canada willingly played the role of a US satellite.

John Diefenbaker's rebuke of the Americans during the Cuban missile crisis was an anomally. Lester Pearson's 1963 U-turn on nuclear arms elicited strong criticisms from intellectuals and activists, including Pierre Trudeau, but the reversal was consistent with the Canadian public opinion. Pearson's muted opposition to the Vietnam war was also not viewed favorably by the critics. While Trudeau demonstrated intellectual independence from his Washington counterparts, Brian Mulroney considered it a Canadian achievement to have developed personal friendships with American presidents. Overall, the critics of Canadian foreign policy have accused different governments of not doing enough to address the more fundamental problems of inequality between nations and the problems of the world's poor, if not as a matter of altruism, as a necessary measure to prevent the world from being overrun by the anarchy of the poor.


The end of the Cold War, the growth of economic continentalism, the preoccupation with global competitiveness, and changing immigration patterns have affected the Canada's foreign policy in multiple ways. First, the state's military raison d'etre has been attenuated, which led Canada to cut back on its defence spending. Canada also cut back on its foreign aid and development assistance and, instead, began placing emphasis on Team Canada trade missions to capture markets in newly industrialized countries and the world's populous countries regardless of the structural inequalities and human rights abuses in some of them. Increasing continentalism has led to an even further erosion of Canada's already limited autonomy in the areas of culture, social services, economy and technology. Canadian foreign policy in the world's conflict areas is also becoming sensitized to the prejudices of new immigrants from these areas, not to mention their electoral clout in Canada.

The September 11, al-Qaeda attacks on America have brought about a sea change in the international situation. The implications for Canada's relationship with the United States and the rest of the world are still unfolding. Given the proximity and the ferocity of the attacks, almost every Canadian was in a mood to say "Ready, aye, ready" to a battle call in support of US retaliation. The Chretien government was castigated by Opposition members of parliament, the media, and the public for not just saying "Ready, aye, ready," loud and clear, soon after the attack. The government was blamed again when President Bush, deliberately or otherwise, in his first speech to the Congress after September 11, failed to mention Canada in the list of countries supporting the United States in its global war against terrorism. Without a shred of evidence at any time, it was alleged that somehow Canada's porous borders and immigration policies had contributed to the attacks on America. Corporate Canada vigorously campaigned for a North-American security perimeter and for harmonizing the customs and excise regulations between the two countries. Put on the defensive, the Chretien government bent over backwards to toe uncritically the American line in defining and dealing with global terrorism.

September 11 was a new experience of horror for both the United States and Canada, but while the Bush administration in Washington has been quick to bring back the old Cold War policy and military framework to respond single-mindedly to the events of last year, Canada is still groping to define its position and find a new role for itself. America's single-mindedness has not prevented the Post-September 11 problems from multiplying rather than abating, with the end nowhere in sight. America's only policy response so far has been its threat to take on Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the world's new "axis of evil," and the threat has caused alarm among America's allies.


This is not a war like the two wars, or other inter-state and intra-state conflicts of the last century, where the enemies were identifiable and targetable sovereign states. The new enemy is elusive but the socio-political terrain that sustains him is not unfamiliar. For Canada, the stakes in this war are not the cause of its troops, its autonomy from an aging empire, or internal unity. The stakes are to address the fundamental problem of ending the alienation of world's poor from global prosperity and power, and to politically intervene wherever possible to resolve the world's far-flung local conflicts. And a good part of the answer lies not in blindly toeing American unilateralism but in reinvigorating Canada's involvement in the United Nations and other agencies and promoting a multilateral response to our common challenges.

Rajan Phillips is an engineer and member of Peace's editorial board.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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