Canadian Foreign Policy: From Internationalism to Isolationism?

By Rioux, Jean-Francois; Hay, Robin | International Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Canadian Foreign Policy: From Internationalism to Isolationism?


Rioux, Jean-Francois, Hay, Robin, International Journal


CANADIAN FOREIGN POLICY HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED since the end of the cold war. Foreign aid and defence budgets have been cut to the bone, leaving Canada with limited means to project an international profile. To be sure, Canada is still a frontline member of the United Nations, capable of initiatives in global affairs, such as Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy's successful campaign for a treaty banning land-mines and similar efforts concerning child soldiers, small arms, and the agreement in the summer of 1998 on an international criminal court.(f.1) Nonetheless, the level of Canada's activities and the quality of its contributions in the international sphere have diminished under the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, despite Axworthy's activist and wellmeaning efforts. The 1995 foreign policy white paper notwithstanding, Canadian foreign policy has become much more selective and conditional and less internationalist than it was ten years ago.

Canada is, de facto, practising 'selective internationalism,' an approach to foreign policy that has been encouraged by several influential commentators who insist that since the end of the cold war the promotion of Canadian interests no longer requires broad international commitments and initiatives. Prosperity and security can be ensured without devoting inordinate resources to foreign affairs, or so the reasoning goes. The argument usually begins with the assumption that the fiscal situation in Canada is the major impediment to broad engagement in foreign affairs. Canada, 'typically,' only follows the direction of the United States, which is beginning to question its own international commitments. In sum, domestic circumstances and ideologies combine with international constraints to reduce the appeal of internationalism.

Internationalism is not dead in Canada, but there are strong pressures to dilute it and to shift to a more selective approach to international commitments. The selection criteria, moreover, are almost entirely economic, designed to promote immediate self-interest. Will this lead to the kind of neo-isolationist foreign policy that to some extent characterized Canada's approach to world affairs in the years between the two World Wars?

ISOLATIONISM IN PERSPECTIVE

Isolationism is perhaps most closely identified with the history of foreign policy in the United States, though it is also strongly associated with Britain's preference in the turbulent 19th century for 'splendid isolation.' Isolationism, to be sure, spans nearly the entire history of the United States: in 1796, in his farewell address to Congress, George Washington warned against entanglement in European affairs. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 reaffirmed that tendency, which was only briefly interrupted when the United States entered the First World War, a flirtation with internationalism firmly repudiated by Congress when it blocked Woodrow Wilson's attempts to involve the United States in the League of Nations. Isolationism was not definitively abandoned until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even so, with its roots firmly planted in notions of Manifest Destiny, conservative fears of a too-powerful government, and continuing objections to involvement overseas, American isolationism is never far from the surface.

The Canadian experience of isolationism is less stark. From 1867 until the end of the First World War, Canada's foreign policy was carried out in the context of membership in a closely knit British Empire. Only in the interwar years did Canada actively begin to disengage its external policies from those of Britain. This approach, rooted firmly in the domestic imperative, had its isolationist face. Canada's enthusiasm for the League of Nations, for instance, was lukewarm. It was in a speech before that body that Senator Raoul Dandurand coined the phrase, 'fireproof house,' to describe Canada's fortunate strategic position.(f.2) Although Canadian isolationism did not contain much ideological content, it had in common with American isolationism an indifference to the quarrels and armed conflicts that were growing in Europe and a reluctance to prepare militarily to assist its European cousins against the Nazis.

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