Canada in the 21st Century: Beyond Dominion and Middle Power

By Welsh, Jennifer M. | Behind the Headlines, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Canada in the 21st Century: Beyond Dominion and Middle Power


Welsh, Jennifer M., Behind the Headlines


Canada's experience as a foreign policy actor, when viewed in historical terms, is relatively brief. Until the passing of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Dominion of Canada deferred to the principle of British primacy in imperial foreign and defence policy, serving up its young men to the cause of European peace during the First World War and dispatching its plenipotentaries to negotiations only when critical external Canadian interests were at stake (such as fishing rights or the demarcation of maritime boundaries). The strong Canadian backing for the policy of appeasement in the late 1930s and the subsequent speed with which Canada went to war against fascism demonstrated that formal independence had not erased the deep sense of attachment to the mother country. (1)

Nevertheless, the short history of Canadian foreign policy is a compelling tale of sacrifice and contribution. As part of the wartime alliance, Canada "invaded" the United Kingdom with close to half a million of its young, able-bodied men over a four-year period, to train and prepare for their global missions. After 1945, as part of the new Pax Americana, Canada lent its resources and ideas of functionalism to the creation of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods system and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Indeed, Article 2 of the NATO treaty, which calls for the formation of a North Atlantic political and economic community, is commonly held to be "Canada's clause." As the Cold War enveloped the globe, threatening to smother the post-war aspiration for multilateralism, it was the initiative of Canadian diplomats that helped to breathe new life into the UN, in the form of peacekeeping. Such skilful diplomacy also served the interests of the great powers, including Canada's former colonial masters. Lester Pearson, in Peter Lyon's words, "helped to get Britain and France off their self-impaled hooks" (2) during the Suez crisis, by inventing the United Nations Emergency Force. The Canadian commitment to multilateralism and the peaceful resolution of disputes carried through to the latter part of the 20th century, as seen in the Canadian-led campaign to rid the world of land mines (known as the Ottawa Process) and Canada's role in the preparatory meetings leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

Throughout the post-1945 period, the label "middle power" has been used as shorthand to encapsulate Canada's international role. While Canada lacks the economic and military capabilities of a great power, it likes to think it has more influence than the small powers at the "bottom of the heap." Canada has exploited this ambiguous position within the international hierarchy to great effect. The language and practice of middle power diplomacy justified Canada's attainment of disproportionate influence in international affairs and furnished it with a distinctive national foreign policy brand.

But can the middle power mantra continue to sustain Canada in this new century? During the frosty decades of the Cold War, the notion of a middle power seeking to find a niche between the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other made a lot of sense for Canada. It even had a measure of utility in the early years of the 1990s, as the world was adjusting to the breakup of the Communist bloc, focusing on the world economy and building new forms of international collaboration. But the recent transformation of the international context, combined with significant changes within the North American region and the Canadian federation, has made "middle power" an outdated label for Canada's place in the world. This has given Canada a new kind of identity crisis--one that is focused externally rather than internally.

After four decades of battling Quebec separatism and endlessly tinkering with its constitutional arrangements, Canada can now say, with some confidence, that it has transcended the problem of national unity.

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