Conservative Diplomacy and Canada's 'Place' in the World

Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, and potential Iranian nuclear activity – on each of these three leading international issues today, Canada has been outspoken and steadfast. The views of Harper’s Conservative government are not shared unequivocally across the Canadian populace, but nonetheless as Canada’s representative voice internationally these are the views and opinions that shape Canadian interaction on the global stage. Both Harper and John Baird, Canada’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs, have come under sharp criticism lately for adopting a loud voice on international matters which has at times resonated with tones of arrogance. The Conservatives’ foreign diplomacy has certainly sparked heated debate in media and public circles. Some applaud their decidedly different form of Canadian politics, while others question their purpose and resolve. Whichever side of the debate you may fall, it’s important to situate current Conservative diplomacy in its proper context by reflecting on Canada’s international contributions of the past.

Historians of Canadian foreign policy have generally been preoccupied with examining Canada’s "place" in the world. Scholars have focused on Canada’s role, status, position, and influence. The debate concerning Canada’s location has at its core three viewpoints: Canada as a middle, principle, or peripheral/satellite power. Of all three viewpoints, the concept of Canada as a middle power maintains the strongest hold on the national psyche. This, despite recent Conservative diplomacy that seems to promote Canada as a principle (or at least leading) world nation capable of boasting a measure of strong international clout. The dominate conceptualization of Canada as a middle power assumes that the nation has an important role to play in both bilateral and multilateral regimes, as well as institutions on the international stage because of its wealth, geography and human capacity.

Canada as a middle power was initially the result of a comparison that suggested Canada was less powerful than the United States, Britain, or France, but more powerful than most of the other countries of the world. This idea was strongly debated by Canadian diplomats in the lead up to the founding of the United Nations (UN) at the San Francisco conference of April/June 1945. Lester Pearson and Escott Reid pushed “middle powermanship” on the grounds that Canada needed to pursue an activist international foreign policy. While other Canadian diplomats, such as Norman Robertson and Hume Wrong, argued that Canada should maintain the cautious isolationist approach of the Mackenzie King years (1935-48). The radical mandarins (Pearson and Reid) went head-to-head with their pragmatic counterparts (Robertson and Wrong), and the debate has since intrigued both scholars and the wider public.  

As a prominent observer of Canada as a middle power, John Holmes has often argued that the nation has historically been “safely in the middle”. He has suggested that Canadian foreign policy is determined by the desire for stable, international order that would reduce and prevent conflict, and promote economic growth. His fundamental argument is grounded in the belief that Canada’s economic, military, and diplomatic capacities were swollen in the post-1945 period. Although postwar Canada was in need of aid, Ottawa was not prepared to surrender national sovereignty to a higher authority. Middle powermanship as pursued internationally, according to Holmes, allowed Canada to act as an intermediary therapist on the global stage, and in turn protected Canadian sovereignty at home by limiting the political influence of the United States and Britain over Canada.

Others have argued that Pearson and Reid were idealist rather than radical mandarins, both of whom should have listened to the sage advice of their pragmatic counterparts. Adam Chapnick, for example, has examined the impact that the debate over middle powermanship had on Canada’s Department of External Affairs (DEA) in the lead-up to the formation of the UN. Both Britain and the United States wavered on the concept of Canada as a middle power, while other allied nations strongly opposed it. As a result, Canada left San Francisco just at it had arrived: a small power. Where Chapnick believes that middle powermanship was an option pursued by Pearson and other naïve mavericks of the DEA, others have argued that Canada had no choice but to act as it did. Jack Granatstein, in particular, has often argued that the realities of Canadian economics and geography have forced Ottawa to co-operate with Washington. Noting the existence of these realities today, the Granatstein thesis holds that Canada does not pull its collective weight in its alliance relationships both at home and abroad. In this light, ensuring the maintenance of Canadian sovereignty means paying for a seat at the international table.

Although current international developments don’t pose any direct threat to our national sovereignty (save Arctic territorial disputes, according to Harper’s government), the debate about Canada’s position in the global system is one which continues to intrigue. In scholarship, it seems that the focus on Canada’s location has led to a lack of attention from a Canadian perspective to the evolving global system and what this means for Canada across a range of foreign policy topics. Yet the middle power idea still has a strong hold on the national psyche, and will accordingly remain a strong topic of debate for scholars of Canada’s foreign relations. But recent Conservative diplomacy seems to act contrary to the most basic principle of middle powermanship and the genesis to which helped mould Canada’s reputation as peacekeeping nation - that we are not a principle power. To outspokenly suggest otherwise is to bring into question Canada's international contribution. Support of Harper is not the question, but we must nonetheless ask if Canada's current "place" in the world is able to support Conservative diplomacy.