Can a middle power like Canada ever presume to sustain the world order?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 16, 2019

Image by George F.G. Stanley

“We’re fading…we lost our UN Security Council seat,” the Canadian diplomat said. He looked mournful. We were talking in the early part of this decade and Canada  had recently (2010) lost its bid for a non-permanent seat on the UNSC.  (For the record, Ottawa lost out to Lisbon and Berlin.)

Fast forward to 2019 and the issue of Canadian chutzpah and influence is back in focus. Prime minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada will seek to return to the UNSC in 2021. This means having friends and being able to influence people. Will that happen? Can that happen?

No one is sure but first Canada has to get past its own national election – on October 21. Each of the country’s four main federal party leaders have been laying out their foreign policy objectives. Interestingly though, there doesn’t seem to be any particular attempt to answer the most important question of them all: How strongly should Canada push its middle-power status?

Does middle-power status really mean a profound and debilitating lack of power? Recently, Canada’s attempt to assume a more assertive position in the world order with respect to China caused rather a kerfuffle.

Does this mean middle powers can’t really do very much to reinforce international rule of law if they don’t have superpowers backing them up in the endeavour?

Today (October 16), some of these issues will be discussed at Chatham House in London. Dr Christine Cheng, senior lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London, and Mark MacKinnon, correspondent of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely read weekday newspaper, will consider Canada’s global role.

What sort of profile should it be looking to cultivate? More specifically, is upholding and reforming the international liberal order even within the remit of middle powers? Does Canada have enough political capital at its disposal to help sustain and build the kind of international order that could potentially hold superpowers to account?

These would be crucial questions at any point of time, but more so now. It’s tempting to pre-judge the event and say the discussion will almost certainly veer towards Canada exerting itself and claiming a prominent global role. But I remember my Canadian interlocutor – a well-respected diplomat – and the way he spoke and what he said. He alternated between two moods – brutally factual and bitterly pensive.

Canada, he felt, had rowed back too far on diplomacy. Too many freelancers, part-timers and non-Canadians were doing the job that had to be done by trained diplomats. Rather than despatching Canadian diplomats overseas, Ottawa was prone to hiring local people to do key jobs that involved representing (and just as crucially, selling) Canada. Sometimes, the local hires wouldn’t even know very much about the country they were charged with representing. The results could be ludicrous. (I know he’s right about this because I’ve seen it myself at various Canadian missions in different parts of the world.)

That’s how Canada lost its diplomatic advantage, my friend said, and that’s why we couldn’t win the UNSC election in 2010.

He prophesied that recovering lost ground would be difficult even if Canada were to reverse course and up its game.

Considering there hasn’t been much sign of that in the years since I spoke to that diplomat it’s hard to say what’s in prospect for a middle power like Canada.