Washington must recognize the limits of Canada as a strategic ally

Canada is not the automatic U.S. ally that its historical submission suggests. Despite sharing similar democratic values, Ottawa nevertheless always seeks to increase its autonomy. While appearing to clothe its apparent bandwagoning with Washington on the most crucial strategic issues in defense of North America, Ottawa also is in a subtle search for allies to counterbalance U.S. influence. The implication is that Washington decision-makers must recognize that Canada is the most keen ally when it is embedded within the broadest of coalitions.

Canada secretly looks to Paris, rather than Washington, for its security. As best articulated by professor Justin Massie at the University of Ottawa, Canada’s foreign policy is to maximize its autonomy versus the U.S., by counterbalancing Washington with European coalitions. The net effect is that Canada never will participate in a military campaign or operation with the U.S. unless France is present, regardless of whether the United Kingdom is participating. So, Canada was present in the Korean War in 1950, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Somalia in 1993, Afghanistan from 2001-2014, and the bombing of Libya in 2011 — but absent for the Vietnam War, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is because France represents the European counterbalance to the U.S., whereas England, much of whose deterrent is dependent on U.S. technology, is no longer a strategically independent country. 

Ottawa’s principal foreign policy goal is to embed and bind the U.S. into an institutionalized multilateral coalition that includes powerful counterbalances to the U.S. Practically speaking, only if French boots and planes are on the ground in Taiwan, will Canada help the U.S. and defend democracy there. This will mean that appealing to Ottawa requires Washington to create a coalition that appeases and includes Paris.

Canada’s strategic position is buttressed by a political culture that views aspects of U.S. society unfavorably. The tropes are at least a century old: the U.S. is popularly seen as suffering from high crime rates, antipathy to environmental issues, inequitable education, poorly traveled, influenced by finance capitalists, too much campaign financing, unsuccessful at alleviating poverty, intrusion of religion in politics, litigious, militarily interventionist, and influenced by its armaments industry. Canada has a talent for camouflaging its anti-American insecurity, and this resonates with the left in Canada, which forms the government two-thirds of the time. The surprising fact is that Canadian leaders, who cynically take advantage of these prejudices, privately give generous assessments of their American counterparts.

Those few Americans who look to Canada’s approval as an indication of international endorsement, because of Canada’s supposed influence as a socially progressive society, need to know that Canada’s approval of the U.S. brings Washington no positive public diplomacy or material advantage, because Canada has no middle power influence. Middle power influence is an often-touted Canadian advantage that empowers Ottawa to use moral suasion to encourage the diffusion of liberal values in the world. However, there is little academic evidence that it is real. Canada’s failure to respond to China’s kidnapping of two of its citizens underlines Ottawa’s diplomatic impotence — and leaves exposed more than 300,000 Canadians in China to further abuse when Beijing feels a need for cheap leverage. Canada’s reputation is mostly as a comfortable but cold destination for immigrants and refugees.

Third, buttressed by its political culture, Ottawa free-rides on U.S. deference, without cost to its reputation of trustworthiness. Repeated Canadian governments have perversely and passive-aggressively repurposed the United States’s 1823 Monroe Doctrine to mean that Canada will disarm to the absolute minimum. Ottawa needs only enough military force to enable participation in international coalitions necessary to fashion allies to entrap the U.S. in multilateral defense arrangements, and not the minimum sufficient it needs to defend its corner of North America. 

In 2005, Canada declined participation in the U.S. missile defense architecture, knowing that the U,S. could not but defend Canada, for the ultimate free ride. In 2002, I witnessed the result of an exercise at NORAD headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, and the impact zone of an inbound missile is indicated by a probability of impact oval that shrinks as the missile approaches its targets. NORAD sensors cannot distinguish between whether Toronto or Chicago is the target of a mid-course, exoatmospheric missile until long after the latest point of interception. The most recent subjects of Canada-U.S. dialogues have been limited to the minor issues of border, cyber, climate, nature and opioid security, multilateral organizations and alliances, and Canada’s generally declining greater involvement in the salient issues of combating fake news from Russia, or participating in missile defense, and F-35 procurement.

In contrast, the deference the U.S. provides Canada has no comparison in world politics, shattering any accusation that the U.S. asserts a sphere of influence in North America, normally a privilege of great powers. There never has been a Melian moment between Washington and Ottawa: The U.S. at its worst was trying to liberate Canada and inflict the rights and freedoms of its own Constitution. 

Washington persists in its indulgence of Ottawa’s reluctance to do its fair share. The result is that Ottawa has become accustomed to behaving far more like an adamant neutral, like Sweden or Cold War-era India, than as an ally. One of Ottawa’s Lilliputian acts of strategic misdirection has been to burden itself with the defense of the Arctic, largely to avoid being committed to Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion, or the potential defense of Taiwan, should China attack. Canada is of little help to the U.S. in the Arctic, and cannot accomplish anything strategically useful there without the U.S. 

What Washington must do to draw Canada into Asia more substantially is to enlist the assistance of its non-British European allies. Should the need arise, Canada could be paired up with the deployed ground forces of France, Italy or Germany.

Julian Spencer-Churchill, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science at Concordia University, director of the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies and a former Canadian Forces captain.

Tags Anti-Americanism Canada collective defense US-Canada relations

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