I’m often asked what determines Canadian foreign policy, but there is no cookie-cutter framework to make sense of the subject.
Instead, there are broad principles. The first is principle rarely determines policy. Two major forces drive decisions: 1) support for empire and 2) Canadian corporate interests. But racism, ethnic lobbies and public pressure may also influence some decisions.
The essence of our foreign policy is best illustrated by the why and when this country has gone to war.
Canada has never deployed significant numbers of troops abroad primarily to help girls attend school, defeat colonialism, defend human rights and democracy, defeat fascism, or any other of the aims stated by militarists and their propaganda allies. That includes both world wars and major UN peacekeeping missions, some of which had relatively positive results (defeating Hitler and Egypt in 1956). Instead, “our” military has always been used to extend and defend the British and then the American empires.
Ottawa, however, actively backs fascist, far right groups in many places. The reason differs slightly in each instance, but the far right is generally willing to do the bidding of corporate and imperial forces even if it wrecks their own society.
Ottawa has helped establish numerous alliances to pursue and legitimate imperial policies. The 2017 Venezuela-focused Lima Group, 2004 Haiti Core Group and 1949 North Atlantic Treaty Organization are clear examples. While they prefer the cover offered by international alliances and multinational institutions, Canadian officials are not principled on the matter. When needed they pursue belligerent aims in concert with the US (for example, the 2014 bombing of Iraq/Syria).
Aid is principally a geopolitical tool. Often tied to military intervention, from fighting in Vietnam to Afghanistan Ottawa has long followed a ‘wherever Canadian or US troops kill Canada provides aid’ principle.
The more impoverished a nation, the greater the gap is likely to be between what Canadian officials say and do. The primary explanation for the politicians’ ability to tell bigger lies is that power generally defines what is considered reality. So, the bigger the power imbalance between Canada and another country the greater Ottawa’s ability to distortits activities.
Politicians invoke high-minded rhetoric to market their pro-imperial or corporate policy. The current government says it supports the international rules-based order and feminist foreign policy while repeatedly violating international law and selling weapons to the highly patriarchal Saudi monarchy. The Harper government crowed about its “principled” foreign policy and refusal to “go along to get along”, which was little more than a way to justify its isolation on international climate negotiations and Palestinian rights. During his first few years as prime minister Harper boasted about not “selling out” to China on human rights while working assiduously to support abusive Canadian mining companies the world over. Paul Martin promoted the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which was cited to justify a coup in Haiti that left thousands dead.
That illustrates the one “sure thing” when it comes to foreign policy: government officials, politicians, business leaders, generals and the mainstream media are always willing, even eager, to concoct fine sounding justifications for what is, at its core, the self-interest of those who benefit from empire, capitalism and war.
To repeat, since each circumstance is unique, there is no simple formula for predicting Canadian foreign policy. But there are two good rules to follow that will help you understand what’s truly going on. First, always question politicians’ high-minded rhetoric. Second, look for the corporate and imperial influences that are really driving policy. Do these two things and you’ll be a step ahead of most people in understanding the reality of Canadian foreign policy.