Canada: The bridge between weak and powerful states

Don’t cut ties with Russia and let the U.S. be the bad cop, writes Hanna Kassab. Canada must keep its ‘good cop’ status.
By: /
September 18, 2014
PhD candidate, University of Miami

Most of my career has focused on the foreign policy of weak states and the impact of such activity on great powers. Weak states, those states defined by underdevelopment, economic and political vulnerability with little political and economic influence, have much to gain from positive relations with diametrically opposed great powers. Since they are nonthreatening to great powers, weak states are fortunate enough to reap the benefits of the international system through aid and preferential trade with conflicting ends of the balance of power. While great powers are worried about the stability of the international system, weak states are busy extracting benefits from the (dis)order.

Middle powers are in a favourable position similar to that of weak states with one caveat: they must continually give an explanation for their behaviour. Middle powers and their foreign relations may be seen as threatening as they possess some capability compared to the incapable and vulnerable weak state. Their dealings may be a cause for concern. Thus, middle powers must give an account for certain foreign policy transactions between opposing third party powers.

As a consequence, Canada and other middle powers can play a very important role within the international system: the role of diplomat; the role of peacemaker.

The perception of Canada as a democratic and ‘nice’ country remains strong, although it has suffered these past few years. As a trustworthy member of the international system, it can be relied upon by unfriendly third-party states; it may be able to diffuse certain situations through mediation and discussion on its sovereign territory (not in the winter though, please).

Much of this position was established during the Cold War. As a middle-power, Canada played the role of global arbiter between the United States and the Soviet Union. Looking back to this bipolar order provides a framework from which the Canada of today can work from.

After World War II, the world was forcibly locked into a balancing act between two poles: the U.S.-led Western bloc and a Soviet socialist sphere. Canada, while protected by NATO and the U.S. nuclear umbrella, pursued friendly relations with many socialist countries such as Cuba and China. This became known as the golden age of Canadian foreign policy. Pragmatism, not ideology, would be the driver of Canadian autonomy within the bipolar international system; for instance, Canada was the first of the NATO countries to approach the Soviet Union for talks after the death of Stalin. This was disconcerting for the United States at first. However, the United States continued to strengthen its relations with Canada throughout the 1950s and 1960s – proving Canada’s negotiating power.

In a more controversial move, Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau hoped to cement ties with the Soviet Union during his time in office. The idea was to diversify Canada’s foreign relationships with other great powers. The “third option” as it was called desired to extract gains from commerce, to open markets and benefit from other sources of wealth. His peace mission to Moscow hoped to smooth ties between the two countries independent of U.S. approval. Although this could potentially risk the American relationship (this was during détente), Canada and the United States continued their mutually beneficial association, culminating ultimately in the signing of a free trade agreement in 1988.

Diverse bilateral relationships between Canada and states on opposing ends of the balance of power truly defined Canada’s post-war foreign policy. This was, of course, quite the balancing act. The need to communicate intent is absolutely integral for this tightrope walk. Known for its role as peacekeeper (especially during the tumultuous Suez Crisis in 1956), nuclear disarmament and dedication to the International Criminal Court (not to mention notions of human rights, human security and the diffusion of norms through the enshrinement of the UN Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the country’s own constitution), Canada has indeed communicated its intent. This signaling creates Canadian identity and reputation and makes the balancing act possible and successful.

Hence, Canada is able to engage warring factions by communicating to the world its peaceful intent (Canada’s assistance in the creation of regimes, norms and institutions which guide global political governance).

This in turn has made the world a better place to live for those looking to escape the perpetual (and usual) tussle between great powers.

So, what does this mean for Canadian (and middle power) foreign policy given the uncertainty presented by the rise of emerging powers? Similar to weak states, Canada is able to have and continue good relations with both the United States and the Western world on one hand, and the BRICS (especially China and Russia) on the other. However, in order to truly enjoy the fruits of these relations, and not to upset either side, Canada must continue to signal to both parties that it is doing so as a peacekeeping force; for the sake of diplomacy, as a bridge to unite warring factions.

The world needs all middle powers to operate in such a manner to ensure the safety and security of the world and guarantee the existence of diplomacy as a feasible option; an option that great powers may forget to consider given material capability.

Canada must exist as a bridge between the two sides in order to facilitate conversation between the (arguably) diametrically opposed sides. While Russia is indeed overstepping its bounds on its eastern border, that does not necessarily mean that Canada should cut ties with it; let the United States be the bad cop (leading containment against belligerent Russian action) and Canada the good cop, creating the forums necessary for a peaceful solution, and, to help build the institutions needed for countries with sizable Russian populations to help them feel represented.

Outside of NATO and Europe, looking at China, we may find a similar role for Canada. Canada was among the first to recognize Communist China under Prime Minister Trudeau, two years before U.S. President Nixon’s courtship. Trudeau’s action, although criticized, was the precedent needed to give the United States the confidence to begin its own relationship with the Maoist state; and Mao would be forever grateful to Trudeau. The ‘good cop’ here went first to China to test the waters. Canada’s middle power status also assists in peace in East Asia, between China and Japan, through its mutual contacts in these countries. James Manicom discusses this in an article, arguing that since Canada benefits from both powers through complex political and economic relations, it would be in its best interest to manage the “acrimonious relationship between East Asia’s great powers.” Canada’s power position combined with its soft power builds bridges of trust between these regional rivals.

In terms of international security and the rise of China, this same good cop/bad cop formulation should also be followed. Let the United States use its military power and its alliances to curtail the expansion of China into the South China Sea (if it is indeed expanding in such a way). Like the Russian case, Canada must also be a meeting place for communication between the two opposing great powers. If China is intended to replace the United States as world hegemon, Canada must encourage it to use the norms, regimes and institutions already created to ensure peace. Friendly signals must be sent between these competitive powers to ensure cooperation and continuing security and prosperity for the world. Each side has much to lose from any decent into violence.

In a past essay for OpenCanada, I’ve argued that Canada remains the quintessential middle power. It is a country with its own identity; it does best when it sticks to it. Its comparative advantage and backbone of power is its legitimacy as a force for good. As a middle power, Canada must, in its Cold War tradition, continue to use its hard earned reputation and soft power to ensure the stability of international security.

There is much to gain from acting as a bridge between opposing great powers. Canada will be able to enjoy the fruits of commerce with both sides of the balance of power, a practice that great powers cannot do (current United States and Russian sanctions on one another). Contemporary international politics is now uncertain given the untenable situation in Ukraine; what we need is a peacemaker with experience. What we need is Canada.