On August 15th, the UN Security Council voted against a US motion to extend the international arms embargo against Iran. The US government then accounts it would use provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) as a way to “snapback” those sanctions for, what it views, as Iranian non-compliance with the original agreement. The problem, of course, as JCPOA members quickly told the US, it had already withdrawn form the agreement in 2018 and was now a non-member since it had, in effect, already rejected the provisions of the agreement two years ago. There are a series of serious issues that go along with this current situation that relate to the extension of US power, the shape of the world environment, and exactly how this situation should be assessed as part of US foreign policy. Virtually no members of the UN Security Council, for instance, supported the US move to re-impose sanctions and European powers were quick to tell the US it had not standing with the JCPOA.
The question I want to address in this blog is different: what does this tell us about the issues facing Canada on the world stage and Canada’s relationship with the US. After the most recent US aluminum tariffs, I listed to a number of commentators say something like “what Canada needs to do now is simply wait until the coming US election which see the replacement of the current administration with a more reasonable one.” I know the issue is more complicated than that but, at first, I tended to agree. What I am thinking about now is that there might be a way to Canada to build a new foreign policy relationship with the US in a post-Trump era. I don’t necessarily think this will be easy but I also think that there may be a range of Americans who are interested in the subject even if will undoubtedly be controversial in the US.
At the heard of the Trump election strategy was the slogan “Make America Great Again.” These words carry with them an at least implicit foreign policy because they assert an international pre-eminence. The Trump administration’s foreign policy has sought this greatness even if its approach been far from consistent. Despite the fact that Trump has drawn on Republicans to direct it, his administration has disavowed many of the key aspects of his own party’s approach to world affairs. One should not have a lot of nostalgia here. The War on Terror, neo-liberalism, rejection of international environmental standards, among other things, were all hallmarks of Republican foreign policy.
Historically, pre-Trump Republican foreign policy has not been popular either internationally or within Canada. But, key foreign policy thinkers associated largely, if not completely, with conservative politics have tended to argue that Canada needed to follow the lines laid down by the US. These people tended to self-style themselves as “realists.” They tended to advocated hard power, close military and diplomatic connections to the US, and support for US foreign policy goals. They tended to reject what they saw as “moralism” in foreign policy, arguing that the only standard against which foreign policy should be measured was interests of state. This close connection to the US, they tended to argue, was good for Canada for three reasons. (#1) The US was the pre-eminent power in the world. By having a good relationship with the US, Canada gained power on the world stage, as it were, by riding on US coattails. (#2) Canada needed the US on its side because of the degree to which the Canadian economy was dependent on the US. The US could, should it have wanted, cripple our economy. (#3) The US was right most of the time anyway. Its opponents were terrorists and military dictators or authoritarian communist countries.
Against this way of thinking about the world – Canada as a subservient ally of the US – was a different way of thinking about the world that is associated, in some measure, with the peacekeeping ideal. This way of thinking is most closely associated with liberal intellectuals and, to a significant extent, with the Liberal party, but that requires some nuance. The basics of this way of looking at the world were that Canada should have its own international identity and that there was nothing wrong with being on the side of the angels; that is: there was nothing wrong with morality. Indeed, it was good for Canada’s international reputation and good for Canadians who were well liked (at least compared to Americans) on the world stage. Canada found its foreign policy identity through constructive international engagement and multilateralism that allowed it to work together with other countries to accomplish positive ends and hedge in the power game. In other words, Canada’s aims were a stable, peaceful, and constructive international environment that limited the ability of “might makes right” politics by setting up international institutions that operated according to the rule of international law and some measure of global democracy (with votes vested in the nation-state).
I have no special clarity with regard to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It seems to me that when its history is written, studies will see it as based in a series of factors that include:
- An effort to further free the US from multilateral and international commitments to extend its ability to use its own might makes right policy approach. That is: to have more of a free hand with regard to international affairs and not be bound by alliances, agreements, and the like.
- A belief in the power of personal relations with world leaders to address issues (say, by establishing a direct personal relationship with the Putin and Kim-Il Jong) as a way to address problems
- A focus on economic deal-making, employing retaliatory threats, particularly with allies, in an effort to gain an edge. Allies and partners (say, Canada) were, in particular, viewed with suspicion. The goal of US economic relations with Canada was not to further common goals. Instead, it looked more like neo-liberal mercantilism. The goal is to get something from, as an example, Canada.
We don’t need to go over these points and I recognize that there are other considerations that need to be included to have a fuller discussion. What it does, however, is highlight the degree to which even Canadian conservatives will have a hard time buying into their formerly near unconditional support for the US international agenda. There are two key reasons for this.
#1) Conservatives used to argue that bad relations with the US were a problem and they tended to fault Liberal-minded PMs (PET, Jean Chretien) for it. Their overt anti-Americanism, for instance, conservative thinkers and politicians argued, poisoned the relationship with the US and endangered both the Canadian economy and Canada’s international standing with it. It is now impossible to make this argument. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a government that has been more sensitive (the odd mistake to one side) and more concerned with not offending the US government than Justin Trudeau’s. Even at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Trudeau refrained from any public criticism of the United States and its government. During intense trade negotiations when US figures publicly hammered Canada, Canadian political leaders and trade negotiators were, more or less, silent. Yet, this silence has bought noting and cannot by anything because the current US government is not looking to get any support from Canada for anything. Canada’s support is, in fact, irrelevant to it. What it wants from Canada is not agreement but, as it were, increased regulation of the Canadian economy. IOW, the result of being nice to the US is not economic gain but economic decline via production limitations.
#2) It is impossible to pretend that the US has the global power and influence it had a number of years ago. Indeed, even a number of years ago that power was waning. US power and influence are not things of the past. I’ve read studies that talk about historical shifts in international affairs as if they were some sort of cycle. They are not. But, the US no longer commands the world stage the way it did during the Cold War or the New World Order eras. Economically, US domination is challenged not by a single country (although China gets a lot of press) but by an expanded international regionalization of power. Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Indian, Russia don’t wait for US permission for anything. They might be world leaders or they might aspire to this but they are in the process of carving out their own regionalized and international spheres of influence. The US finds itself as one of a series of global regional powers and that is the reality with which it has to grapple.
I don’t expect that grappling to be easy. I don’t expect a lot of Americans will want to embrace it. And, I suspect that lot of Americans are looking simply to see themselves as “great again,” regardless of what that happens to mean. For Canada, however, it means that one end of a long-standing debate in Canadian foreign policy is over. There are good reasons to have a good relationship with the US and I will spell these out later, and the US economic connection is still important for Canada. But, whatever happens next for conservative approach to the US and Canadian foreign policy, it cannot be a return to the subservient ally approach of past days. What is equally important, I will indicate in my next blog, that the liberal alternative might also be inoperative. If history has moved past Canadian realism and its design to be close to the US, it might also have moved past its liberal alternative as well.