Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s most beloved prime ministers, opined in 1904 at a packed Massey Hall in Toronto, that the 20th century would “be the century of Canada and Canadian development.” For the next 100 years, he said, “Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.”
Laurier made a bold prediction that night—that Canada would be looked upon as a global leader because of its embrace of personal freedom and pursuit of civilizational progress.
Ultimately, he signalled the emergence of Canada as an arbiter of moral leadership in the world, one that could shape the foundations of the post-Industrial Revolution’s international order.
Unfortunately, Laurier’s vision was largely aspirational as Canada, despite prosperous development, remained in the shadow of both the British Empire and U.S. throughout the 20th century, eventually culminating in the post-Cold War, U.S.-led international order we are familiar with today.
China Rising, U.S. Fading. And Canada?
It is evident to anyone paying even a smidgen of attention to politics or international affairs that the U.S. is rife with internal divisions and external suspicions.
Political polarization, an uncoordinated COVID-19 response, and racial divisions in the country fill social media feeds and cable news each day, deflating hopes that the “consensus” global superpower can pull itself together.
Naturally, the ability to focus on global threats (and prepare for the inevitable power-balancing and interstate restructuring characteristic of a bipolar international order) is hampered by such divisions, as no leader can rally the population.
Compounding these issues is suspicion from traditional U.S. allies on the country’s supposed commitment to multilateralism.
Former President Trump and his allies in the Republican Party are skeptical of alliances such as NATO and institutions like the World Trade Organization. And in the Democratic Party, the progressive faction led by Senator Bernie Sanders—and embodied by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—is similarly reluctant to indulge multilateral military or economic collectives. Countries like Germany, France, and of course, Canada, are therefore questioning whether American leadership can be counted on going forward, with the answer likely being no.
China has developed in the opposite fashion, suppressing internal dissent through a social credit system and surveillance apparatus. Although completely contrary to individual rights at home, this system has allowed the country to prioritize its expansion.
China has built an exporting empire and has deeply integrated its economy with nearly 70 countries across the globe through its Belt and Road Initiative. Rapid growth and a promising future for the country has driven allowed it to begin constructing its own global order in anticipation of achieving international hegemony. Institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS display the beginnings of such an order.
The challenge is clear. If China continues to rise as the U.S. falls, the domestic authoritarianism and state-centric development model China propagates will attract global admiration, facilitating the dissipation of individual rights protections and economic freedom.
‘Old Allies, New Ideas’
Fortunately, as Wilfrid Laurier desired over a century ago, Canada is primed and able to seize the momentous opportunity afforded by this geopolitical paradigm. All it takes is sheer will—and two key foreign policy endeavours.
As Ben Judah recently wrote for Foreign Policy, London needs “old allies for new ideas.” Judah argues the U.K. can counter China’s malign influence by forming a “formal alliance” with Canada and Australia. This is a reasonable proposition in that all three states have been the victim of Chinese state infiltration and predatory economic manipulation, along with the added advantage of avoiding the complications associated with dealing with EU member states.
I would simply add that Canada ought to assume explicit leadership of such an organization.
Canadian primacy in this alliance avoids the unwanted associations with the British Empire attached to CANZUK and places Canada’s image at the forefront of the new democratic order. Generally seen as a peacekeeping state concerned with self-determination, Canada is the ideal contrast to the civically-repressive Chinese model. By prioritizing soft power, diplomatic toughness, and joint responses to Chinese provocations, this group could be maximally effective. Through this approach Canada would be providing moral and ideological leadership for those fearful of China, all while directing international forums with the strong backing of the U.K. and Australia.
In addition to a formal Canada-Australia-U.K. diplomatic alliance, it is essential that Canada does not make “the perfect the enemy of the good” when shaping the international system.
Blunders such as failing to secure a rotating United Nations Security Council seat or hastily signing up for interventionist coalitions should not be repeated on the off chance of eventual success. Instead, organizations particularly relevant to 21st century geostrategic competition should be bolstered through increased funding and personnel allocation. The Five Eyes intelligence partnership should be a cornerstone of any Canadian-led democratic order. The intelligence sharing and threat detection alliance that is the Five Eyes has helped thwart Chinese state infiltration of telecommunications and 5G networks recently in each of its five member states.
Not only is buffing up the Five Eyes worthwhile for obvious reasons—such as deterring Chinese cyberspace or telecommunications espionage—but perhaps more importantly, it puts concrete action behind Canada’s moral leadership. Maintaining the freedom of the internet, the safety of citizens’ intellectual property, and the privacy of their telecommunications is contrary to the comparatively invasive Chinese regime.
Laurier could not have predicted the modern international order. In fact, it is debatable whether he could have predicted an international order at all. But his aspirational vision for Canada to be a moral beacon of light for those nations around the world that desire individual freedom can nonetheless be achieved today.
Through the policy endeavours outlined above, I firmly believe Canada can assume primacy in the international democratic order and nurture its development, creating resilience in the face of a rising China.
Francis Finlayson is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He currently works at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute as a Public Relations Assistant and volunteers with the Embassy of Mexico to Canada.
Photo Credit: Adam Scotti, PMO
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Youth in Politics.