Joost van de Loo
Foreign Policy: A Conceptual Discussion
Foreign policy is an essential part of every nation-state’s central focus—put simply, it’s a government’s blueprint on how it will interact with actors outside of its borders. Foreign policies include policy decisions a government makes on how it interacts with other countries; examples include trade agreements (e.g. NAFTA) and mutual defence agreements (e.g. NATO). Foreign policy also includes international affiliations and organizational membership—for example, participation in the United Nations or the World Trade Organization. Foreign policy carried out through diplomatic, military, and economic means allows a country to exert its political influence and protect its national interests abroad, which are often clustered around security, economic and ideological aims. Examining the history of Canada’s foreign policy helps to understand some of the challenges Canada is facing today on the world stage.
Canada’s Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview
Canada did not gain full independence over its foreign policy until 1931 with the enactment of the Statute of Westminster, through which the United Kingdom gave legislative independence to Canada. The Second World War propelled Canada onto the international stage. In the aftermath of the war, victors created a rule-based international regime which discouraged armed conflict among countries and instead promoted dialogue, diplomacy and close economic relations. Some of the core international institutions that emerged were the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Canada, which has a relatively small amount of military power, uses these institutions as a way to flex its soft power and gain influence on the world stage, an approach also known as multilateral diplomacy.
However, when diplomatic channels fail, military action becomes a key part of foreign policy. An example of Canada’s military foreign policy is its membership in NATO, a military defence organization between European and North American countries. NATO was originally created to combat the threat of the Soviet Union, but it has since evolved to include mutual defence operations and counter-terrorism initiatives. After Second World War and until the 1990s, Canada primarily pursued multilateral and peacekeeping means in its foreign policy, acting on the interests of other countries through international institutions. Canada participated in armed conflicts such as the United Nations-led Korean War (1950-1953), but also participated in peacekeeping missions. These included Canada’s mediating efforts during the Suez Canal Crisis and Canada’s military contributions during the Yugoslavian wars. However, attitudes towards peacekeeping missions began to change because of failed peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Rwanda, which resulted in large losses of life. A change in leadership in Canada also meant a new focus on Canadian interests first, and a move towards strengthening its role in NATO and away from peacekeeping. Through NATO, Canada has been involved in conflicts in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Afghanistan. Canada has also avoided non-UN backed military engagements such as the 2003 war in Iraq.
In addition to military involvement, another major aspect of foreign policy is international trade. With vast economic resources, Canada has historically been engaged in international trade and commerce. Some 76% of Canadian exports go to its neighbour to the south and 1.5% of Canadian exports go to Mexico, due to proximity and NAFTA, which eliminated most tariffs between these countries. To increase its access to other markets as well as to lessen its reliance on the United States, Canada has actively pursued other free trade agreements, most notably with South Korea and the European Union. Canada also participates in organizations focused on improving trade, economic alignment, and economic development, including the G7 and G20. Other multilateral economic institutions that Canada participates in include the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. These organizations all seek to create order and stability in the world of commerce and international development.
Canada’s Current Foreign Policy Priorities
As of 2015, Canada’s foreign policy objectives have been focused on increasing economic growth through trade relations, expanding Canadian diplomacy through multilateralism and revitalizing Canada’s military and defence capabilities by committing more funding towards its military and increasing its role in UN peacekeeping missions. The government has emphasized its environment responsibility by signing on to the 2015 Paris Agreement and creating an outline to combat climate change by implementing carbon prices. The government is set to promote gender equality for women, Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups through its trade efforts; Canada has called upon the members of the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership that the trade agreement should include measures to promote these values.
Canada will also have the opportunity to showcase its foreign policy objectives when it hosts the 44th G7 summit in Quebec in the summer of 2018. This has given the current administration the opportunity to lay out a progressive agenda for the summit, which focuses on how to strengthen the middle class, advance gender equity, combat climate change, and respect diversity and inclusion.
However, Canada faces several possible upcoming foreign policy obstacles: other countries questioning Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, the threat of a conflict on the Korean peninsula, and further isolationism from the United States, which could disrupt NAFTA and military defence pacts. Furthermore, Canada, being a country so dependent on trade, is facing challenges on signing onto other major trade deals such as the CPTPP and a possible free trade agreement with China. It’s clear that 2018 will be a defining year for Canada on the world stage.
Joost van de Loo is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and holds a Bachelor or Public Affairs and Policy Management with a Specialization in International Studies from Carleton University. His main policy interest includes economic policy, international affairs, and global studies. When he is not in class, Joost can be found reading history books or enjoying a good board game with friends.