One of the challenges of middle-power diplomacy is trying to play a significant role in world affairs with a limited “budget” of power, wealth, and other capabilities. Canada has struggled with this creatively since Britain’s Statute of Westminster gave Ottawa control of foreign policy in 1931.
Two people who appreciate this more than most are former ambassador to the United States Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. They write with frustration about the prospect of another foreign-policy review, which the Harper government is now contemplating. In particular, they scoff at the idea of a new emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region: They argue it will come at the expense of the United States, Latin America, and the Arctic, which ought to be Canadian priorities.
It is easy to sympathize with the frustration. Canadian foreign policy often seems to be run by someone on a couch with a remote, flipping channels constantly: now the Arctic, then Europe, then Africa, then Afghanistan, then the Middle East, then India, then China. Apart from relations with the United States, which are always important, Canadian diplomacy can seem a cascade of new, brief enthusiasms, with little that is sustained for long.
One reason this is so is that Canadian foreign policy, like that of other middle powers, is often driven by domestic politics. Because Canadians want to see themselves represented and recognized on the world stage, the government seeks to insinuate Canada into all of the areas capturing the world’s attention. What matters is the perception of relevance, rather than accomplishment.
Some middle powers manage to specialize and do a better job of sustaining their focus and reputation. Australia, for example, is an Asian power with a strong U.S. alliance. Norway has sought to play a role in particular conflicts, from Sri Lanka to Israel. But most middle powers are like Canada, changing emphases along with news headlines, and as governments and foreign ministers change.
The United States, by contrast, is not a middle power, but a large one. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Obama administration has continued and extended a grand strategy that began during the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. As Walter Russell Mead wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, the United States is simultaneously shoring up its military alliances with India, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, and Japan while pursuing an expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation on economic matters.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The United States has been pursuing security for trade and commerce and tackling regulation (which has become the most significant non-tariff barrier to greater world trade) with countries around the world. The G.W. Bush administration launched talks of this type with Canada and Mexico under the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America, also known as the SPP. The Obama administration put Canada and Mexico on separate tracks, with Canada and the U.S. setting up the Beyond the Border Working Group and the Regulatory Co-operation Council in 2011.
In Asia, the U.S. strategy is to deter any aggressive moves by China with a ring of allies whose combined naval and air power, backed by U.S. military might, will keep the Asian balance of power stable. At the same time, the TPP talks (which do not include China) are intended to offer China a way to continue its peaceful economic rise. Now that China is a member of the World Trade Organization, membership in something new, with additional preconditions, is seen as necessary to keep China moving in the direction of free markets and capitalism.
So far, the TPP has included only relatively small economies: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. At the APEC summit in Honolulu, U.S. President Barack Obama convinced the others to extend an invitation to Canada, Japan, and Mexico to join the TPP, which would dramatically strengthen the group.
The strategic long game being played by Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States is typical of a major power. The tactical opportunism and changing emphases of Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada are typical of a middle power. The two approaches can complement one another. Canada could jump on the U.S. strategic bandwagon in Asia, entering the TPP negotiations and improving naval and other linkages to U.S. allies in the Pacific—entering through doors opened by the United States will give Canada better access, a greater chance of concessions, and a firmer position in the region than it could accomplish on its own. This was Canada’s approach to Cold War Europe, and to Mexico in NAFTA. At the same time, the United States gains legitimacy for its leadership and its efforts when Canada joins them in support.
There is an additional benefit. The United States is pursuing simultaneous border and trade security co-operation as well as regulatory standardization with multiple trading partners. Betting that bilateralism will serve Canada best is foolish when the U.S. is playing both serial bilateralist and serial multilateralist games—Canada will be folded into global norms, and where bilateral talks make progress, the U.S. will attempt to migrate this new “best practice” to agreements with others.
This is why Canada needs to take the Asia-Pacific region seriously: There is an opportunity to gain through bandwagoning on U.S. efforts, and a chance to balance against U.S. attempts to outflank Canada in bilateral talks by taking a seat at other negotiating tables where the United States is at work. Burney and Hampson are right to be concerned about Canada’s fickle foreign policy, but not everything worth watching can be found on one or two channels.