Revamping Canadian Foreign Policy With the National Interest in Mind


Among the issues to watch for as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces his new cabinet, is how the Liberal government will tackle the challenges Canada is facing on the world stage after they were given a second term by Canadians. Our relations with key allies can be described as bitter, while the Beijing regime sees Canada as little more than a prepubescent child.

Critics may blame where Canada finds itself today on a lack of good judgement, but what are the deeper problems in the government’s strategic thinking that have led to this state of affairs?

In my view, it is the result of an idealism that continues to propound the idea of a “liberal international order,” which essentially argues that liberalism has a universal appeal so every country will eventually assimilate to it and abide by its rules. There was a brief period after the Cold War when there was reason to believe liberal capitalism would triumph with no further interruption. This hasn’t proven to be the case, however, yet many still believe in its tenability even though events have run counter to its premise.

This thinking is encapsulated in a June 2018 speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, in which she criticized the United States under President Donald Trump for breaking from conventional wisdom and reorienting its global vision.

“One answer is to give up on the rules-based international order, to give up on the Western alliance, and to seek to survive in a Metternichian world defined not by common values, mutually agreed-upon rules and shared prosperity, but rather by a ruthless struggle between great powers governed solely by the narrow, short-term, and mercantilist pursuit of self-interest,” she said.

This is melodramatic but very reflective of the fatal flaw of modern liberalism in an age of disruption: its aversion to any notion of the national interest. Many remain steadfast in clinging to conventional wisdom in spite of the new realities, the most pressing being a rising China threatening to dethrone the United States.

The rebuke of a Metternichian world is a denouncement of the “realist” school in international relations. “Metternichian” is a reference to the Austrian diplomat Klemons von Metternich, who contended that the struggle for power is the main driver behind interactions between states, and maintained that a balance of power between European nations would prevent devastating war. Moreover, realism dismisses idealism in that it believes that states will naturally behave based on their interests. Therefore, competition instead of moral engineering is the focus.

The national interest is not the most exhilarating thing for romantics, but the circumstances dictate that this is precisely what should be guiding governments.

One of the more nettling aspects of the current foreign policy is its excessive multilateralism—the underlying logic is that everyone deep down has the same virtuous goals and will eventually elevate them above nationalist concerns. Reality suggests otherwise when we observe certain governments, particularly those in Iran, Russia, and China.

But the sort of internationalism being practiced maintains that behaviour can be changed through moral suasion and cooperation. This neglects the need to fully understand the nature of a nation one is dealing with, as ideas, culture, and history factor into how one interacts with others. The American diplomat George Kennan once asserted that in the internationalist mind, “it is implausible” that certain governments will have aspirations “more important to them than the peacefulness and orderliness of international life.” In other words, internationalists are left stupefied when China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin are indifferent to their admonishments or the rules set by the U.N.

The rise of China and its concomitants demonstrate that we have entered yet another contentious era of power politics. What Westerners should have learned over the past few years is that the complacency regarding the “liberal international order” was misguided as it has done more to benefit a country hostile to it than anyone who champions it.

To put it mildly, blind idealism and globalization have failed. This is not to say that the national interest should be prioritized at the expense of moral objectives when formulating policy—far from it. A balance can easily be struck between them. But Ottawa needs to inject more pessimism into its strategic thinking since it will moderate expectations and accept the limits of international politics. This requires an acceptance of the world as it is so one can reassess and better understand Canada’s position within it.

Hopefully with a new cabinet comes serious reflection on these pressing questions.