Canada needs a focused and flexible foreign policy after years of inconsistency

Written by Yasar Bukan, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly speaks with reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons in May 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Canadian foreign policy has often been rife with lingering dilemmas and abstract long-term objectives. It could become even murkier if Donald Trump is re-elected president of the United States this fall and Pierre Poilievre becomes prime minister in the years ahead.

The former American president’s policies tend to be unpredictable and quarrelsome while Poilievre has yet to offer clarity on key policy positions.

The world is engulfed in numerous conflicts, with many signs pointing to a contentious environment ahead. These factors, coupled with Canada’s strained relations with three major world powers — China, Russia and India — could further push Canada into the American orbit.

As Canada Day approaches, it’s a good opportunity to focus on how Canada could readjust its foreign policy to adapt to changing global conditions, and ground that policy in its history. Such a readjustment would need to be orderly, flexible and in Canada’s long-term interests.

Fluctuating policies

In a democracy, policy shifts are expected, even welcomed. But there’s usually a degree of continuity to key policy positions. Yet it’s difficult to discern much continuity in 21st-century Canadian foreign policy.

Paul Martin’s Liberal government, for example, aimed for an independent approach with a strong emphasis on multilateralism.

Stephen Harper pursued an aggressive policy: “We know where our interests lie, and who our friends are,” he once said. His government distanced itself from Canada’s past internationalist stance that focused on multilateralism and promoting liberal norms globally. During Harper’s tenure, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, had radical pro-Israel and anti-Iran, anti-China and anti-Russia positions. His approach largely mirrored the hawkish neoconservative agenda of the George W. Bush administration.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015, he was going to provide a “general continuity” to Canada’s foreign policy in line with pre-Harper governments. However, while he reversed some Harper policies, the concepts of multilateralism and rules-based global order have been largely limited to rhetoric. The majority of the Trudeau government’s strategic decisions, such as the Indo-Pacific Strategy, have paralleled American policies.

Two grey-haired men grin while standing close together.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint news conference in March 2012 following their meeting on Parliament Hill. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Enduring dilemmas

The Canada-U.S. relationship has primarily preoccupied Canadian foreign policymakers. Canada’s approach has oscillated between extremes: trade or independence, interest or fear.

In the early years of Canada’s existence, John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives favoured protectionist policies while Liberals Alexander Mackenzie and Wilfrid Laurier were proponents of tariff-free trade between the two nations.

Liberal Pierre Trudeau had a nationalist agenda rooted in prioritizing national interests. And while Brian Mulroney and his Conservative government were keen on a strong relationship with the U.S., Canadian independence was a priority for Jean Chrétien’s Liberals.

This ongoing predicament primarily stemmed from Canada’s disproportional dependency on the U.S. While the U.S. has been Canada’s main ally, Canada has been one of many allies for the Americans.

Another enduring preoccupation for Canada has been the scope of its role in the world. To what degree and how should it be involved in world affairs? Should Canadian policies be interest- or values-based, or both?

Liberal Louis St. Laurent’s vision was for Canada to play a constructive role in the world because it was in Canada’s security and economic interests. Under Lester B. Pearson, another Liberal prime minister, the concept of peace came to define Canada and continues to be an important aspect of how Canada is perceived.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments, however, appear to have largely abandoned this peace-keeping identity in the post-Soviet Union era, which is saturated with “peace-makers” who rush to mediate conflicts around the globe, often unsuccessfully.

A black-and-white photo shows an older man standing with three younger men. All wear dark suits and ties.
Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Jean Chrétien in April 1967 after being named to Pearson’s cabinet. They all went on to become prime minister. (CP PHOTO/Chuck Mitchell)


Canada’s post-Second World War objectives have largely centred around its commitment to multilateralism, the promotion of Canadian values and maintaining close relations with the U.S.

But these objectives face challenges.

Multilateralism has helped advance the global interests of nations the same size as Canada or smaller that lack large armies and economies. But, because of partisan politics multilateralism is now under threat, barring a few exceptions.

Furthermore, amid the global rise of ultra-nationalism, the perception of western values as admirable is changing and often equated with western domination. To defend or advocate for western values can now be viewed as naïve if not hypocritical, especially when international laws and institutions are routinely undermined by those who pioneered their construction.

Perhaps a good starting point for a new direction in Canadian foreign policy can be found in Indigenous history.

Deganawidah, the founder of the Haudenosaunee or the Iroquois Confederacy, is considered a great peacemaker. The political and cultural union of six Indigenous nations still governs portions of present-day New York, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Québec.

The origin of the current close-knit Canada-U.S relationship, in other words, predates colonial British rule.

Grounded, balanced foreign policy

So how should Canada reconfigure its foreign policy?

In this challenging environment, a Harper-style, assertive foreign policy is neither in the nation’s interest nor within its capabilities. There are simply not enough vital global interests that would warrant Canadian aggression or hawkishness. Such policy would only make enemies and create risks.

Yet Canada can no longer dwell in the security of its rich resources and vast geography either. The latest revelations of foreign interference in Canadian politics and the alleged involvement of the Indian government in the murder of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil signal that the immunity Canada enjoyed because of its geography and proximity to a superpower has waned.

Canada should therefore be proactive globally and enhance its defensive capabilities.

A man with thinning grey hair speaks amid a scrum of reporters, cameras and microphones.
David McGuinty, Liberal MP and chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, responds to questions from reporters about foreign interference in Ottawa in June 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

The way forward

In terms of the U.S., Canadian policymakers need to be more balanced and prudent. The U.S. is facing serious domestic and international strife. Canada can neither become entangled in American politics nor serve as a mere instrument of U.S. imperial ambitions as it struggles to protect its global interests.

Furthermore, in a world dominated by hostilities among major powers, principles of peaceful co-existence, multilateralism and value-based diplomacy are insufficient in guiding a foreign policy. They should be complemented by additional broad objectives.

A proactive diplomacy and strategically defensive mindset would be more viable for Canada. Policymakers should prioritize preservation over expansion and enhance bilateral relations — especially with the United Kingdom, France and Mexico — over selective engagement and isolation. Canada should also invest in education, emerging technologies and new domains, including outer space.The Conversation