Quest to Reify Canada as a Middle Power

Iraq and the Canadian Choice

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice

May 10, 2003


States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.

                                                          -- Noam Chomsky


Canada has for a long time pinned its foreign policy on an international order regulated by multilateral institutions -- with an emphasis upon the UN and militarily on NATO. Co-operating with a host of nations Canada has sought an ill-defined status as a middle power. Simultaneously Canada is firmly entrenched in the western orbit dominated by the US. Being under the aegis of the world’s only superpower affects Canada’s sought-after status as an independent middle power. The events transpiring on the heels of 9-11 and the Persian Gulf War have exposed the frailty of a Canadian foreign policy based, in large part, on the role of an honest broker between the hegemon and much of the world.


Canada and the US


That Canada is firmly within the economic sphere of the US is undeniable. The preponderance of Canadian exports and imports is to and from the US. Canada is in NAFTA, a so-called free trade pact with the US and Mexico. Yet even this treaty status with its southern neighbor hasn’t prevented hostile trade actions against Canada in lumber, wheat, and sugar goods.


Canada shares many US interests militarily. Both are NATO member countries and the US and Canada also co-operate on air defense in NORAD. Canada was part of the US-led coalitions in the Korean War, Persian Gulf War, and the Kosovo War. Despite support for many US military forays abroad, Canada has its own jurisdictional disputes with the US. Canada was offended when the US declared the Northwest Passage as international waters; there is also the dispute on the demarcation of the boundary between BC and Alaska in the Dixon Strait. There is even a dispute over which salmon are Canadian salmon and which are American salmon; salmon have the exasperating tendency not to confine themselves to territorial waters. Generally these disputes are handled relatively amicably.


The relationship between Canada and the US is a friendly one. Canada is usually receptive to American foreign policy. When Iranian students took Americans hostage in Tehran, many Americans were concealed in the Canadian embassy and eventually liberated to a grateful US. Following the US, Canada entered into a free trade pact with Israel despite Israel’s egregious human rights record in the Occupied Territories. At the Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, a meeting boycotted by the US, Canada shamefully tried to marginalize any discussion of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.


Canada and the World


Canada in recent history has been a firm supporter of the UN and international order. But even Canada’s actions in the League of Nations worked to undermine its existence. (1) Canada has a predilection for membership in international institutions. Canada is a member of inter alia the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, G8, OECD, OAS, CONCAF, APEC, IMF, WTO, and others.


Canada has not done badly by its support for the UN and Canadians have stood out. Prime Minister Lester Pearson was granted a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in mediating the Suez Crisis; this was a precursor to the formation of UN Peacekeeping Units. Canadian diplomat John Peters Humphrey is acknowledged as the main framer of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. Recently Canadian UN emissary Maurice Strong has been mediating the standoff between North Korea and the US.


Alex Morrison wrote: “Support for the United Nations and its aspirations is fundamental to postwar Canadian foreign and security policy and is heavily endorsed by all Canadians.” (2) Thus active Canadian participation in the UN was part of securing its place in the world system. Former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent proclaimed, “If there is one conclusion that our common experience has led us to accept, it is that security for this country lies in the development of a firm structure of international organization.” (3) Canadian prime ministers since have echoed the Mr. St. Laurent line with the UN as the cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy. An exception was the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who stated, “good relations, super relations with the United States will be the cornerstone of [Canadian] foreign policy.” (4)


In the early years of the Prime Ministership of Jean Chrétien, Canadian foreign policy was characterized as veering toward neo-isolationism. (5) The Mulroney years had seen a greater supportive role for the US in Canada’s foreign policy and it was to be seen whether Chrétien’s ruling Liberal Party would pull the foreign policy rudder back on its traditional post-WWII internationalist course. It seemed axiomatic from Mr. Chrétien’s speech to the Empire Club in Toronto as a then Liberal Party leadership candidate that Canada would orient according to its standard internationalist path. “I want a foreign policy that will pursue solutions to the emerging environmental crisis. I want a foreign policy that will ensure Canada's independence and strength in a multilateral as opposed to a continental framework. I want a foreign policy that secures greater independence in our dealings with the United States.” (6)


Scholars Rioux and Hay, however, maintained that Canada under Mr. Chrétien was actually engaging in “selective internationalism.” A negative fiscal situation and Canada’s having “no choice” but to align itself with the US position were proffered as factors accounting for Canada’s selective internationalism. They charged that while Mr. Chrétien’s Liberals pretended it was business as usual, in fact this was “the most isolationist government since Mackenzie King’s in the 1930s.” (7)


Middle Power Status


Rioux and Hay questioned, “whether a foreign policy based purely on economic self-interests befits a respected middle power of Canada’s status?” Without much elaboration the authors opined that longer-term economic goals might be more dependent on Canada’s diplomatic and military policies.


Since the publication of Rioux and Hay’s paper, Canada under Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy carried off a major diplomatic coup with important military ramifications: the Ottawa Process, a treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines. The Ottawa Process was an initiative rendered possible by Canada’s global institutional connections. (8) This effectively sidelined the selective internationalist hypothesis.


Definition of a Middle Power


If middle powerism is a relevant concept then it is important to try and get some kind of definitional grip on what being a middle power entails. In the context under discussion, power per se refers to a status within a relationship, geopolitically between two or more states. Power then reflects the influence one state exerts over the behavior of another state. This power can stem from economic, military, and/or political strength and it can be wielded benignly or nefariously.


Somewhat obviously Canada’s middle power status has been defined as simply indicating that Canada is more powerful than a number of nations in the world but not one of the great powers. At this juncture there is only one superpower nation and arguably no great national powers but rather gradations of powers.


In her defense paper, Mollie Royds views middle power status as “a certain content and style of foreign policy.” She saw this Canadian middle power reflected as human security and soft power under Mr. Axworthy. (9) The concept of soft power poses another definitional construct.


Ms. Royds averred that Canada is sensitive to the international system. This is true more or less for every country differing only in degree of sensitivity. Surely even the US felt the opprobrium of the world at its aggression of Iraq. The US because of its power can shrug and continue on only suffering a diminished moral standing in the world. The other powers don’t have this luxury.


Canadian diplomat Yves Fortier opined that Canada is no longer a middle power due to the huge membership in the UN now. (10) If so then whether or not Canada is a middle power is of minimal importance; therefore the definitional consideration of middle powerism is largely irrelevant


Prelude to the Re-intensification of the Persian Gulf War


Mr. Axworthy’s foreign policy thesis was simply for Canada “to make a commitment, because it is on this commitment that its very survival will depend.” (11)


This commitment has been very much tested since 9-11. Canada did join a host of nations with the US in the invasion of Afghanistan. There was a feeble argument that the US was defending itself according to Article 7 of the UN Charter.


US President Bush and his hawkish coterie next set their sights on Iraq. The spurious rationale of self-defense to justify a pre-emptive attack on a “fundamentally disarmed” Iraq defied all imagination. In the years since 1991 Iraq had also wilted economically from the genocidal UN sanctions regime that claimed over half million lives. The US-UK attack was contrary to the UN Charter and not explicitly provided for by UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR).


Canada was fearful of the US acting unilaterally and the negative implications for multilateralism. Mr. Chrétien cautioned, "The price of being the world's only superpower is that its motives are sometimes questioned by others … Great strength is not always perceived by others as benign. Not everyone around the world is prepared to take the word of the United States on faith." Canada’s UN Ambassador Paul Heinbecker thought that “Iraq is substantially contained and that if it co-operates, the disarmament of Iraq can be had without a shot being fired.” If the US had accepted such reasoning, it would have spared Canada some diplomatic anguish.


Canada was in the position of having to choose between it neighbor and its fealty for the international system. Ottawa waffled, and procrastinated by deferring to the outcome of a sought-after second resolution in the UNSC. Canada showed no leadership on debating the issue on its merits. The implication was that the second resolution made the issue not only legal but correct. This is a kind of blind adherence to law: a conventional level of morality.


The US sought a quick resolution declaring Iraq in material breach of UNSCR 1441. France, Germany, and Russia countered that inspections should be given more time and China also nodded its assent. It was feared that the US intended to seize upon any second resolution as legitimating the waging of war on Iraq, this despite the US insisting all along that 1441 already gave the US all it needed to move against Iraq.


This was completely disingenuous. The UN cannot give its imprimatur to a war of aggression; it would subvert its own raison d’être as the opening preamble of the UN declares its mission to spare future generations from “the scourge of war.”


Into this fray stepped Canada with its middle power proposal entitled “Ideas on Bridging the Divide,” what Canada touted as a compromise to extend the US deadline slightly. The UK picked up on this and did move the date to 17 March. This was eight days shy of the Canadian deadline. Canada Foreign Minister Bill Graham was quick to note that the UK’s proposed changes were similar to ideas in the Canadian compromise: "The prime minister's and others' diplomacy is bearing some fruit." Military analysts adduced the UK compromise to be spurious as the US-UK forces wouldn’t be in place until 17 March. This new UK deadline only reflected the military lacunae and could not truly be construed as a compromise. Neither could the Canadian proposal properly be construed as much of a compromise. The six holdout members of the UNSC had requested 45 days, France had asked for six months, and UNMOVIC head Hans Blix said he needed months. Clearly the Canadian compromise was biased heavily to the US timetable. Nevertheless diplomatic journalist Bhupinder S. Liddar suggested that despite the failure of the Canadian initiative, it was a victory for Canada in that it had gained notice at a time when Canada was not even on the UNSC. (12)


When it became clear the UNSC wouldn’t okay a second resolution, Canada had to decide what to do.


Canadian historian Jack Granatstein maintained that Canada “has no choice … Canadian policy must be devoted to keeping the [US] elephant fed and happy.” (13) To this University of Toronto professor Stephen Clarkson stingingly pointed out the “stunning self-contradiction” of predicating Canadian sovereignty upon submission to US fiat. (14)


In the end, however, Canada pursued its own path. Said Mr. Chrétien: "Canada has its own international policy. Canada must follow its own approach. Our approach is to support multilateral institutions. We will continue on that path."


Canada Post-Invasion


Politically the Liberal government’s decision not to support the US-UK invasion was supported by the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois. The opposition Alliance Party ineffectually attacked the government while the Progressive Conservatives remained low-key. The Alliance Party had plummeted in the polls and the Liberal decision was viewed at that time as representative of Canadians.


In a curious twist on diplomacy, the US Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci began an aggressive démarche. Mr. Cellucci declaimed: "There is no security threat to Canada that the United States would not be ready, willing and able to help with. There would be no debate. There would be no hesitation. We would be there for Canada, part of our family."


This is a fallacious statement. The US is unabashed in pursuing its “national interest.” The US subversion of the UN only highlights this. The Iraqi security threat to the US was an act of conjuration. Furthermore there is no genuine security threat against Canada; in fact, many Canadians perceive the US as the major threat. Historically the threat of US expansionism had hastened the birth of Canada and its incorporation of the western provinces. For Mr. Cellucci to rabbit on about threats to Canadian security is to indulge in fanciful speculation. Canadian foreign policy is accomplished through diplomacy. Consequently Canada has not been a prime target of terrorists. The true security threat to Canada most likely arises from the degree of support accorded the US in its own state or state-sponsored terrorism wreaked abroad.


The undiplomatic bombast reached such a level that Liberals considered sanctioning Mr. Cellucci. Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper was aggrieved upon hearing of this and asked: "Why does the prime minister not grasp that his stance is deeply injurious to our national interest?" (15) The “national interest” is a curious term coming from the mouth of a Canadian. It is something more commonly attributed to American politicians. Incisive political critic Noam Chomsky defined the US national interest as “a mystification devised to conceal the special interests of those with domestic power.” (16) Another critic of the federal Liberal refusal to support US adventurism in Iraq was erstwhile Ontario Premier Michael Harris. Mr. Harris, in his address to the right-wing Fraser Institute think tank, also spoke to Canadian national interest: "Canada's foreign policy must stem from the very essence of what we stand for. Advancing freedom and democracy is in our national interest." (17) That all sounds very fanciful and proper but it is in hypocritical contradiction to Canadian support for dictators such as Suharto in Indonesia and the Communist Party in China.


Mr. Harris saw fit to lambaste the “decision to keep Canada out of the effort to disarm Iraq [which] is a betrayal of Canadian values, of our national interest and of our closest allies." (18) This is insincere as Canada supported UNMOVIC’s attempt to disarm Iraq. It was the US that pulled the plug on UNMOVIC as it had pulled the plug on UNSCOM earlier. Now the political heat is on Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair as to where the claimed weapons of mass destruction are. The oft-shifting demands on Iraq fixated on regime change, which accords with Mr. Harris’s other cynical definition of Canadian national interest.


The Bush administration approach to the UN diplomacy took the form of slipshod intelligence, omitting exculpatory intelligence, power games, bribing, and dirty tricks, all of which turned out to be unsuccessful. Mr. Chomsky said that “[u]sually, the world succumbs” to the US position. The fact that it didn’t this time represented “a failure of coercion.” (19) Canada has witnessed similar bullying and threats in face of its refusal to join the so-called “coalition of the willing.” To the Chrétien government’s credit Canada remained committed to its chosen path.


Canada and the US Occupation of Iraq


Following the fall of the Iraqi regime chaos ruled. Looting and pillage reached alarming levels as the US and UK abnegated their legal obligation to restore order. Embassies were emptied, even Iraq’s ancient history was pillaged, and the hospitals, already with pitiful stocks, saw doctors take to carrying guns to protect medical supplies. The US was either overwhelmed or insouciant. Judging from the “Stuff happens,” remark by US Minister of War Donald Rumsfeld, it was at least partially the latter.


The US sought to shirk some of its financial responsibility in Iraq elsewhere. The US suddenly realized the crushing burden of external debt on a developing country; it wanted to have Iraq’s debts forgiven, meaning a large write-off for lending nations such as debt-ridden Russia. Russia and other lenders were recalcitrant. There was no US acknowledgement of the necessity to write off the crippling debt of other countries with stifled development. The US focus was on its “baby,” as NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman had derisively referred to the cradle of civilization. In furtherance of its maternal responsibility, the US then went cap in hand to the “irrelevant” UN to provide some humanitarian nurturance for Iraq.


Canada of course had always stated that it would help in the reconstruction of Iraq. Mr. Cellucci took the unusual step of preemptively spelling out Canada’s contribution while the government maintained it was still mulling over exactly what form Canada’s contribution would take. (20) Not surprisingly it took the form as pronounced by Mr. Cellucci.


Yet still more was required for Canada to be welcomed back into the good graces of Washington’s neocons. Ever since the wrap-up of the US do-good Operation Iraqi Freedom Canada has seen fit to try and make amends and not be left looking in the window from outside. Mr. Cellucci again jumps in and provides an opening for Mr. Chrétien with his renewed call to join the US Missile Defense Shield project -- Star Wars 2. The straining US economy has been looking for allies to give the project legitimacy and offset the high costs. Canada, in an apparent volte-face, is now mulling over the project with a renewed interest. Canadian Prime Minister-in waiting Paul Martin is said to be unequivocally on the side of participation. So it is just a matter of time. Never mind that Star Wars 1 was an abject failure and that tests done so far indicate likewise for the sequel, Canada is about to partake in a project that turns tail on its longstanding policy of pursuing disarmament through treaties.  One way for states to counter Star Wars 2 is to develop nuclear weapons or increase their nuclear missile arsenal.


Canada and the other Superpower


Canada made its decision to stand by its commitment to the rule of international law within the framework of the UN. Canada was involved but certainly didn’t lead in the diplomatic phase. The US, UK, Russia, China, France, Germany, and a gaggle of other countries declared their stance firmly and early on. Canada gave out mixed signals. At one point Canada’s Defense Minister John McCallum even appeared to indicate that Canada would provide a military contingent without UN sanction to the US-UK invasion. (21)


Canada did garner some respect for its role as a mediator and presented a so-called a compromise to the UNCS, which was rejected by the US. Meanwhile Canada awaited a UNSC decision on a second resolution that the US unceremoniously pulled off the table at the prospect of abject defeat. It was Canadian fence-sitting approaching the cancelled UNSC vote that was a blow to middle power pretensions. The Canadian follow-through, however, on its commitment to multilateralism restored a confidence in Canada’s willingness to pursue its own foreign policy agenda outside the US vortex. This belated staunchness found Canada, however, in a kind of geopolitical limbo during the Persian Gulf debacle.


In the lead-up to the aggression, the only real obstacle that arose to the US superpower was dubbed “the second superpower,” the will of the citizenry. A plurality of people took to the streets in many countries to express their opposition to war. They united as a moral voice against what UK Prime Minister Blair, in apparent desperation at earlier effete and failed casus belli, risibly proffered as a moral war. The moral crusade of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair was in absurd antithesis to the moral weight of Mr. Blair’s own highest clerics, the Pope, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and a bevy of Nobel Laureates.


In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the despised Ba’athist regime, a strutting Mr. Blair, ever quick to grab the political opportunity, has ridden the momentum to surging polling heights. The jury is out on whether the pro-peace movement squandered a chance to seize a worldwide phenomenon. The pro-peace movement was a coalescing of other causes opting for a better world. These groups fighting to abolish poverty, end famine and disease epidemics, protect the environment, end racism, bring about real democracy and civil rights united against the illogic of war. As a counterweight to the US military-industrial superpower the pro-peace superpower arose as a superpower of morality. How much of a superpower the peace movement was, or will be, still remains to be seen.


As for the nebulous concept of middle powerism, it is past time to reject such a mediocre ambition. Semantically it is an aberration. Canada never has sought, and doesn’t seek, a middle zone among world nations. Canada views middle powerism as an elite international status, a status emboldened by it’s being a G7 member.


Canada sided with the UN. Canada could have also allied itself overtly with the network of pro-peace groups that unsuccessfully tried to stop the war. In the contest between superpowers the US won this particular aspect of the battle. It may well turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. The pro-peace movement can never be a loser. It will emerge victorious in the battle for the moral high ground; and that may be the most important battle to win.


Mr. Granatstein nixed the notion of a superior Canadian morality. (22) This is evinced by Canada’s muted response to a clear act of aggression by the US-UK, what the Nuremberg Military Tribunal termed “the accumulated evil of the whole.” Yet apparently Mr. Cellucci thought it very important to garner Canadian support in the so-called “coalition of the willing.”


Canada does have a relatively respected standing among the world’s peoples. Indeed Americans abroad, now especially, find it convenient to masquerade as Canadians.


Canada could enhance its prominence through alignment with the pro-peace and global justice movements. One country or group of countries must be first and serve as a leader among nations -- a leader based on principle and not selfish national interest. Members of such a moral alliance would not need to squirm or take umbrage at diplomatic gadflies. It is the dream of people in the global justice movement to see nation states rise above Machiavellian geopolitics and join with the grassroots of the world. There is no need to strive to middle powerism. Canada along with other nations could be part of the moral superpower, the superpower of peace.


Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: kotto2001@hotmail.com




(1) Yves Fortier, “Canada and the United Nations: A Half Century Partnership,” Canada Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 6 March 1996: http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/skelton/lecture96-en.asp


(2) Alex Morrison, “Canada at the United Nations: Serving the World (1897-1972),” Canadian Tributes: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/heirloom_series/volume6/196-201.htm   


(3) Ibid


(4) David T Jones, “Canada and the US in the Chrétien Years: Edging Toward Confrontation,” Policy Options, November 2000: www.irpp.org/po/archive/nov00/jones.pdf


(5) Jean-François Rioux and Robin Hay, “Canadian Foreign Policy: From Internationalism to Isolationism,” The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, 1997: http://www.carleton.ca/csds/publications/npsia-16.pdf   


(6) Jean Chrétien, “A Modern Foreign Policy,” The Empire Club of Canada Speeches 1989-1990, Edited by Mary R. Byers, (The Empire Club Foundation, 1990) pp. 246-256. Available on the Empire Club website: http://www.empireclubfoundation.com/details.asp?SpeechID=1545&FT=yes


(7) Rioux and Hay, Ibid


(8) Laurence Baxter and Jo-Ann Bishop, “Uncharted Ground: Canada, Middle Power Leadership, and Public Diplomacy,” Journal of Public and International Affairs, 1998: http://www.wws.princeton.edu/~jpia/5.html


(9) Mollie Royds, “Canadian Security Policy under Axworthy,“ The Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, 8 April 1999: http://www.stratnet.ucalgary.ca/research/pubs_royds.html


(10) Yves Fortier, Ibid


(11) Quoted in Molly Royds, Ibid


(12) Bhupinder S. Liddar, “Canada's respectable compromise,” The Hill Times, 10 March 2003: http://www.thehilltimes.ca/2003/march/10/liddar/


(13) J.L. Granatstein, “A friendly Agreement in Advance: Canada US Defense Relations Past, Present, and Future,” Commentary, C.D. Howe Institute, June 2002, http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_166.pdf


(14) Stephen Clarkson, “No Choice but Further Continental Integration,” 17 June 2002, http://www.ualberta.ca/GLOBALISM/pdf/clarkson%20article.pdf


(15) CBC News Online Staff, “Liberals considered recalling U.S. ambassador,” CBC News, 26 Mar 2003: http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/03/26/libscellucci030326


(16) Noam Chomsky, “U.S. defense and corporate social responsibility?” in C.P. Otero, Ed., Language and Politics (Black Rose, 1988). Available on Monkeyfist website: http://monkeyfist.com/ChomskyArchive/misc/responsibility_html


(17) Richard Mackie, “Harris rips into Chrétien's foreign policy: Prime Minister betrays Canadian values with stand on Iraq war, ex-premier says,” Globe and Mail, 2 April: http://www.globeandmail.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20030402/UMIKEM/TPNational/TopStories


(18) Ibid


(19) Noam Chomsky and VK Ramachandran, “Iraq is a trial run: Chomsky interviewed by Frontline, Frontline India, 2 April 2003: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9901-frontline-iraq.htm


(20) CBC Staff Online, “Canada to train Iraqi police, judges: US ambassador,” CBC News, 25 April 2003: http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/04/25/cellucci_030425


(21) CBC Online Staff, “Canada may back U.S. attack on Iraq without UN,” CBC News, 10 January 2003: http://www.cbc.ca/storyview/CBC/2003/01/09/mccallum_030109


(22) Jack Granatstein, Ibid



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