Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland caused a bit of stir with a speech in the House of Commons claiming that Canada was going to step up to play a leadership role on the world stage. The Minister was critical, and yet cautious, in her statements about the US withdrawing from its leadership in the international arena. She also dropped the word “sovereign” (which always gets noticed in Canada because any other country would likely ask “why wouldn’t a country pursue a sovereign course in their foreign policy?”) and you have the makings of a national news event. In an apparent bid to back up the claims that Canada is now a force to be reckoned with, the National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also announced that Canadian defence spending will increase by 70 per cent over the next decade.
I don’t want to throw too much shade on this because it is a good start to doing something which is always better than nothing (most of the time). Before people get too ahead of themselves in celebrating Canada’s new rise to international leader role, some perspective is needed here.For starters, this is politics and make no mistake this was political messaging aimed at several audiences. The government has been accused by its left-leaning critics of being soft on Trump’s policies, some of this was to placate them (though again, Trump ala Voldemort was not named by the government). But also it was aimed at domestic supporters, the “sovereign” drop for instance would demonstrate Canada is pursuing it’s own course based on its “values,” vague as they may be, just like the good old days of Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson etc. The government also wants a spot on the Security Council, this is more fuel to build that case. The message was also possibly directed at those in Washington who don’t like the direction the US is headed in and could serve as a signal that the US’ allies will move in their own direction. The timing is also important. Canada had to say something, perhaps the government was eager to announce something, but didn’t really want to upset Trump and so these announcements come when the US is glued not to Canadian defence policy but James Comey. How much do we hang on all this?
Beyond the politics I wouldn’t get too excited. This recent call for Canada to chart its own direction has been uttered many times. Pierre Trudeau wanted to pull Canada away from US dependency and he wasn’t all that successful. Even Jean Chrétien claimed Canada would not follow the US into Iraq (though it turns out it did in indirect and less publicized ways) and these are only the recent claims that Canada was moving in a different direction. For decades similar speeches have been made, but the end results never really led to much difference in policy. In terms of defence spending, the last 30 years have been defined by one boondoggle after another. From helicopter purchases and cancellations, fighter purchases and cancellations, and who could forget that UK submarine “deal” Canada received? Spending is also political. Purchases could be cancelled by a future government and in a budget crunch it would be hard not to cancel. Despite the “sovereign” approach claims, all of this seems like it was done to, yes, appease Trump and the US who wanted US allies to pick up more of the international defence tab. The end result of all this is that before a new direction can really be charted, the boat has to float before it sails.