In his inauguration speech, US President Donald J. Trump made it clear that a central focus of his tenure will be America’s national interest. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first,” he said, adding that the US “will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Instead of friendship and goodwill, however, Trump has delivered chaos. In response, other nations, including all US allies, are now thinking about their “own interests” harder than before — witness some Mexican and Australian leaders voicing the need to “consider the alternatives” or the German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel calling on Europeans to “start planning” Europe’s “political and economic defences” against the “threat” posed by Trump’s White House.
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his way to Washington to meet the US president for the first time on February 13, Canadians are hearing more and more national interest-talk, with government ministers, opposition politicians, media pundits, and newly commissioned polls all adding to the debate on whether, or how, Canada could or should “stand up to Trump.” So far, the focus has been on trade, but this could soon expand to other issue-areas as well.
Such debates are always primarily conceptual. Some observers will invariably talk about “the Canadian national interest” as being a function of some objective, materially defined factors. Others will suggest that national interest is whatever those who dominate the country say it is — Trudeau’s Liberals or those mercurial Laurentian elites, for example. And still others will dismiss the concept as an intellectual and political cul-de-sac.
Another approach considers the language of national interests as deployed by those who make or seek to influence national policy. A group of graduate students and I recently did this in our study of the defence policy review that the Trudeau Government launched last year. Among different “key groups” who participated in the public consultation part of the review, we were specifically interested the opinions and recommendations of the “expert stakeholders” invited to eight roundtable meetings convened between April and July 2016 in seven Canadian cities. We first assembled 102 discrete, individually authored texts (available online) and then subjected them to content analysis, using basic framing theory as our guide.
Two findings are germane to this discussion. First, Canadian defence experts generally avoided making assertions about Canada’s national interests, much less the Canadian national interest. Authors identified as ex-military (27 of them) did use the term more than others, albeit with references to citizens and society rather than to state and nation. Contextually, national interest-talk was most common in criticisms of Canadian defence policy as lacking in strategic guidance or vision, resulting in an incoherent provision of resources and lasting confusion about the purpose and proper balance of Canada’s military capabilities.
Second, most Canadian experts articulated Canada’s defence as inherently transitional and/or international — that is, embedded in a global order centred, variously, on the US, NORAD, NATO, and/or the United Nations. A common argument was that Canadian defence policy must take into account not only Canadian citizens’ prosperity and security, but also the fact that Canadian citizens have an abiding interest in global goings-on, whether as workers, customers, members of diaspora networks, or simply moral human beings.
All of this was before Trump, an era that can now be safely classified as “business as usual.” While more than half the texts we examined identified specific state and non-state actors as “threats” (“risks,” “challenges”) to Canada and its interests, not a single one offered any discussion of the essentially contingent nature of Canada’s relationships with its partners. The US was simply assumed to be a trusted ally and a net-positive contributor to the “rules-based international order.” This common assumption can, of course, be found in virtually any other strategic defence document published in recent years, a case in point being one generated by the Department of National Defence (DND)’s own foresight team, Future Security Environment: 2013–2040.
Will any of the new, Trump-induced risks and uncertainties make it into Canada’s White Paper on Defence (or any similarly styled document)? Probably not — at least not explicitly. If modern defence strategy is partially public relations strategy as well, then we can expect the new DND document to look much like equivalent documents released in previous years by Canada’s allies — focused on the fundamentals and looking well beyond the 2020s.
Yet, political drama is still guaranteed. For one thing, any government-issued statement on the challenges to Canada’s security and the type of military Canada needs to protect its interests at home and abroad ignites debates over the costs and benefits of the choices undertaken versus their alternatives, plausible and otherwise. Next, the Trudeau government is now reconsidering its military spending commitments, so the White Paper will be released “sometime in the next few months” as opposed to January, which was the plan before Trump’s unexpected victory. Finally, now more than ever before, Canada’s strategic document will be read for how it frames and finesses the severe limits that the US alliance places on Canadian strategy — that is, as a statement on what sort of US ally Canada wishes to be seen as at home and abroad. Another round of vigorous national interest debates is upon us.
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs MA students who participated in a research project mentioned in the post are Yerke Abildayeva, Mustafe Ali Hashi, Zainab Feroz, Robertho Isaac, Marc Lacoste Tremblay, Alexander Marquardt, Maxime Perreault-Varin, Edin Sabotic, Mackenzie Waddell-Harris, Ryan Ward, and Heidi Zaker.