The Remarkable Consistency of Canada’s Foreign Policy

The Remarkable Consistency of Canada’s Foreign Policy

Canada’s foreign policy is driven primarily by geopolitics, and its overriding concern is to remain close – but not too close – to its southern neighbour.


At the victory rally on election night 2015 the leader of Canada’s federal Liberal party, Justin Trudeau, invoked one of the country’s greatest statesmen, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, by promising a future of “Sunny Ways”. At the time, this epithet seemed appropriate. Following nine years of rule by the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, during which Canada had suffered a series of setbacks to its usually positive international reputation, Trudeau’s upbeat language and media appeal appeared to offer a welcome change of direction.

Immediately upon taking office, the new Liberal government set about trying to restore the country’s international image. However, with a fresh general election in October 2019, the shine appears to have come off the ruling Liberals. A growing movement on the political right – apparently frustrated by a mix of grievances has manifest both electorally in six out of ten provincial governments and in the form of a high-profile Canadian ‘Gilet Jaune’ movement. Moreover, an ongoing scandal involving alleged political interference in the judiciary has cost the government two widely-respected ministers and severely tarnished Trudeau’s image.

In terms of Canada’s place in the world, initial optimism about the new government’s impact has also been tempered by experience.

In terms of Canada’s place in the world, initial optimism about the new government’s impact has also been tempered by experience. Trudeau’s honeymoon period was characterised by a so-called ‘bromance’ with then-President Obama and global acclaim following Canada’s welcome of Syrian refugees. More recently, however, Ottawa has been buffeted by more powerful states. For example, having called out Human Rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom directed its ire towards Canada with a series of high-profile, albeit mostly symbolic attacks.

Similarly, Ottawa found itself the target of Chinese hostility following its arrest of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, at Vancouver airport, based on a US request. China responded by curbing agricultural imports from Canada and using its judiciary to clamp down on Canadians in its territory. Further, since the election of US President Donald Trump, cross border relations have soured. Though Trudeau’s first visit to Washington was seen as a relatively successful charm offensive subsequent disagreements over trade, particularly relating to the renegotiation of NAFTA led to tensions and an embarrassing public spat.

However, it is unlikely that any other Canadian government would have pursued a significantly different international agenda. Indeed, while there are some differences between the two main political party’s Foreign Policies, Canada’s international role has been remarkably consistent for decades. This is because, for Canadian Foreign Policy-makers, geopolitical concerns rule. Or in other words, given Canada’s proximity to the world’s only superpower, Ottawa’s primary focus is always its relationship with Washington.


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To be sure the Conservatives and Liberal parties make efforts to sell their respective approaches as different. For example, under the Harper administration, the government shunned international organisations like the UN and propagated an almost Manichean worldview. While the current government’s position – articulated by the Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, in a speech to Parliament in 2017 – embraces multilateralism in the face of threats to it from across the globe. However, in practice, since just before World War Two, Canada has prioritised its relationship with the United States.

The rationale for this is obvious, As Freeland has pointed out “Canada is middle power that borders a great power”, thus it must maintain a cordial relationship to ensure both its prosperity and even its basic survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau told a Press Club meeting in Washington in 1969,  Canada’s experience living next door to the United States is like “sleeping with an elephant” because “no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast… one is affected by every twitch and grunt”.

As Freeland has pointed out “Canada is middle power that borders a great power”

There is a high level of interdependence between Canada and the US. In terms of security this dates back to an exchange of assurances in the lead up to World War II, when both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King articulated their countries’ commitments to mutual security, in August 1938. Of course this became manifest when the US entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1941, but came into their own during the Cold War as US defence planners sought to take advantage of Canada’s geostrategic location – in the path of any potential transpolar attack launched by the USSR– to augment its defence. This began with a joint project to build a series of early warning radar stations and air force bases in the early 1950s it developed into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in 1958 and has been sustained since.

Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King with President Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during the Quebec Conference 18 August 1943 (Creative Commons)

Moreover, Canada and US are also two of the most integrated international economic partners with trade that is valued at more than $2 billion per day and is the basis for more than 9 million American jobs. While in general terms Canada is much more heavily dependent on the US than vice-versa, the US has historically relied on its northern partner’s hydro-carbon industry to meet its energy needs (though the current US production boom is rapidly reshaping that balance).


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It stands to reason then that political leaders from both Canada’s main political parties would prioritise the relationship with Washington even this runs counter to their immediate electoral interests or political convictions. Evidence of this is present even during moments of apparently peak tension between the two countries. Indeed, even as Canadian leaders have publicly disagreed with the US on occasions, they have usually refrained from more meaningful practical resistance.

Regardless of who wins the election in October there will be no serious challenge to the status quo

For example, despite Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s argued for UN involvement in the Cuban missile crisis and was reluctant to put Canadian forces on alert in spite of President Kennedy’s requests, yet he subsequently accepted both the need to ready the Canadian military and joined a NATO blockade on the island. Further, while two Liberal Prime Ministers Lester Person and Pierre Trudeau spoke out against US policy in Vietnam 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight (albeit this was technically illegal under Canadian law). Canada also continued to supply matériel to support the US war effort and was engaged in secret missions and weapons testing and, finally, it sent troops as part of the peacekeeping force to help enforce the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

Moreover, while Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced his decision to keep Canada out of the 2003 War in Iraq – much to the irritation of the future Conservative Prime Minister Harper – he did not withdraw the Canadian armed forces personnel already deployed on secondment to the US and UK militaries and allowed three Canadian warships to remain part of taskforce 151 patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Thus, while there are clearly some rhetorical differences between the two main Canadian political parties in relation to foreign policy, regardless of who wins the election in October there will be no serious challenge to the status quo under either. As decades worth of evidence suggest Canada’s foreign policy is driven primarily by geopolitics and its overriding concern is to remain close – but not too close – to its southern neighbour.


This article was first published by Stratfor 


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