Nearly twenty years ago, I published a small book entitled Principal Power, Middle Power or Satellite: Competing Perspectives in the Study of Canadian Foreign Policy. (1) At the time, there was vigorous debate in Canada as to whether Canadian foreign policy was driven by a clearly articulated strategy of middle power diplomacy or simply a reflection of Canada's increasing dependence on the United States. In other words, was Canadian foreign policy made at home or in Washington? Some would argue that this debate is back, albeit in the context of a more complicated world, or that it never left. I argue that it has always been critical to our understanding of Canadian foreign policy.
This brief essay focuses on our relations with the United States, specifically on the broad strategies that balance the need to maintain an independent foreign policy in Canada (preserving, protecting, and promoting unique Canadian values and preferences) with the profound and pressing need to maintain a strong and positive relationship with the United States.
The middle power perspective saw the evolution of Canadian foreign policy in relatively simple terms: Canada's postwar foreign policy strategy was built around the notion that Canada could exert considerable influence at the level of the international system (perhaps well beyond what its material circumstances might suggest) through a deliberate strategy of full participation in the evolving world order. Canada became the archetypical middle power, joining every international organization and developing an elaborate network of mediation between north and south, east and west, and, perhaps most importantly, within the western alliance. The so-called Golden Age (2) of Canadian foreign policy was characterized by Canada's role as a "helpful fixer" and "honest broker." Canada pioneered the modern notion of peacekeeping while, simultaneously, playing a pivotal role in the North Atlantic triangle. The Canadian government committed considerable resources and devoted a significant amount of political capital in support of the post war world order. Moreover, they developed a highly professional and efficient corps of Foreign Service officers who worked through a much-enhanced network of foreign posts and in aid of Canadian membership in virtually every international organization. Multilateralism became the cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy.
The dominant competing perspective was one that characterized Canada as a satellite of the United States and argued that Canadian foreign policy was ultimately driven by Canada's relationship with the United States. Canada depended on the U.S. for its economic well being, through an increasingly elaborate and extensive network of trade and investment, its physical security under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and even its vaunted international influence. Canada's role in the emerging world order had to be understood in terms of the hegemonic role that the United States played in the international system. As a practical matter, Canada developed a "special relationship" with the U.S., characterized by a pattern of exemptionalism and exceptionalism. According to the proponents of this view, the relationship was ultimately one of asymmetrical interdependence or "dependency." Key policy decisions reflected a need to publicly support U.S. foreign policy and/or the need for Canada to maintain its standing in Washington. This kind of superordinate-subordinate relationship allowed little freedom for Canada to pursue an independent foreign policy and little latitude on major international initiatives. (3)
While the debate was organized around these two competing perspectives, there were those who did not accept either. They maintained that Canada played a very substantial role in the post-war international order and that it did so out of a specific and deliberate sense of national interest and national identity. They argued that Canada was, in fact, a principal power. …