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Canadian Multilateralism and the U.S.—Keeping the Americans In, Trump or Not

It is a period of remarkable change and division in world politics. Wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere, undermine international peace and security. Conflicts in Sudan, Haiti, DR Congo, and elsewhere, scarcely noticed in Canada, threaten human security. Just as significantly, a triple planetary crisis of pollution, climate change, and the loss of biological diversity, grows in magnitude and urgency with each passing day. A nuclear arms race is gaining steam and technological developments are increasing the threat posed by biological weapons. In this midst of these challenges, China advances an illiberal vision for world politics. As the Economist observed last month, the international order is coming apart, potentially compromising our collective ability to grapple with these problems.

Complicating matters, the November 2024 U.S. election presents the real possibility of a return to power of a president hostile to the system of international institutions, rules, and alliances that the U.S. has played a leading part in establishing and maintaining since the end of the Second World War. A U.S. defection from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and key multilateral commitments could well result. Even if President Biden wins re-election, the fact that Donald Trump continues to enjoy strong political backing, despite having nearly undermined the peaceful transfer of power, a bedrock democratic principle, badly damages U.S. credibility.

In this context, should Canada resign itself to a period of division where multilateral solutions are out-of-reach? Are we entering a new Cold War? Should Canada “friend shore” its foreign policy, focusing its international engagements on a narrower segment of the international community? Is this the age of minilateralism, primarily via informal international institutions among the like-minded? Is the type of multilateral role that Canada played in the past, and advocated for in a recent report that I co-authored with Kerry Buck, obsolete?

While affirmative answers to most—or all—the questions above are common in Ottawa today, this perspective is gravely mistaken. A new Cold War is not in the Canadian national interest. We do not know how to do Cold Wars. Economic fragmentation and a return to the nuclear hair trigger would make for a poorer, less secure world. Canada included. Thus, while alignment with the U.S. is fundamental, Canada’s chief foreign policy objective in this next five-ten years must be keeping the U.S. firmly enmeshed within global institutions. Canada took a similar approach in the early post-WWII period, mobilizing its diplomatic resources to this end. This impulse, for instance, motivated Canada in negotiating the North Atlantic Treaty in 1948-1949, seeking with its partners an approach to “keeping the Americans in.” A comparable foreign policy is needed today. While Canada cannot achieve this alone, combined with multilateralists within the U.S. system and other international partners, a strategy of diplomatic enmeshment can succeed.

Enmeshment Diplomacy

Canadian enmeshment diplomacy vis-à-vis the United States seeks to ensure that the U.S. remains firmly linked—and indeed central—within the existing network of rules, norms, and multilateral institutions of the international system. It encourages an increase in U.S. political and diplomatic resource investments within these institutions and seeks to avoid any U.S. retreat from them. Enmeshment diplomacy has three elements. First, Canada’s diplomats should promote multilateral solutions wherever possible, particularly when minilateral options, venue-shifting, or forum shopping undermine core institutions. This continues a tradition in Canadian diplomacy, where Canada sought to use its influence in Washington to promote UN solutions, including during the Korean and Iraq wars. Canada could do something similar in pushing for a UN solution to the future of Palestine today, for instance. Reliance on ad hoc coalitions of the willing do not play to Canada’s strengths in the longer run. Pragmatism is required, of course, especially when worthwhile regional solutions are possible or there is a compelling functional rationale, but a preference for multilateral solutions should serve as the default policy for the government. The point is to make multilateralism work, even when it is difficult and messy, reinforcing a rules-based order that serves Canadian (and American) interests.

Within this, the UN should be a special focus. The UN provides the only platform available for addressing global issues, including climate change, pandemics, AI, and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The UN is the operating system for the international legal, normative, and institutional order. No other institution—NATO and the G7 included—can claim this. Any marginalizing of the UN has knock-on effects for other institutions. By reinforcing this foundational organization, Canada thus upholds other elements of global order. A strengthened UN also bolsters the myriad activities underway within UN agencies, funds, and programmes, that, while rarely capturing headlines, improve the day-to-day lives of Canadians. The UN only really works with active U.S. participation.

Should Donald Trump re-enter the White House, reinforcement of NATO should also emerge as a special Canadian focus.

Second, to enable this, Canada needs to strengthen ties with countries of the Global South. Canada has spent too little time listening to what the world outside the G7 has to say, too often neglecting links with countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. It has not done enough to understand the perspectives—and grievances—of these actors. High-level visits on both sides have been rare and, when relations have been prioritized, successive governments have been inconsistent in follow-through. Yet, links between countries of the West, such as Canada, and these players will be essential to reinforcing a rules-based international order.

Of special importance are global “swing states,” including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and others. Rather than declining in significance, as G. John Ikenberry has observed, the South today enjoys renewed coalitional power and a capacity to confer legitimacy. UN General Assembly votes on Ukraine and the Middle East have attracted headlines and serve as a litmus test for support of Western policies. Better ties, in both bilateral and multilateral venues, are essential to fostering more effective multilateralism and keeping the U.S. enmeshed within that system. The Commonwealth of Nations and La Francophonie offer comparative advantages for Canada as platforms for thickening ties with these actors in pursuit of shared objectives.

Third, Canada needs to invest its diplomatic energy and resources into making the existing array of multilateral institutions work better. Canada should support the modernization and renewal of institutions. This is essential to keeping the U.S. engaged. Canadian diplomats have historically been a supplier of governance innovation, including on peacekeeping, human security, maternal and newborn health. It has played a vital and constructive role in improving the working methods of the UN Security Council. Canada needs to rediscover this capacity. The fast-approaching UN “Summit of the Future” provides one opportunity for big thinking, including on governing the global commons. A balance must be struck in reinforcing core institutions, while recognizing the legitimate desire of rising non-Western actors—China included—to influence global governance. The views of the Global South will be crucial here.

Some areas where Canadian ideas might matter include current efforts to strengthen the review process for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Measures to address the NPT’s institutional deficit, a long-term Canadian objective, would strengthen the global security architecture. The UN’s Conference on Disarmament needs to be re-envisioned and the role of UNGA in disarmament affairs should be enhanced. This latter measure could breathe new life into negotiations over a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Effort should also be made to strengthen the fragmented architecture of global environmental governance and renewing Canada’s leadership in support of human security. Fresh thinking on Security Council reform is badly needed.

Canadian enmeshment diplomacy vis-à-vis the United States seeks to ensure that the U.S. remains firmly linked—and indeed central—within the existing network of rules, norms, and multilateral institutions of the international system.

What about China?

Does this underplay the importance of the growing geopolitical competition with China and overrate Canadian capacity for influence? China’s vision of great power dominance and illiberal hegemony, alongside its attacks on democratic and human rights norms, are contrary to Canadian values and interests. Enmeshment diplomacy involves a staunch defence of core multilateral principles, especially around human security and sustainable development. State sovereignty cannot be a shield for human rights abuses or environmental destruction. A system that compromises on these principles will never be attractive to Canadians or Americans.

At the same time, existing institutions offer advantages to liberal democracies that are too often overlooked. Multilateral norms, embedded within the UN system, institutionalize openness, reciprocity, non-discrimination, and the rule-of-law. In contesting these principles, China and other illiberal actors fight an uphill battle. By strengthening these venues, while accepting that institutions must serve all members, Canada protects its own interests. Conversely, the more the U.S.—and Canada—withdraw from these institutions, the greater the likelihood that the world will enter a more fractured international context, dominated by “might makes right.”

A world of big power competition, blocs, and old ideas about sovereignty reinforcing the right of big powers to dominate, will be a much less congenial one for Canada. Dispute resolution mechanisms, including vis-à-vis the U.S., have rightly been a preoccupation of Canadian negotiators for decades. Those that consider such mechanisms “idealistic” should compare the realism of insisting on safeguards with their assumption that a U.S. in the heat of competition with China will cut Canada slack in negotiations when U.S. interests are at stake.

While the effective application of enmeshment diplomacy would require a high degree of focus, including the type of the “pragmatic” diplomacy described by Minister Joly, an enmeshment approach has defined Canadian foreign policy in the past and should again today. No matter the outcome of the U.S. election, a chief objective of Canadian diplomacy going forward must be to reinforce the U.S. commitment to a rules-based international order.

Article rédigé par:

Professeur adjoint, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs de l’Université Carleton
Les opinions et les points de vue émis n’engagent que leurs auteurs et leurs autrices.