Academic journal article International Journal

John W. Holmes and Canadian International Relations Theory

Academic journal article International Journal

John W. Holmes and Canadian International Relations Theory

Article excerpt

The first priority of Canadian defence policy is not and has not been for a century the defence of Canada... [it] is the defence of an international system favourable to our secunty and survival.

John W Holmes 19871

Defending the system, rather than the state itself, is a strategic choice that would perplex most international relations theorists. States are supposed to exist within an anarchic environment devoid of overarching authority. Cooperative arrangements might develop within such an environment, and institutions might form to further solidify them, but at the end of the day states still confront one another in a competitive realm, and must ultimately look to their own interests.

Holmes's sweeping assertion in the last days of the Cold War that such a maxim did not apply to Canada, and never had, contradicts this basic (though contested) tenet of international relations theory. Anyone in search of insight into the general nature of Canada's security situation today would likely opt to treat this generalization cautiously, plucked from the midst of a historically geared lecture as the quotation was.

But much international relations theory - developed and tested as it tends to be by Americans in an effort to explain and predict the patterns of great power politics - misses the mark when it comes to thinking about the behaviour and interests of smaller states in the system. Canadian international relations scholars, therefore, might be inclined to plumb this quotation further.

I say "might," because - as Brian Bow illustrates in his contribution to this issue - the field of Canadian foreign policy studies has been reluctant to develop a core of social scientific theory from which generalizable hypotheses can be developed and tested. Using a quotation from John Holmes, a revered proponent of a traditionalist approach to understanding world affairs, as inspiration for such an endeavour only risks further sacrilege.

I confess to committing in this essay a further sin: drawing from Holmes's quotation support for my own structural specialization theory. Structural specialization theory is the kind of "core" social scientific theory about Canadian international relations that Bow laments to be lacking in the field. Accordingly, it is the kind of thinking Holmes and his traditionalist disciples would be apt to view with skepticism, given their realistic preference for thinking about the world as a messy place, where patterns driven by independent variables that can be identified and isolated rarely, if ever, result in predictable political outcomes. It is a structural theory that derives from Kenneth Waltz's neorealism insofar as it seeks to present a positional picture of the international political universe, though it does so from the perspective of subordinate states as opposed to great powers.

In the spirit of rejuvenating the social science project within Canadian foreign policy, and in light of Holmes's intriguing generalization about defence policy and the nature of the international system, I present in the following pages a synopsis of structural specialization theory.


At the most fundamental level there exists within North America an imbalance of material capability so significant that it has created a hierarchy between Canada and the United States when it comes to the matter of survival. Though a fully fledged sovereign state, Canada has nevertheless come to be dependent upon American power for both its security and prosperity. Even throughout periods when American power has been deemed to be in relative decline, this basic hierarchy in the relationship has never been, and never will be, subverted. It has been institutionalized in the form of cooperative defence arrangements such as the North American Aerospace Defence Command, which now includes a maritime warning function, and it has even come to form the basis of the intersubjective identities of the two North American states, with Canada routinely characterized as the metaphorical mouse sleeping with an elephant. …

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