Canada and the UK recently signed a memorandum detailing their intention to find ways to cooperate in providing consular services in countries where one or the other does not have representation. The announcement prompted a great deal of commentary, on many different aspects of the move.
Among the finest analyses of what the deal demonstrates about the direction of Canada’s foreign policy was that of Brian Stewart, formerly Senior Correspondent for CBC’s The National, and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He highlighted the arrangement’s significance as a symbol of the Harper government’s embrace of the ‘Anglosphere,’ a group of “like-minded” nations built around the Five Eyes partner states – America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Stewart focused on the historical element of Canada’s foreign policy. He argues that, because of Quebec’s influence and the “internationalist ambitions of former Liberal governments,” Canada has been on the fringes of this core for some time. He also pointed to Prime Minister Harper’s “love of Anglo symbolism and monarchical nostalgia,” as an important factor behind embracing Anglosphere allies. This highlights a long-standing and ongoing feud between competing interpretations of the actions and values that have historically and should now characterize Canadian foreign policy.
Those ‘internationalist ambitions’ Stewart refers to were (and are) rooted in the ‘Pearsonian’ narrative of Canada’s history as a global actor, which dominated the public mindset for decades. Central elements of this narrative include Canada’s characterization as a ‘peacekeeping nation,’ and triumphs such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the UN’s adoption of the principles of Responsibility to Protect.
However, many Canadian historians, led by figures such as Jack Granatstein, have refuted that narrative, and in particular have undermined the story of Canada as a nation of peacekeepers and mediators in pursuit of a more peaceful world. (These developments are discussed more deeply in Noah Richler’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, a brief discussion of which is available here)
In its place, another narrative has emerged. Canada’s contributions to the UN and to peacekeeping are acknowledged, but the motivations said to be behind them are different: core national interests within the context of West-East Cold War competition. For example, Pearson’s Egyptian initiative has been cast as a means to reduce US-UK/France tensions and maintain the integrity of the Western alliance, rather than to promote peace for its own sake.
The shift is by no means complete. Commenting on the new arrangement, former Ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker insisted that Canada has an “incompatible brand with the U.K.,” presumably the Pearsonian brand. Meanwhile, the Harper government appears to be actively seeking to change the Canadian narrative – in fact more to destroy than update or shift the Pearsonian story – putting in its place a more ‘warrior-centric’ history. For evidence, we need only look as far as the wave of television advertisements concerning Canada’s supposed heroic beginnings in the War of 1812, which Stewart himself makes note of.
The historical narrative angle that Stewart takes is an important one, but it does miss some recent and more concrete developments that have drawn Canada toward the Anglosphere. Canada’s foreign policy establishment, and the Canadian Forces in particular, have had a number of recent policy experiences leading toward closer alignment with Anglosphere allies.
The 1990s, termed by former CDS General Rick Hillier a “decade of darkness” for the Canadian Forces, was a time of spending cuts paired with a higher volume of operations, mostly UN peacekeeping missions. Of these missions, the most formative experience was the CF deployment to the former Yugoslavia.
According to Matthew Willis, for the CF this mission left a sour memory of working alongside some of its European NATO allies, who had different military and political cultures, methods, and capabilities. This stood in stark contrast to Canada’s very positive experience in 1999, deployed alongside ‘like-minded’ partners, the British and Dutch. This seems to have been a positive experience for them as well.
As Willis explains, Canada, Britain, and later the Netherlands negotiated their respective deployments to Kandahar, Helmand, and Oruzgan outside the formal NATO structure, and presented the proposed deployment as a fait accompli. All three nations wanted to be sure that they could count on the partners that flanked them, and made certain they would be working with militaries that they trusted.
The negative experience of working alongside troops restricted by national caveats – it should be mentioned that Canada’s were during the Kabul deployment – contrasted with the positive experience of working alongside US troops in the South, especially after the 2009 ‘surge.’ Whereas some nations’ troops could not always come to the CF’s aid when called for, the US had the equipment and flexibility necessary to ‘be there’ when Canadian troops needed support. This does not mean that other allies will not be more supportive in the future, but the reality is that many Anglosphere nations have already proven their willingness.
Debate over which set of values – interests and liberal internationalism or solely the national interest – should drive Canada’s foreign policy will undoubtedly continue, and will have real consequences for the making of Canada’s foreign policy. As Stewart mentions, if Stephen Harper had been Prime Minister instead of Jean Chrétien, Canada would likely have participated in the invasion of Iraq. To be sure, all Canadians should consider that debate and its potential consequences. However, in addition to the ideological divide, Canada’s closeness to its Anglosphere allies has been driven by real experiences which had great costs. That, at least, should not be forgotten, regardless of what narrative one subscribes to.