The “Canada Is Back” Humbug

By Adam Chapnick



IT IS FASCINATING, if not also disappointing, that three consecutive prime ministers have seen fit to announce that, under their governments, Canada would be returning to global politics. “Canada’s back,” they all declared.

According to Paul Martin, Canadians would once more play “a leading role on the world stage.”[1] Under Stephen Harper, Ottawa intended to be “a vital player,”[2] “leading by example”[3] internationally. Justin Trudeau’s first foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, was told to restore “constructive Canadian leadership in the world.”[4]

There are three problems with such exhortations. First, they are rhetorically excessive (not to mention unoriginal). The extent of Canadian contributions to international security, diplomacy, and development assistance have ebbed and flowed over the years, but even at its worst Ottawa has never abrogated its most basic international obligations. In other words, it’s hard to be back when you never left.

Secondly, such sentiment exudes a level of arrogance that is simply inappropriate for a country of Canada’s limited size (measured economically or militarily) and stature. Canada, bluntly put, is not sufficiently critical to world politics to necessitate official announcements of its alleged coming and going.

Finally and most importantly, these pledges of international leadership imply a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s diplomatic history. For much of the last 150 years, Canadian foreign policy has been characterized by significantly greater humility and fealty to the national interest. The desire to lead, and the conflation of leadership with effectiveness, is a relatively new phenomenon that largely coincides with efforts to reduce the power and budget of the federal departments responsible for international engagement.

When Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, foresaw the new Dominion’s place in the world, he hoped for “less a case of dependence on our part … and more a case of a healthy and cordial alliance. Instead of looking upon us as a newly independent colony, England will have in us a friendly nation – a subordinate [my emphasis] but still a powerful people – to stand by her in North America in peace or in war.”[5] Even the suggestion of the need for an independent Canadian department of external affairs, he indicated to the House of Commons, would result in the “ruin of Canada.”[6]

Westminster’s refusal to defend Canadian interests during a series of disputes with the United States over the next fifty years all but compelled Ottawa to reconsider, but the establishment of an independent office for external relations in 1909 was hardly a sign of boldness. Rather, it was more efficient for records of negotiations between Canada and the United States to be stored in Ottawa than across the Atlantic.

Ten years later, Sir Robert Borden insisted that Canada attach its signature to the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations as a separate international actor. But the only serious Canadian initiative at the League’s early meetings was meant to limit Ottawa’s global obligations under the covenant’s Article X, a collective security clause which threatened to drag Canada into European wars. If the Europeans couldn’t find a way to get along, Borden and his successors suggested, that was their problem.


"Canada is not sufficiently critical to world politics to necessitate official announcements of its alleged coming and going."

In 1935, when Canada’s advisory officer at the league, Walter Riddell, proposed that member states impose harsh sanctions against Italy in response to its invasion of Ethiopia, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was so upset that Riddell had positioned Canada in the international spotlight that he ordered a public disavowal of responsibility for the initiative.

Up until the Second World War, then, Canadian foreign policy was characterized by an aversion to international obligations, regardless of the cost in terms of global influence. 


THAT CALCULATION changed in the early 1940s, but not nearly as much as recent prime ministers seem to think. There is no doubt that Canada became a more active global player during the Second World War. The functional principle, first articulated by diplomat Hume Wrong in 1942 and confirmed as government thinking in Parliament by Mr. King the following year, even provided a recipe, or doctrine, for international influence. Canada had a right to, and would demand, a voice in world affairs commensurate with its ability to contribute to the issue at stake. In establishing his country’s global bona fides, however, King was also making it clear that unless Ottawa’s interests were directly affected, the Great Powers were welcome to manage world affairs as they chose.

Shortly after Mr. King relinquished the foreign policy portfolio in 1946, his successor as secretary of state for external affairs (and ultimately as prime minister), Louis St. Laurent, offered what many consider to be the first explicit articulation of Canada’s postwar foreign policy. But “The Foundations of Canadian Policy in World Affairs” – known colloquially as the Gray Lecture – was hardly a call for global leadership. Instead, it recommended prudence and caution. “Our external policies shall not destroy our unity,” said St. Laurent. “No policy can be regarded as wise which divides the people whose effort and resources must put it into effect… The role of this country in world affairs will prosper only as we maintain this principle, for a disunited Canada will be a powerless one.”[7]

Later on in the same speech, St. Laurent reiterated Ottawa’s fundamental lack of interest in international attention. In all of Canada’s foreign policy dealings, he indicated,

We have, of course, been forced to keep in mind the limitations upon the influence of any secondary power. No society of nations can prosper if it does not have the support of those who hold the major share of the world’s military and economic power. There is little point in a country of our stature recommending international action, if those who must carry the major burden of whatever action is taken are not in sympathy.


Ten years later, St. Laurent’s own foreign minister, Lester B. Pearson, won international acclaim for his stewardship of the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai. Canada did take the lead in this case, but not deliberately. Pearson and his team of experienced diplomats were responding to a series of existential threats to the Canadian national interest that so directly implicated Ottawa’s great power allies that there was no choice but to lean in. Britain and France’s collusion with Israel to attack Egypt threatened to undermine the credibility of the United Nations, break the NATO alliance, destroy the Commonwealth, and create an opening for Soviet influence in the Middle East.

Canadian representatives succeeded in establishing the consensus necessary to create UNEF largely because of their humility. Ottawa had spent years building an international reputation as helpful and inoffensive. When Pearson redeemed what diplomatic capital he and his colleagues had accumulated over the previous decade and pleaded for cooperation, he was therefore taken seriously.

Nor was Prime Minister John Diefenbaker seeking to position Canada as an international leader when he opposed South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth in light of its policy of apartheid. Diefenbaker only objected after India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared that the Commonwealth would not survive without an unequivocal condemnation of racial discrimination by all of its members. In the aftermath of the meeting, Canadian arms sales to South Africa persisted, as did Ottawa’s unwillingness to advocate comprehensive economic sanctions.


"Mulroney was considered for U.N. Secretary-General because of his ability to build bridges among global leaders, not because he was one of them"

Brian Mulroney spoke out even more boldly against apartheid at the United Nations in 1985. Again, however, he would have much preferred that his great power allies stand alongside him. Indeed, in 1989-90, Canada served as an effective member of the United Nations Security Council by consciously avoiding the spotlight. For a brief period, the Council was functioning effectively (it had just brought the Iran-Iraq war to a peaceful conclusion and was in the process of coordinating Namibia’s transition to independence). Since Ottawa recognized that effective global governance was consistent with the national interest, activism merely for the sake of being noticed served no legitimate purpose. Mulroney was later considered as a possible United Nations secretary-general because of his remarkable ability to build bridges among recalcitrant global leaders, not because he was one of them.

I suspect that it is not coincidental that the origins of the contemporary Canadian preoccupation with foreign policy leadership occurred simultaneously with a series of overwhelming budget cuts to Canada’s international portfolios. The Chrétien government’s effort to balance the federal budget left foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy without the tools to provide the reliable, behind-the-scenes support that had made Canada such a valued global player for decades. Large-scale reductions to national defence and international assistance meant that spearheading global initiatives that came at low cost (like banning landmines for which we had no use) was all he could do. I was one of many critics of Axworthy’s “pinchpenny diplomacy”[8] at the time. Today, I am more sympathetic. The promotion and preservation of the national interest is expensive, and Ottawa was clearly refusing to make the necessary investment.

At least the Martin government diagnosed the problem correctly. The prime minister’s foreword to 2005’s International Policy Statement conceded that, “For decades, there was a slow erosion in Canada’s commitment to its military, to international assistance and to our diplomatic presence around the world.”[9] Unfortunately, however, the obsession with leadership, perhaps inherited from the Chrétien-Axworthy years, remained. I count 18 references to leadership in the document – 18 too many.


THE HARPER ERA was worse. We weren’t going to cut and run in Afghanistan, until we did. We were going to increase defence spending on an ongoing basis, until balancing the budget took precedence. International assistance was politicized, and then reduced anyway. Most disappointing, however, was the government’s fundamental misunderstanding of how diplomacy can produce change. The Conservatives celebrated having been one of the first countries to cut funding to Hamas after it won the 2006 Palestinian election. The decision itself was legitimate, but the pride Ottawa took in being first was bizarre. Canada’s action on its own was meaningless (and ignored until the European Union enacted a similar policy). If the Conservatives had genuinely wanted to make a difference, they should have assembled a coalition of like-minded states and made the announcement together. During the Harper years, foreign policy became little more than an adjunct to the domestic playbook designed to appeal to particular slices of the electorate. The national interest was hardly a factor.[10]


"Our diplomatic corps is disillusioned and dominated by political appointees."

The Trudeau government’s assertion that Canada is back has been more of the same. The Liberals pledged millions to the United Nations, only to hesitate when there appeared to be minimal opportunity for political gain. Contrast that with the Mulroney government’s commitment to peacekeeping, in which Canada promised to contribute to every mission, sight unseen. Previous governments understood that as much as peacekeeping was officially about the mission at hand, Canada’s national interest came from the health of the institutions of global governance writ large. A functioning international system based on rules and laws rather than pure military and economic power enabled a medium-sized state with appropriately modest ambitions to prosper. Today, foreign policy seems to be about making Canadians feel good inside. It is chauvinistic, opportunistic, and depressing.

Ottawa’s global calculus is due for a change. Canada’s international tool kit is over-hyped and under-funded. Our diplomatic corps is disillusioned and dominated by political appointees. Our military faces a cultural reckoning and overwhelming procurement challenges. Our aid budget is barely growing, even while the Covid-19 pandemic has caused global poverty to skyrocket. In this context, global followership is hardly something to be ashamed of. The world needs more responsible, reliable secondary players: States that do their share without complaint, led by serious practitioners who do not crave the spotlight. Humility is a virtue in international politics. Let’s get back to that.        


Adam Chapnick is Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College, Kingston and serves as Deputy Director of Education at the Canadian Forces College, at Strathrobyn, Toronto. He is a regular contributor to THE DORCHESTER REVIEW.


[1] Shawn McCarthy, “Martin proposing a major role for Canada on the world stage,” Globe and Mail, 26 July 2003,

[2] Toronto Star Editorial. “PM says we’re back, but from where?” Toronto Star, 5 July 2007, The article was first published in the Halifax Daily News.

[3]  News Release: Prime Minister Announces Expansion of Canadian Forces Facilities and Operations in the Arctic, 10 August 2007.

[4] Canada. Prime Minister’s Office, “Archived: Minister of Foreign Affairs mandate letter,” 12 November 2015,

[5] Quoted in Stéphane Kelly, “Canada and its Aims, According to Macdonald, Laurier, Mackenzie King, and Trudeau,” in Jacqueline Krikorian, David Cameron, Marcel Martel, Andrew McDougall, and Robert Vipond, eds, Roads to Confederation: The Making of Canada, 1867, vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 77. 

[6] Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 4th Parliament, 4th session, vol. 1, 21 April 1882, 1078,

[7] A transcript of the lecture can be found at:

[8] Kim Richard Nossal, “Pinchpenny diplomacy: The decline of ‘good international citizenship’ in Canadian foreign policy,” International Journal 54, 1 (1999): 88-105.

[9] Paul Martin, quoted in Canada’s International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in The World – Overview (Ottawa: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 2005), Foreword.

[10] Peter McKenna, ed., Harper’s World: The Politicization of Canadian Foreign Policy, 2006–2015 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).

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  • Mike Lyons on

    Thankfully you are Canadian and can have a voice to challenge and enlighten without threat to your independence, safety and freedom, please consider applying to be a senator; Canada needs more thinkers and doers (writers/Academics) that can express and who can challenge and enlighten at the same time—-especially today when so many countries silence their thoughtful citizens who truly care; without challengers on the world stage we are all doomed to go along to get along. As long as Canada can be a ’Safe House" its power and influence will be heard and felt on the world stage by giving those otherwise suppressed voices the support of the powers that be in Canada.

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