Canada's current Foreign Affairs Minister, Rob Nicholson. Image source: CTV News

Canada’s current Foreign Affairs Minister, Rob Nicholson. Image source: CTV News

The nation not known as Canadia crowns the northern part of North America. It’s a vast place, dwarfing all other countries in size save humongous Russia, and it boasts awe-inspiring scenery, wilderness, and vast expanses of forest, grassland and tundra. It’s also a rich country, with a prosperous, largely middle-class lifestyle and one of the world’s larger economies (it’s ranked 11th now and was in the top 10 not too long ago). Yet for a country of its scale, it’s had a surprisingly hard time converting its size into geopolitical weight abroad. The gulf is especially galling when you compare it with its neighbor, America, which is smaller yet a superpower with overwhelming global influence.

Why is this? Why is a country graced with abundance and peace like the US not also a mighty global power? It’s a question I’ve long been vexed over, so I can’t say I have an easy answer, but I’ll try to answer it in this post.

The simplest explanation, frankly, is population. Size matters, but population matters more — you can have all the land and water you want, after all, but if you don’t have the people to fill it then you won’t be much of a country. (Countries are only what their people make them.) And Canada is nowhere near the US in population — while America currently boasts a population of 321 million, Canada only has 36 million — or about 1/10 America’s. This population ratio has stayed relatively consistent throughout North American history, even back when both countries were confined to the eastern seaboard.

Another important factor is geography. Unlike other huge countries like Russia or China, Canada doesn’t really border many countries — just the US and Greenland (which is separated by a strait from a part of Canada with very few people). In the past, it also bordered Russia, which might have made the Cold War a lot more interesting… but back then Russo-Canadian relations were fine, and Russia sold its North American territory (Alaska) to the US in 1867, coincidentally when the modern Canadian nation was first formed. Alaska was then a distant, remote concern. With nothing but Native Canadians in the area, European-Canadians didn’t really need to develop a foreign policy or independent international relations.

What distinguishes Canada the most from the USA, probably, is its history, which diverges from its neighbor in the 1700s. Back then, it was treated as essentially the same as Britain’s southern colonies in North America, but it staunchly refused to join America’s rebellion against the motherland. As a result, it avoided peculiarly American upheavals like the Civil War in the 1860s but remained tethered to a foreign country with interests of its own. Even when Canada asserted its autonomy in 1867, the most important components of sovereignty remained under British control — including foreign policy. As America boomed and swelled into a world power, therefore, Canada remained insular and modest, expanding from coast to coast and into frigid Arctic realms but not onto the world stage.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 is remembered as Canada's finest episode in World War I. Image source: The Great War

The Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 is remembered as Canada’s finest episode in World War I. Image source: The Great War

This isn’t to say that Canada didn’t have foreign adventures in the early 1900s. On the contrary, being an appendage of the UK meant it had to pitch in with Britain’s wars, even if they posed no real interest to Canadians. Canadian soldiers suppressed the Mahdi’s rebellion in the Sudan and fought against the Boers in South Africa. More importantly, Canada was roped into fighting World War I for Britain — that is, sending thousands of young men to horrible deaths in muddy fields in France and Belgium for a pointless power struggle of no relevance to it. That traumatic experience prompted Canadian politicians to request (politely) that it be given more latitude. Proper independence was granted in 1931, but lingering ties with the UK meant that Canada pitched into another world war 8 years later. Once again it sent soldiers to Europe to defeat an enemy that posed minimal threat.

Lester Pearson

Lester Pearson

The postwar era positioned Canada at a crossroads. Its military had swollen in size during the massive conflict, and it now had one of the world’s largest navies and air forces. The new international climate, with its neighbor America and sort-of neighbor the Soviet Union at loggerheads, was ripe for a robust Canadian role. Canada did intervene in Korea and invested in a missile defense system, but for the most part, it chose not to project its power internationally. Despite sympathy with its Anglo-American brethren, Canada was uneased at America’s newfound power and criticized its intervention in Vietnam and Cuba. Instead, Canada chose to play the role of peacekeeper, with a Canadian statesman, Lester Pearson, brokering a solution to the Suez Crisis in 1956 and Canadian troops repositioned to staff UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, Bosnia, Cyprus and East Timor.

Canada decided it was far more comfortable internationally as a member of multinational organizations, like the League of Nations, the UN, and NATO. It was instrumental in forming the Commonwealth, a league of former British colonies* who wished to maintain common cultural bonds and political ties with Britain and each other after independence. It is also a member of La Francophonie, France’s post-colonial club. This reflects another Canadian feature that separates it from the US: it actually began as a French colony that was conquered by Britain in the 1750s. Thus, although it maintains more formal links with Britain and is a predominantly Anglo country in culture, Canada also has cultural and emotional ties with France. At times these ties were strained — France’s notoriously arrogant president Charles de Gaulle had the gall to openly support independence for Quebec, the most French part of Canada, and France routinely treated Quebec as a sovereign nation in the ’60s — but for the most part France today keeps its distance and respects Canadian sovereignty.

Partially as a result of this foreign policy, Canada has found itself one of the most popular countries in the world. Its people have a well-earned reputation for politeness, modesty and kindness. Its prosperous economy, high standard of living (it topped the Human Development Index** in the ’90s), and cosmopolitan, picturesque cities (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver) have proved a magnet not just for tourists, but for immigrants, and Canada is now among the world’s most multicultural countries. It maintains a principled stand against human rights abuses and generally supports the Western line on dictatorships and Communism. Yet its emphasis on peacekeeping shows that it disdains the American model of aggressive intervention in the world’s problems, and it joined much of the world in haranguing America for invading Iraq in 2003.

This all comes at a cost, though. For all its size, economic clout, and international goodwill, Canada isn’t a very relevant player on the global stage. Its market is too limited and thinly spread. Despite participation in the war in Afghanistan and currently against the Islamic State, Canada’s military has deteriorated, with outdated equipment, a meager size, and a tiny budget. It hasn’t participated in many peacekeeping exercises lately — unless you count Afghanistan for some reason — and since it participates under the UN aegis, not only is its role limited, but it suffers from the complaint that UN peacekeeping is ineffectual. Now it only contributes .1% of the UN’s peacekeeping personnel. For all its help in Korea and Egypt, Canada hasn’t played a decisive role in other international conflicts; many of its peacekeeping missions haven’t exactly panned out either. And the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, to be completely frank, aren’t meaningful institutions.

Which brings us back to the initial question — Why? Another key factor in Canada’s foreign policy and national identity is its neighbor, the USA. Any visitor to North America knows that Canada and the US have extremely close bonds. They are culturally and socially more identical than just about any other neighbors. Quebec and Hawai’i aside, most of Canada and America could be interchangeable. The Canadian-American border is the longest in the world. As I wrote above, it was only Canadian refusal to rebel in the Revolution — and Quebec’s heritage — that kept Canada from joining the US in the first place. This has left Canadians deeply insecure about their southern neighbor, fearful of being overshadowed by it, and at worst, annexed. Americans are seen as brash, loud, arrogant, and bombastic, and by extension their foreign policy is irresponsible, belligerent, reckless and imperialist. A more modest foreign policy, focusing on things like trade and cultural ties, is seen as more in keeping with the Canadian national character and less controversial… and besides, like the rest of NATO (and other parts of the world), Canada benefits from the American security umbrella, so it lacks the incentive to be aggressive on its own.

Canadia is doing quite well. Its liberal social policies and welfare state are enticing to poor Asians and left-wing Americans. Its rich energy sources, lumber, mining, fisheries, and other natural resources give it a strong position in international trade. Its financial sector is stable and its consumers didn’t drive themselves into debt like much of the rich world before the economic collapse of 2008. Its position north of the world’s primary economic engine is very fortunate, as are the strong trade links with the booming economies of East Asia. Canadians are well-off, well-educated, and welcoming of foreigners. Aside from a few odd blunders like its support of the Tamil Tiger rebel movement in Sri Lanka, its moderate and sober foreign policy have earned it respect and acclaim overseas.

But with only America, Greenland, and the dinky French islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon in its neighborhood, it will inevitably be overshadowed by the American colossus. Canada’s history of involvement in the world wars and its Conservative Party’s predilection for a more assertive, American-aligned foreign policy suggest a possibly robust future for Canucks abroad. Or — as seems more likely — it could continue playing “the boring second fiddle in the American symphony” (in the words of Soviet foreign minister Andrey Gromyko). Given the Canadian national character, that would suit it well.


And Mozambique and Rwanda, for some reason


A UN ranking of countries by their standards of living.


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