Bolstering Canada’s Foreign Policy via Smaller, Targeted Alliances

Canada should add new Indo-Pacific allies in foreign policy revamp while nurturing key existing ties, say experts
October 21, 2020 Updated: October 21, 2020

Canada’s foreign policy should increasingly focus on key ties with a few like-minded nations, namely those in the Indo-Pacific, according to two experts. To deal with a more conflicted world, they advocate a rethink of Canada’s approach to multilateralism in favour of “minilateralism”—alliances with smaller groups of countries to target specific issues. 

It’s part of a groundswell of discussion taking place about Canada’s foreign policy given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and mounting belligerence from authoritarian countries like China and Russia. This conversation is also due to large multinational alliances, such as the United Nations (U.N.) and World Health Organization (WHO), showing their ineffectiveness when stressed.

“We need to start reimagining what are the key international institutions to meet the challenges of the day,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) and Japan Institute of International Affairs.

He was speaking at an MLI foreign policy webinar on Oct. 16.

The consensus at the webinar was that Canada, as a geographically isolated middle power, relies on strength and safety in numbers.  

Miller said there are three ways Canada can engage with the world—multilaterally, bilaterally, and “minilaterally.”

On the minilateralism front, he was specifically focused on the Indo-Pacific. 

Richard Fadden, former national security adviser to the prime minister, also spoke at the webinar. “I would pick two or three principal allies—outside of the very ones that we’ve had for the last century or so,” he said. 

“We need to pick a couple of countries in the world: Vietnam, Indonesia, maybe Malaysia, and work with them actively to try and teach them what it’s like to live next to a superpower, and to find a way to move their files forward,” Fadden said.

As for our longtime allies, he said Canada ignores Japan far too much and doesn’t have an effectively functioning relationship with that country.

Nurturing relationships with allies in the Indo-Pacific should be the framework within which Canada engages with China, Miller said.

“We need to start looking at creative ways of working with those countries,” he added.

Fadden pointed out that, at a fundamental level, Canada has to develop a realistic view of itself and the world—it needs reality-based foreign policy.

“We cannot have our foreign policy shift materially every time the government changes, and we need a national consensus,” Fadden said.

Benefits of Smaller, Targeted Alliances

COVID-19 becoming a pandemic is an example of “a catastrophic failure of the international system,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council, in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail. When countries don’t all work together to defend shared interests, “the law of the jungle dominates [and] infections spread unabated,” he wrote.

Some foreign policy analysts say that recent experience with large multilateral organizations—like the U.N., WHO, and World Trade Organization (WTO)—has not served western democracies well.

Fadden and Miller have argued that the U.N. is not making meaningful contributions on the world stage in its current form. The consensus among webinar speakers was that the U.N. Security Council—with permanent members Russia, China, France, the U.K., and the United States—needs reform. Fadden suggested asking Japan to join.

As for the WHO, the pandemic exposed its disingenuous behaviour—it was initially more concerned about appeasing the Chinese regime than about protecting global health, according to a report released by Republican members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee

Taiwan, a close neighbour of China that has succeeded in minimizing the impact of the pandemic, has not been admitted to the WHO, which, in turn, failed to investigate early questions and warnings from the democratic island nation about COVID-19.

The WTO, for its part, no longer has a functioning appeals mechanism to resolve trade disputes, wrote Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, in a Public Policy Forum piece.

Paris also advocates a rethink of multilateralism, given the inadequacies of some of the existing organizations.

“Many multilateral institutions are failing to facilitate this co-operation. Some of them, including nuclear arms control arrangements or the international refugee regime, are foundering, while others, like the United Nations Security Council, have become largely paralyzed,” Paris said.

The benefit of smaller, targeted alliances is their ability to focus on particular issues that are expected to take on greater significance, Miller said. 

Paris noted, for example, that “there still are no effective multilateral arrangements in a number of important emerging areas such as the use of cyber weapons.”

Focus on Desired Outcomes

Canada has always been good at initiating dialog, convening nations, and striving for the highest common outcome, said Ann Fitz-Gerald at the webinar. 

Fitz-Gerald is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. She emphasized that any strategic framework Canada participates in should be based on the future and not on reactions to the past—Canada needs to think in terms of the international outcomes it wants to see.

Fitz-Gerald said Canada tends to be “unmemorable” on the world stage.

“We can’t just be nice. We have to be respected,” she said.

A June Angus Reid survey found that two in five Canadians say their country’s international reputation has worsened over the past decade.

Canada also has to bring benefits to the table for the Indo-Pacific nations and not just show up when it wants something, according to Fadden. It’s about making a commitment to the region and developing holistic relationships with those countries, something Canada hasn’t always done effectively, he said.

Fadden noted that Canada is viewed as an Atlantic country and has centuries of relationships with Europe, but the task now is to figure out how to deal with China, just as it dealt with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Even with recommendations to forge new ties in the Indo-Pacific, Canada has multinational ties that are still of considerable importance and value, such as NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. 

Fitz-Gerald said Canada needs to keep investing in its defence relations with the United States and NATO. At stake are global supply chains and favourable trade relations to keep providing Canada’s citizens with a stable, affordable supply of goods, she said.

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