An independent Canadian foreign policy is possible 


Do circumstances compel Canada to be imperialistic?

I have repeatedly been asked some variation of the question “can Canada have a non-aggressive or non-imperialist foreign policy?” At an abstract level the answer is obviously yes. But is that true in practice?

What people likely mean when they ask the question is won’t Washington punish Ottawa if it doesn’t support its policies? Or does Canadian economic dependence on the US require it to follow Washington?

Mexico offers a useful point of comparison regarding economic dependence and foreign policy. About 80% of Mexico’s exports go to the US, which totals nearly 40% of Mexico’s GDP.

About 75% of Canada’s exports go to the US. In Canada’s case this works out to 25% of GDP.

Despite greater economic dependence on the US, Mexico’s foreign policy is far less pro-US or imperialistic than Canada’s. Not just under current leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) but under right-wing governments as well.

Closer geographically to Haiti, Mexico is not part of the Core Group of foreign ambassadors that have been dictating that Caribbean country’s affairs for 18 years. Rather than seeking to overthrow the Venezuelan government, Mexico has overseen a mediation between President Nicolás Maduro’s government and the Venezuelan opposition. AMLO refused to attend the recent Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles because the leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba were not invited.

The Mexican government has also called for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which excludes the US and Canada, to replace the North American dominated Organization of American States. After the ouster of social democratic Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 that country’s legitimate foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, asked Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was about to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama, to lobby Ottawa and Washington to stop providing “oxygen” for the military government.

Further afield, Mexico hasn’t had troops in Latvia, Ukraine or Iraq. It didn’t bomb Libya or send 40,000 troops to Afghanistan. Recently AMLO has criticized NATO policies on Ukraine.

This isn’t to say Mexico’s economic dependence on the US doesn’t influence its foreign policy. It does. But, alongside other capitalist, racial, colonial, linguistic, diasporic, military industrial complex, etc. factors.

With limited economic dependence on the US, Australia offers another interesting point of comparison. About 3% of Australia’s GDP is trade with the US, which is far below China and slightly less than Japan and South Korea.

But that country is staunchly pro-US. Australia joined the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003, sent thousands of troops to Vietnam, is part of the new anti-China AUKUS accord, etc.

Australia’s pro-US foreign policy is rooted in some of the other social forces shaping Canadian foreign policy. It has an even more forthrightly Anglo colonial history than Canada. A prototypical colonial outpost, Australia is also “the resident superpower in the South Pacific”, dominating the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, etc. Since World War II Australia has operated as a dominant regional force under the US ‘security’ umbrella.

In Canadian Gunboat Diplomacy Fred Crickard and Gregory Witol contrast the difference in thinking between the leaderships of five navies with historic connections to Britain. While the Indians, Argentinians and South African saw themselves “as hegemons or would-be hegemons of regional sea power”, write Crickard and Witol, “the Australian and Canadian navies left the mantle of the British Empire and donned that of the US Navy. The leadership in both countries see their navies as part of great armadas led by a major naval power prepared to fight anywhere on the globe.”

Canada has long had a privileged relationship with the United States and Britain — the two leading empires of the last two centuries. This country, particularly its elite, has benefited from preferential access to British and US capital, universities, armaments, etc. 

US pressure certainly shapes Canadian foreign policy. But this is partly because the political and business elite have developed a web of relations, accords and alliances (NORAD, NATO, NAFTA, Five Eyes, etc.) that enable/promote that leverage.

US pressure is significant, but it shouldn’t be a way to exculpate decision-makers in Ottawa.

Federal government support for Canada’s rapacious international mining industry has little to do with the US. Ottawa offers aid, EDC financing, investor accord protections, diplomatic support, etc. to a highly controversial industry without discernible US pressure.

While each policy decision needs to be considered carefully, day-to-day diplomacy is generally shaped by Canadian corporate interests while military policy is heavily influenced by Washington, often through a deferential Canadian military and military industrial complex.

The Canadian military’s integration with the US military makes it nearly impossible for Washington to go to war without Canada participating in some way, even when political leaders don’t formally endorse the mission as was the case with Iraq. In 2003, mass antiwar activism stopped the government from publicly endorsing/supporting the US invasion, but Canada quietly provided various forms of support to the US-led war.

In some instances, people asking about whether Canada is forced to follow belligerent US policy may in fact want to know if Canada’s standard of living would be negatively impacted if we didn’t? It’s hard to imagine Washington wouldn’t seek to destabilize Canada’s economy if a government moved to withdraw from NATO or NORAD. But there would be significant costs to northern US states as well and with one of the world’s highest per capita GDP’s, Canadians are far better placed to withstand that pressure than Mexicans, Cubans, Venezuelans or many others.

Even within current class, colonial, military industrial complex, etc. dynamics, Canadian foreign policy can be measurably improved. But anything approaching a genuinely just international policy may also require a major shift in US politics. Significant linguistic, cultural and economic ties to the US, however, also mean that Canadians struggling for a more just and peaceful path can do more to spur our southern neighbours down a better path.

If Canadians have the will, there is a way for us to have a lot less imperialistic foreign policy.

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