On September 10, a report was released by Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan which assessed Canada’s engagement with the world. Suffice to say, it did not look good. The report largely focused on Canada’s defence and development spending relative to other G7 countries and addressed the declining state of Canada’s Foreign Affairs performance. The report concluded that Canada has been benefiting from the foreign aid contributions of its allies while falling short of contributing its fair share. Spending only 1.21% of its GDP on global development and defense, Canada is free-riding on the efforts of other nations – who spend on average 1.81% of GDP.
There are even echoes of similar criticism made within the halls of Canada’s Foreign Affairs institutions. As a recently leaked policy-recommendation shows, many in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) are critical of their country’s current trajectory on the world stage.
These revelations point to the fact that Canada’s involvement in the international community is diminishing. Whether it’s selling $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia or stubbornly ignoring the concerns of its allies, Canada is behaving differently than in decades past. In the last ten years, Canada has acted with a focus on hard power and unilateral action rather than in pursuit of international cooperation and dialogue. As a consequence of its free-riding and neglect for multilateralism, Canada’s international reputation has been on the decline – especially in the United Nations.
This is certainly a step back for Canada, as a weakening reputation – its international “Brand” – could mean that it will start to miss out on opportunities like a seat on the Security Council, being a part of and fostering negotiation among nations, and leading the way on progressive initiatives which affect the global community such as R2P and the Ottawa Process. Canada has a comparative advantage in this soft power; something that makes it unique on the international stage. Regrettably, Canada is beginning to be seen less as the country who leads the way on these sorts of issues.
With almost a decade’s worth of divisive grandiloquence and a growing trend towards acting on its own accord, Canada is poised to become an international bench-warmer. The world is changing around Canada, and it used to change with or, in some cases, ahead of it; but that is fading.
This election provides the perfect time for Canada to reassess its priorities. More specifically, in the aftermath of the Munk Debate on Foreign Policy on September 28th, the crossroads facing Canada are abundantly clear. During the debate, there were the obvious discussions about Syria, and hot-button identity politics, but beyond a few platitudes about “recovering our peace-keeping history”, there were few discussions about the drastic change needed in our Foreign Policy.
Therefore, if Canada is to salvage its waning reputation and accomplish anything on the world stage, the new (or old) government will need to be less introspective. Looking at Foreign Policy not as something that insulates and separates Canadians from the world, the new government should see Foreign Policy as a vehicle by which Canada can play a consequential and unique role in the solution to the world’s problems. Canada needs to choose the path towards international conduct that values active listening and cooperation, rather than the one that is characterized by poll-chasing rhetoric and an affinity for coercive force.
With the prospect of a new government in mind, Canada needs to drastically reassess where it regards itself in relation to the global community. Will Canada once again be a leader in engagement and cooperation? Or will the international community eventually begin treating Canada like its own Green Party, and stop inviting it to the discussion?