Geography and Canada’s National Interests

How does Canada’s geographic position—and in particular our geostrategic location—determine the scope of Canadian national interests today?

In Canada, there is a deep divide over the relationship between geopolitics and Canada’s national interests. Yet while Canadians have tended to see their country’s geographic isolation as a source of security, the emerging pressures of changes in American politics and great power competition will make that more difficult in the 2020s.

Canadian governments have tended to deny that geopolitics plays any role — or indeed should play any role — in determining our national interests. Consider, for example, what I have called the “a-geographic” tradition in our formal statements of defence policy. Four defence papers have been published since the end of the Cold War, none of which focused on geography as a determinant of our interests in defence. When geography was mentioned, it was only to paint the challenges of Canada’s size, echoing the old plaint of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1936 that “if some countries have too much history, we Canadians have too much geography.”

Such an “a-geographic” approach is mirrored by what appears to be a wider scepticism among Canadian officials about geopolitics and the Realpolitik frame of mind that tends to go with it. Sometimes the scepticism is unabashed, as when Paul Heinbecker, our ambassador and permanent representative at the United Nations declared in 2000 that “Canadians are moved by humanitarian impulse, not by the cold-blooded or rational calculations of Realpolitik […] Principles are often more important than power to Canadians.” While most Canadian officials do not reject Realpolitik so openly, they nonetheless tend not to frame national interests in unambiguous geopolitical terms, at least in public.

Despite the unwillingness of their governors to talk the language of geopolitics, however, Canadians themselves have always tended to see the world in geostrategic terms. Judging from their voting behaviour over 150 years, Canadians appear to know, even if only inchoately, that geography makes Canada one of the securest political communities on earth, a veritable “fireproof house,” as Senator Raoul Dandurand characterized it to the League of Nations in 1924.

While during times of systemic war Canadians have shown themselves quite willing to commit blood and treasure to war-fighting, in times of systemic peace Canadians generally approve of being what Joel Sokolsky has called “easy riders” — in other words, spending as little as we can possibly get away with when it comes to international affairs. Moreover, as the historian Desmond Morton put it so well in 1987, Canadians come by their cheapness honestly: they have never paid any price for their easy-riding tendencies during times of systemic peace. Thirty-three years later, the University of Ottawa’s Thomas Juneau correctly observed that because of the “good fortune” of our geography, “we neglect foreign policy and national security because we can.”

This historical trend continues today: Canadians appear to remain convinced that Canada is the same kind of fireproof house that it was in the 1920s. And this conviction continues to be encouraged by the refusal of political leaders to speak to Canadians in the language of geopolitics – whether that unwillingness stems from a genuine belief that geopolitics is passé, or from a fear that Canadians will not vote for any politician who speaks the language of Realpolitik.

But this historical trend has considerable implications for Canadian foreign policy in the 2020s, a decade that will be increasingly dominated by contests for dominance among the great powers. In this environment, Canadians will find themselves facing a paradox. On the one hand, our geostrategic location will, superficially at least, seem to afford us the same kind of security in the 2020s that Canadians believed they enjoyed in the interwar years. On the other hand, however, just as the fireproof house turned out to be an illusion by the late 1930s, so, too, it is likely that our present sense of safety will be increasingly evanescent.

That evanescence will be particularly marked if politics in the United States continues on its present trajectory, sliding into the darkness of authoritarianism, white Christian nationalism, and what some have called fascism with American characteristics. If the Republicans gain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms, and if Donald J. Trump — or a Trumpist candidate — is returned to the presidency in 2024, that would likely be, as Thomas Homer-Dixon has argued, a tipping point in American democratic politics.

Such a result would also have profound implications for Canadian national interests, for Canada would be hugely affected by the significant changes in global politics that would likely occur under a Trumpist presidency. A second-term Trump would likely create deep and perhaps irreparable rifts with present friends and allies of the United States across both the Atlantic and Pacific, accelerating the realignment of international relations in Europe and Asia, and even potentially triggering systemic war.

So while Canadians might be tempted to watch the unfolding great power competition from the sidelines, taking international affairs as seriously as we always do in times of systemic peace — which is to say not seriously at all — we need to recognize the illusory quality of that sense of safety. And that means we need to start having a national conversation about why sitting on the sidelines might seem attractive in the short term, but is in fact likely to damage Canadian national interests in the longer term.

This article was published as part of a project being undertaken by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order.

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