Canada: Fading Power or Future Power?

By Nossal, Kim Richard | Behind the Headlines, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Canada: Fading Power or Future Power?


Nossal, Kim Richard, Behind the Headlines


To many, the answer to the question posed in the conference title is hardly in doubt. While by some measures Canada might be described as a principal power--its membership in the G-8 and the Quad, for example--by many other measures it is simply no longer as prominent in world politics as it used to be. Canadian spending on international affairs, on security and defence, on development assistance, has declined over the last decade. The government is no longer as active in international affairs as it used to be. Its capacity to be involved has shrunk. And when it seeks to be active, Canadian influence on key international events and issues appears limited.

Needless to say, debates about the kind of power Canada is in world politics are by no means new. How to measure Canadian power and influence in world politics has been the subject of a running academic--and political--debate for at least two generations. Nor is the idea that Canadian diplomacy is in decline new. In 1993, Arthur Andrew, a seasoned Canadian diplomat, argued in The Rise and Fall of a Middle Power: Canadian Diplomacy from King to Mulroney that the foreign policy of the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney finished the process of decline.

However, the 'fading power' theme became more pronounced after 11 September 2001, when the international system changed so dramatically. There was perhaps nothing more emblematic of the supposed growing 'invisibility' of the government of Jean Chretien on the international stage than the treatment accorded Canada in the speech delivered by President George W. Bush to the United States after 11 September. Bush's speech was framed by the Manichean assertion that all countries had a stark choice: 'If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists.' The president made a point of mentioning a number of friends and allies by name, but did not mention Canada, despite the various Canadian contributions on 11 September, notably the emergency care of some 30,000 stranded air travellers barred from us air space. The absence of any mention of Canada might not have been intentional, but it caused a great deal of angst in Canada because it was so highly symbolic and reflected the growing distance between Ottawa and Washington.

The fading power thesis was given a particular boost by the subtitle chosen for the 2002 volume of Canada Among Nations. The editors of that collection, Maureen Appel Molot and Norman Hillmer, used the 'fading power' motif to explore the degree to which Canadian foreign policy in 2002 was a mere shadow of the robust presence in global politics that Ottawa had enjoyed in the 1950s. (1)

The motif was picked up by numerous commentators in the months before the American-led attack on Iraq loomed and the distance between Canada and the US widened. For example, Richard Gwyn noted in the Toronto Star that Chretien's major foreign policy address to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in February 2003 was not mentioned in any of the major papers in the United States and got only passing reference in the Chicago media.

Andrew Coyne of the National Post went further: in a column under the headline 'Canada on the sidelines,' Coyne asserted that the prime minister's Chicago speech demonstrated how irrelevant Canada had become. No one listens to us any more, he wrote, not least because nothing we say is worth listening to. 'If a Canadian speaks in Chicago and no one gives a damn,' Coyne concluded, 'does he make a sound?'

And indeed it would appear: the so-called Canadian proposal at the Security Council, which sought a middling way between the two polar positions on the Security Council, was dismissed by all sides. Christopher Sands, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington--one of the few American Canada-watchers--put it succinctly: Canada is simply not thought about in Washington. …

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