Blind Spots in Canadian Foreign Policy

Speech to The Canada Committee 100 Society

The Honourable Yuen Pau Woo

Independent Senator for British Columbia

Good afternoon.  I have been asked to speak on “blind spots” in Canadian foreign policy and that is what I will do.  Every country has blind spots in its approach to international issues because of a variety of factors, including history, politics, foreign pressure, religious or cultural prejudice, complacency, poor leadership, and fuzzy thinking.  Canada is no exception, and my speech will focus on the blind spots that are unique to us.  I am not saying that Canada is worse than other countries, but I wish I could say with confidence that Canada was better than most. 

There are many blind spots in Canada’s foreign policy, and it is a particularly dangerous time in the world to have so many.  The blind spots I am about to touch on are the responsibility of the current Liberal government, but I have little confidence that another government would do any better.  On some of the biggest foreign policy questions facing Canada today, there is a troubling groupthink among the three major parties.  In some ways, the parties are competing to be more blind on the very blind spots that plague us.  It is as if our country is led by the three monkeys who, seeing no wrong, are determined to also hear nothing that will suggest that there is wrong, and are just as determined to say nothing that will challenge that wrong.      

Canada’s foreign policy today is performative, inconsistent, timid, and largely ineffectual.  While we are liked as a people, our positions on foreign policy are mostly seen as derivative of the United States.  Even as we speak of the need to diversify our trade, we are pursuing policies that will tie us more closely to North America.  We talk about the importance of multilateralism but we are pursuing forms of “minilateralism”, euphemistically described as “friend-shoring” or “de-risking”.  Billions of dollars are being poured into subsidizing “friendly” foreign investors while turning away investment from other sources that are deemed to be national security risks.  We have succeeded in souring relations with two of the most important players in the Indo-Pacific region, and it is questionable as to whether we can deliver on our promises to the other three most important players – ASEAN, Japan, Korea. 

We are the self-crowned world leaders in autonomous sanctions and spend an inordinate amount of energy developing new ways to sanction other countries even though the evidence on the effectiveness of sanctions remains dubious.  We are consumed by fears of foreign interference in our country, but almost totally neglect the most important, most sustained, and potentially most destabilizing source of foreign interference, which is from the United States.  We boast about being a country of immigrants and the champions of multiculturalism and pluralism yet are looking to create a registry of foreign influence (which is what comes with immigration, multiculturalism, and pluralism). 

Here is the latest example of a massive blind spot:  At the United Nations yesterday, Canada joined with the US, Israel and 11 other countries to oppose a motion calling for a sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities in Gaza and Israel.    The vote was 120 to 14.  Even the UK, France and Spain did not vote with the US in opposing the motion.  Canada’s contribution to this UN debate was to move an amendment that would have pleased the US and Israel, but this amendment was rejected by the General Assembly. 

Canada will be remembered in this sorry episode for not only opposing the call for a humanitarian truce, but for also being an errand boy of the United States.  As the carnage in Gaza continues, most people around the world will recognize it for what it is – a brutal assault on civilians that violates international law and which cannot be justified as Israel’s right to defend itself.  There is no question that the terrorist organization Hamas carried out acts of unspeakable violence against innocent Israelis on 7 October 2023.  I condemn those acts unequivocally and agree with those who say that maximum pressure should be applied to seek the release of Israeli hostages. But I also agree with the UN Secretary General António Guterres who said that the Hamas attacks did not occur in a vacuum.  Palestinians have been stateless hostages for 75 years, their fates controlled by a Jewish state that has in recent years encouraged the further encroachment of traditional Palestinian territories. 

Canada’s actions at the UN and the broader hypocrisy of western countries in not calling out the gross violations of human rights in Gaza have already undermined support from the Global South for Ukraine, which is facing its share of brutality inflicted by Russia’s illegal invasion, now entering a second winter. While most countries around the world side with Ukraine on the question of territorial integrity and the right to defend itself, many in the Global South have been wary to provide direct assistance to Ukraine or participate in sanctions against Russia because of the suspicion that the west is selective in the application of its “universal” principles. 

There are many examples from recent history, but what is unfolding in Gaza is driving the point home with merciless effect.  I have already observed that Canada prides itself on having some of the most “advanced” forms of autonomous sanctions against states and individuals.  You can be sure that none of these will be applied to Israel and its supporters. 

In many ways, our stand on Ukraine is a bright light in Canadian foreign policy.  We have been vocal in our support for Kyiv and have put substantial money and materiel behind that support.  The government has been generous in welcoming Ukrainian refugees and ordinary Canadians have opened both their hearts and their homes to these newcomers.  It is right that Canada should take a principled stand against Russian aggression, not least because Russia also happens to our neighbour to the North.  But our muscular policy on the Ukraine war has left us with no latitude to be helpful in bringing a peaceful resolution to the war, which is a reversal of a traditional role that Canada has played (or at least has seen itself as playing).  Short of outright victory for either Kyiv or Moscow, it is a certainty that there will be calls at some point in the future for cessation of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia; it is also just as certain that Canada will not be part of that discussion.

One glaring blind spot with respect to Canada’s positioning on the Ukraine war was exposed during the recent visit of President Zelensky to the Canadian parliament, at which the Speaker of the House of Commons unwittingly welcomed the presence of a former Nazi in the audience.  It is not the fault of MPs and Senators that they took the Speaker’s cue and rose in unison for a standing ovation; but it is a sign of their ignorance of history that they would do so even though this former Nazi was celebrated for fighting against “the Russians” in the Second World War. Parliamentarians were in effect cheering for an individual who fought against our ally in the Second World War. 

Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy (IPS) is yet another area of foreign policy where there are major blind spots.  As a long-time advocate of stronger ties between Canada and Asia, let me say firstly that I salute the government for coming up with a policy document that can take us in this direction.  The framing of the IPS, however, is as much more about aligning with American geopolitical priorities as it is about seeking new markets and opportunities for Canadian business.  The great irony in mixing these two objectives is that while our longstanding goal of trade diversification has been about trying to be less dependent on the United States, the practical effect of an IPS that is anchored on American premises is that Canada could end up being even more dependent on the US.  This is particularly so because the “new” understanding of diversification is less about the US than it is about China. 

There are good reasons for Canadian business to be careful about doing business in the PRC – because of serious domestic economic and political challenges in China – and to look to other markets in Asia.  However, in the broader context of US policies that seek to handicap China’s economy as well as “America First” laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act which discriminate against foreign manufacturing in general, the direction of the Canadian economy is towards North American continentalism, not the Indo-Pacific.  Worse, the recent plunge in relations with New Delhi will render difficult any notion on the part of Canada that the Indian market can be an alternative to China in the foreseeable future. 

The whole point of an “Indo” Pacific strategy was of course based on including India into a geopolitical framing of the region; it was not based on economic logic or on an alignment of trade and investment policy interests given that India has long been an outlier in terms of economic openness compared to East and Southeast Asia.  Since China is not a priority in Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy and India has now distanced itself from Canada’s embrace, the strategy is effectively reduced to Japan, Southeast Asia and Korea (JSEAK). Perhaps this smaller aperture will allow Canada to direct its energies in a more focused way to significantly deepen relations with JSEAK, but a lot will depend on whether Canada can overcome the powerful gravitational pull of continentalist economic policy that is coming out of Washington DC.

A good example of this dilemma is the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a form of US industrial policy that discriminates against foreign suppliers.  Canada is rightly proud of the fact that it was able to be included in some of the economic preferences that are provided under the Act, largely because of effective lobbying on our part.  But our Indo-Pacific partners, notably JSEAK, were left out, as were members of the EU.   To them, our message seems to be: “Too bad.  You should have lobbied Washington harder”.  We frequently talk about the “rule of law” in international economic relations and the importance of multilateralism, but we are complicit in supporting US trade policies that clearly discriminate against many countries. 

A quick word on the Canada-India relationship.  Ottawa and Delhi have had cool, if not frosty, diplomatic relations for the greater part of the last 40 years starting with the fallout from the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1974.  An ongoing irritant for India is the presence of Sikh separatists in Canada, who were responsible for the bombing of an Air India flight in 1985, for which the Indians feel some of the perpetrators were not brought to justice.  The testing of nuclear weapons in 1998, known as Pokhran II, brought back Canadian ill feelings towards India, which took much longer to abate than was the case of other western powers who quickly got over their disappointment and restored relations with Delhi.  The difference with the current conflict between Canada and India this time around is that India has become a more important economic and political player in the world economy, which is reflected in the very tough position taken by Indian officials.

I do not fault the Prime Minister for sharing information from intelligence sources that the Indian government was behind the assassination of Hardip Singh Nijjar.  His hand was forced by leaks from within the government that would have been made public by the media.  But I am struck by the naivete of the government in thinking that western allies would go any further than to offer rhetorical support for Canada’s position and that these “like-minded” partners (especially the US) would do anything to jeopardize the strategic relationship they had cultivated with Narendra Modi’s government. 

Given the historical dynamics of Canada-India relations, I am not optimistic that the two countries will patch up their difficulties soon.  But I am 100% sure that the US and other western allies will not let any difficulties in Canada-India relations slow down their own priorities in working with India on economic, defence, and technology issues.

Canada’s IPS talks about the importance of the historical moment, when economic and political power is shifting to the west Pacific, when the status quo of international economic relations is under threat, when rule of law is being replaced by rule by power.  It also talks about the need for Canada to be clear-eyed about what is happening around the world and what these changes mean for the country.  All of this is correct.  And yet, in its analysis of the forces driving change in the region, the report fails to identify the single most important factor, which is the inward turn of the United States and its increasingly dysfunctional politics.  By any measure, these forces in the US, which go back at least to the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans in 2009, have had and will continue to have the greatest material impact on Canada for the foreseeable future.

While Canada’s IPS omits any discussion about disruptive changes in the US that have been going on for at least 15 years, the document is explicit about describing China as a “disruptive power”.  This is odd for a number of reasons.  China’s economic rise is of massive significance for the world, but this has been taken place over the last 40 years, and for most of that time, the rest of the world has welcomed (and benefited from) Chinese economic growth.  To describe it now as “disruptive” is strange unless we are to understand the term as meaning “China is now a serious competitor in the fields we want to dominate and therefore we see China as a threat”. 

On the political front, it is accurate to say that the Xi Jinping regime has been disruptive for Chinese society, mostly for the worse.  But it is an exaggeration to describe that disruption as extending into Canadian society – as least not in comparison to the impact of US policy on Canada.  The main area of Chinese disruption that is pertinent to the Indo-Pacific region is in China’s assertion of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea and in its disputes with SE Asian claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines.   That is a serious issue that the region needs to manage with care, but it is a discrete problem that does not amount to China as a disruptive power in all domains of the economy, society, and security that matter to Canada.  There is a lot more that can be said about Canada-China relations, but that is not the topic of today’s speech.

As you requested, I have focused my speech on what I think are some of the blind spots in Canadian foreign policy.  Let me stress again, as I did at the outset, that Canada is not unique in having such blind spots.  The question is whether our leaders can recognize the blind spots and take corrective action before lasting damage is done to the country.  That is why I am so pleased that you have asked me to share my thoughts on this issue.  Whether you agree with me or not, it is important for us to be always on the lookout for blind spots and to talk about how we can self-correct.  With that, I look forward to your questions and comments.

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