In his recent year-end interview with the CBC, Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada's top military commander, warned once again that we are at a “turning point in the global order” and that Canada is simply not prepared for what lies around the geopolitical corner.
Although he didn’t use the phrase, the upshot of his comments was clear enough: Canada’s existing grand strategy — the overall conceptual framework that has guided our thinking about how to advance and defend the country’s core national interests since the end of the Cold War — is simply no longer fit for purpose. And if we place his year-end comments against the backdrop of all that he said on the topic during the latter half of 2022, the takeaway is obvious: Canada needs to rethink — not just tweak, but fundamentally rethink — its grand strategy in light of the new geopolitical realities.
What if 2023 were the year we did precisely that? What if it were the year when Canadians finally got to grips with the task of revisiting the shibboleths, slogans and simplifications of the long-embedded national strategy that we insist on mislabelling “middle power diplomacy”? What, to put it directly, if this turned out to be the year Canadians decided to put aside our talismanic assumptions about our country’s place among the nations and rethink in a truly fundamental way not only the nature of our national interests, but how best to advance and defend those interests in a world that bears little resemblance to the one when our current national strategy was forged.
It probably won’t happen, of course. The last time Canada revisited its national security strategy in a serious way was all the way back in 2004 — and that exercise resulted in little more than a ratification of the status quo, with the addition of a few superficial tweaks to make it at least appear to reflect the novel realities of the early 2000s. Since then, and despite all the tectonic shifts that have taken place in the international realm over the past two decades, Canadians have shown little sustained interest in reopening that particular can of worms.
But if such a stock-taking were to take place in 2023, what would it look like?
Well, at the risk of oversimplification, it would probably boil down to a debate between three competing strategic visions — classical “middle power internationalism” versus what some are calling “neo-middle power internationalism” versus the Canadian version of what is referred to south of the border as “restraint.”
Middle power internationalism
Since it’s the reigning conventional wisdom, let’s consider classical middle power internationalism first. While proponents of this vision would probably deny the need for such a debate, if pressed to make a reasoned defence of their vision, they would likely make some version of the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” argument. Even though it ranks below the superpowers and other great powers, the classical middle power advocates would likely argue, Canada has historically been able to exercise outsized influence on international affairs.
It has done this by acting as a “helpful fixer” within global multilateral institutions such as the United Nations — by mobilizing its expertise, reputation and other soft power resources, not only to help stabilize the Cold War and post-Cold War international orders but to advance a broader moral or values-based agenda as well.
Canada’s middle power strategy has served the country very well indeed. Why then, its defenders will inevitably ask, should we consider changing course now? writes @aalatham #cdnpoli
And in doing this, Canada has, to use the old cliché, “punched above its weight,” achieving far more than what might be expected given the country’s relative power resources. This middle power diplomacy has served Canadian interests, its defenders would likely maintain, not only by making the country safer and more prosperous but by reinforcing Canada’s distinctive identity as an independent player with a truly consequential role to play on the world stage. All things considered, Canada’s middle power strategy has served the country very well indeed. Why then, its defenders will inevitably ask, should we consider changing course now?
Neo-middle power internationalists
Neo-middle power internationalists would probably not reject this argument in total, but would instead make the case that the onset of a multipolar great power competition in recent years has profoundly changed how the middle power game is played. More specifically, the argument from this camp would likely be that, with the end of U.S. predominance and the onset of a variety of other deep geopolitical transformations like “deglobalization” and the regionalization of economic and security relations, the global multilateral game that Canada played so well during and after the Cold War is over. In its place, they will surely argue, is a new geopolitical game — one in which conflict and co-operation take place primarily in regional contexts, and in which power and influence are exercised through regional institutions.
As a result, they will inevitably argue, the old way of doing middle power diplomacy just won’t work anymore. If Canada wants to retain its place as a global power of moderate but meaningful influence, then it will have to recognize that the middle power game will be increasingly played on regional tables. And that, in turn, will require that it realize that in order to play at those tables, the country will have to ante up something of real value to the other players and refrain from promoting certain Canadian values — like democracy and gender equality — that don’t necessarily appeal to those other players.
Only if it recognizes that these are the new rules and acts accordingly, advocates of this vision will argue, will Canada be able to play the middle power game.
Finally, restrainers would argue that while the neo-middle power internationalists have it partly right, they have not fully appreciated the extent to which structural changes in the world order have rendered even an up-gunned and regionalized middle power strategy simply unviable.
In a world of regions made up of hedging powers trying to navigate the currents of great power competition, Canada finds itself part of a regional security complex made up of itself and the most powerful of the great powers — in a region, in other words, where there is obviously no scope for middle power diplomacy.
Nor can it simply decide, through an act of sheer political will, to reposition itself as a middle power in another regional security complex. In order to be a regional middle power, a state has to be anchored in the relevant region — and Canada is anchored in North America, not Europe or the Western Pacific. Sending the occasional warship on a freedom-of-navigation operation through the Strait of Taiwan or the South China Sea is not going to make Canada an Indo-Pacific power. Nor will the relatively meagre assistance it has provided to Ukraine make it a player in Europe trying to come to terms with a violently disruptive Russia.
As this reality becomes more difficult to ignore, the restrainers will inevitably argue, Canadian policymakers will be forced to come to terms with the inevitably difficult truth that Canada’s days as an indispensable middle power with global reach and disproportionate impact are simply over. Once this reality sinks in, the restrainers will argue, Canada will necessarily have to narrow its interests and moderate its ambitions accordingly — perhaps even abandoning its aspiration to be a truly global player, settling instead for a more modest role. It will, in other words, have to adopt the only strategy that makes any sense given these implacable new international realities — a strategy of restraint.
Which position will emerge in 2023?
These, then, are the likely positions that will be argued if 2023 proves to be that fateful year of national strategy.
And how would this debate shake out, in the unlikely event it should erupt in the first place? Hard to say. It is in the nature of such debates that they are as much the province of chance as of reason — and that attempting to predict a clear winner is something of a fool's errand. But if we can’t know how the debate will shake out, we can say something about how it should shake out. And that boils down to this.
Gen. Eyre is right: we are at a “turning point in the global order.” The old world is dead and a new world is struggling to be born.
As Canadians, we need to come to grips with this reality and craft a grand strategy suited to the realities of multipolarity, great power competition, regionalization, deglobalization and our North American geography. And that means breaking — decisively — with the legacy of middle power internationalism and working out how best to employ the power resources we actually have to advance and defend our core interests in the face of the threats and opportunities that are really out there. That is the essence of strategic realism. And that is how the great Canadian strategic debate of 2023 — in the unlikely event it takes place — ought to be resolved.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy in Ottawa, and a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly on international and strategic affairs in publications such as Strategy Bridge, The National Interest, British Military Thought, RealClearDefense, The Diplomat, Responsible Statecraft, and The Hill.