Towards a Grand Strategy for Canada

Steve Saideman considers the future of Canadian foreign policy.
By: /
May 2, 2012

On Tuesday, I participated in a live chat at the Canadian International Council. As I typed furiously to keep up with the conversation, I began to ponder the question of Canadian grand strategy: What are the key threats and opportunities facing Canada over the next couple of decades? What commitments has Canada made? Which ones must it keep or shed? What are the kinds of capabilities Canada will need in the face of these threats and commitments? How must Canada combine military, diplomatic, and other means to address these? Answering these questions requires serious thinking and the facing of difficult trade-offs.

In my mind, Canada’s geographic position gives it two distinct options: Arctic or the world. 


Canada is way the hell away from everything except the United States and the Arctic. In the foreseeable future, the U.S. is not a threat, but a partner. Despite the fever dreams of some folks, the U.S. does not intend to invade Canada, and it does not have plans for domination. While they often take it for granted, Americans (especially policy-makers) see Canada as a reliable friend and ally in the world. Do not forget that as much as NORAD is a compromise of Canadian sovereignty, it is also a compromise of American sovereignty. So, the land borders of Canada are quite safe, except from the usual smugglers of booze, cigarettes, drugs, and the like. The main border issue, then, is one of co-operation, not defence.

So, the challenge is really the seas around Canada and the air nearby. Since Canada is pretty far away from the rest of the world’s countries, the air threat is mostly Russian.

The threat along the seas is where the Arctic comes in. Canada does have heaps of coastline along the other two oceans, but the biggest change in the future is going to be access to the stuff in the North. There are few conflicts (other than the border dispute over Hans Island) along the Pacific or Atlantic that have not been resolved. So, the Arctic is the question. 

The other priority would be dealing with the rest of the world – engaging in expeditionary efforts to peace-keep, to support allies, and to uphold the responsibility to protect (R2P). 

In Tuesday’s live chat, Roland Paris put the Arctic ahead of the world. Reflecting on the discussion, I think I put the world ahead of the Arctic. Why? Because I just don’t think that Canada can really thwart any of the threats to the Arctic (i.e. Russia or the U.S.) with military means. Canada simply cannot/will not invest enough in its military to have enough ships (subs?) and planes (F-35s?) to counter Russian capabilities. To address this threat, Canada will have to settle its Arctic differences with the U.S. and work with the U.S. to deal with the Russian challenge.

On the other hand, Canada does seek to make a difference in the world, and does have a commitment to multilateralism. As a middle power between two great powers, multilateral institutions help give Canada influence via agenda-setting, issue-framing, and issue-trading. This is another reason Canada will remain focused on NATO and not on the Pacific: There are no major security institutions in the Pacific to which Canada belongs. A series of bilateral arrangements is no way for Canada to shape anything. The point here is that Canada can make a difference as it has in the past – with peacekeeping, with the landmine treaty, and with R2P. It helped in Haiti, and it did make a contribution in Afghanistan, even if it was not sustainable.

So, under threats, we have the U.S. and Russia. Under commitments, we have NATO, NORAD, and other arrangements. These should then determine the capabilities Canada seeks. The live chat on Tuesday focused mostly on the capability question, but the questions of threats and commitments are logically prior. Before we ask, “Do we need subs and F-35s?”, we need to understand what they might be for.

Next week, I will delve into the means and big trade-offs that Canada must consider in light of these threats and commitments.

Photo courtesy of Reuters