Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Is Canada’s International Role in Decline?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s been said that Canada has usually “punched above its weight” on the international stage.  Whether we refer to the world wars of the twentieth century, the creation of the United Nations, the bipolar era of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, or the reaction to Afghanistan after 9-11, Canada’s contribution in blood, sweat and tears is well documented.  In addition, we have constantly played a role in peacekeeping and economic liberalization that is a model to the developed world.

Our close alliance with our neighbor to the south, the United States, has usually kept us in the loop on the major currents in world politics.  However, the recent announcement by Foreign Minister John Baird that Canada would not seek a seat at the UN Security Council was met with criticism from many long term adherents of Canada’s traditional foreign policy and with derision by the growing chorus of critics who oppose the values associated with the Harper government’s foreign policy and its ideological stance on international cooperation.  Rightly or wrongly, it was interpreted as one more step toward Canada’s declining reputation in foreign policy matters.

Withdrawing from Kyoto, opposing international NGOs  that provide abortion services, actively supporting Israel’s right wing coalition government and its approach to the Palestinian issue, and withdrawing from some UN projects have led proponents of traditional Canadian foreign policy to question whether Canada’s international reputation is now so damaged that Baird’s announcement was more an admission of certain defeat for the Security Council seat rather than a point of principle. Some veteran observers of UN politics interpreted Canada’s defeat two years ago for that very seat as a vote against this new orientation under the Conservative government of  Stephen Harper. 

To be fair, the world today is far different from the glory days of Lester B. Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Under Pearson’s influence and that of his successors, Canada’s international profile was built on multilateral cooperation, active engagement and above all, a strong diplomatic corps. However, events today are less predictable and ideologies less certain.  We no longer live in the more predictable bipolar world of the Cold War.Our support for the creation of Israel (now 65 years old), and our subsequent role as a broker in Middle East issues are now up against radical Islamist politics and well financed terrorist groups.  Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb is far different and more serious than the build-up to the territorial conflicts between Israel and the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s.  When America was struck on 9-11, Canada became a large landing strip when planes were grounded.  This was not just an act of courtesy and generosity by our government.  It was motivated, in part, by our mutual national interests.

This being said, there is growing concern that Canada’s current government has lost faith in multilateral and international forums at a time when American foreign policy under President Obama, Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry seems to be moving toward greater international cooperation.  The worry may be founded more on perceptions than on realities, but Canadians have generally been proud of the international reputation and role played by successive governments as a peacemaker and adversary of oppressive ideologies such as Nazism and Communism.

Canadians fundamentally believe in the search for a middle ground, they are genuinely proud of their historical contributions to world peace and stability, and they trust their government to be a force for good against evil.  Over the years, we have seen ourselves primarily as brokers, facilitators and negotiators, rather than warriors.  Recent actions in world matters and the decision not to try for the UN seat have begun to raise doubt and genuine concern about whether Canada is still playing that role and whether Canada is still able to “punch above its weight” on the international stage.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter