Pierre Trudeau once compared living next to the United States to sleeping with an elephant. “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt,” Trudeau told the Washington press in 1969.
The former PM’s son, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be recognizing that, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the beast is as uneven-tempered as it has been in living memory.
The United States is currently led by a man whose foreign policy compass swings from tweet to tweet. There is no way to predict what position he will take next, having repeatedly besmirched NATO and other agencies of internationalism. The European powers have explicitly or implicitly taken the once-unthinkable position of deeming the United States no longer a dependable ally.
In successive major policy speeches last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan laid out somewhat new directions for the Canadian government, both seeming to concur, at least implicitly, that the United States is not the reliable ally it once was.
Sajjan promised a $62 billion boost to defence spending over 20 years, which would seem to be good news for Trump, who has criticized NATO member-nations for not pulling their weight. However, it came on the heels of Freeland’s speech a day earlier, in which she expressed concern that Americans seem prepared to “shrug off the burden of world leadership.”
It is easy to criticize American leadership – under any administration – and, admittedly, while the possibility of U.S. intervention might have given some dictators and oppressors cause for pause, American power has also strengthened dictators and oppressors when it has been in their interests. Nonetheless, the abdication of American leadership creates a frightening vacuum.
Jewish tradition includes the value of lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, the prohibition against passivity in the face of violence to others. This rather universal concept seems likely to be diminished under the Trump presidency.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts in sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland told MPs. “To say this is not controversial: it is a fact.” She added: “To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power.”
This is a stark shift in Canadian policy of the past 40 or so years. Without openly saying so, Canadians have been happy to keep military budgets low, knowing that our neighbour would have our back if push came to shove. Canada has little to fear in the form of foreign invasion, although our sovereignty in the Arctic could come under threat by Russia (or even the United States) at almost anytime.
More immediately, what our deflection of military might has created is a limited ability to act in ways on the world stage that reflect Canada’s stated values, which include the pursuit of justice (in Jewish tradition, bakesh shalom v’rodfehu) and the protection of human dignity. Again, when faced with Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Middle East, or with the barbarity of ISIS, or civil war in Syria, or countless other tragic flashpoints globally, Canada has been satisfied to allow our closest ally to set the terms on the ground.
We have been able to have our cake and eat it, too, for many years, calling our approach “soft power,” which means moral suasion based on a degree of global respect Canada has achieved, while leaving “hard power” to our NATO allies. Our role in Afghanistan is an exception, and a source of pride for those who believe that the people of that country should live free from oppressive entities.
This is an imperfect example, of course, since Afghanistan remains riven by terrorism and political division. That average Afghanis, particularly women and minorities, are better off now than under the Taliban is unquestionable. While our presence there has had tangible results, in the global context, it is a somewhat symbolic engagement. Our military has limited capacity to engage similarly in another theatre and would certainly be stretched to the limit if we were to be called into two or more conflicts.
Canada does not – and should not – aspire to be a global military powerhouse. But to maintain self-defence capabilities and to act on our values in a difficult world – at a time when the great power we counted on to do this on our behalf is recanting – requires us to make financial commitments.
We must balance these commitments with our ability to fund social programs and other policies of national pride. Any increased international role should be focused on trying to prevent conflicts, supporting peace efforts and on providing humanitarian and other economic aid.