Canada lacks clout

Op-eds Opinions

In 2015, Justin Trudeau — the man, the brand, the legacy — became Prime Minister of Canada. He was the darling of the Liberal party who promised to do politics differently.

Nearly four years, many unmet expectations, one ethics scandal, and a pipeline saga later, many Canadians are past the honeymoon phase and are well aware of their prime minister’s notable flaws.

However, American comedian Hasan Minaj, like some other progressives, is still somewhat enamoured with Trudeau, or at least with his campaign trail brand. In an episode of his Netflix show entitled “The Two Sides of Canada,” Minaj called Trudeau a leader with international “clout.”

The episode would be an entertaining non-issue, except that many Canadians — politicians included — also live under the delusion that Canada occupies a leadership role on the world stage.

Minaj holds Canada up as a progressive example to the global community, a country with the power to encourage equality and environmentalism worldwide, if only our leader would keep his campaign promises. Minaj is a staunchly left-wing Muslim-American living under Donald Trump, so his idealization of Canada is unsurprising.  

The concept of a globally-influential Canada is part of our modern national identity. We take pride in our history as a peacekeeping nation and UN Security Council member. We may have lost that council seat when Stephen Harper was prime minister, but under Trudeau, we are “back” at the UN, where we continue to promote our Canadian values by telling other countries how to improve their behaviour.

We called for Saudi Arabia to release jailed female activists, and we condemned the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We took the lead in offering aid to Brazil to fight the Amazon fires. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Attorney General, stated that Canada should speak out when Indigenous rights are threatened in other countries. In a letter to Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde asked for Canada to pressure Brazil to respect the rights its Indigenous people, who experience violence and discrimination under President Bolsonaro’s administration.

All of this is noble. These are callouts that need to be made. Action ought to be taken. But this is where Canada’s national self-image diverges from reality. Many Canadians, like Bellegarde, overlook the fact that Canada has nothing with which to pressure other nations.

Without a globally strong military or economy to add weight to Canadian words, otherwise laudable statements become laughable. We want to be a moral compass, but we have no real power to wield influence outside our own borders.

Out of the world’s most powerful militaries, we rank 21st. Brazil, the country Bellegarde would like us to pressure, ranks 13th. 

We are not important enough or strong enough for Saudi Arabia to respect our tweets, or for Bolsonaro to be concerned with our thoughts on environmentalism or Indigenous rights. 

Military strength (or lack thereof) aside, we also have no global credibility.

Stephen Harper lost the Security Council seat that Canada held for decades because we no longer had a respected (or respectable) presence at the UN or in international affairs. Canada invented peacekeeping, but these days our level of commitment to the endeavour is at a historic low.  

Trudeau wants that Security Council seat back, but it’s embarrassing that he thinks we deserve it.

In 2016, Trudeau promised 600 troops and 150 police officers for UN peace missions. Now, the UN has “given up” waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. Canadian Chinook and Griffon helicopters, along with 250 personnel, spent a year in Mali providing medical evacuations for the UN mission there, but our contribution was limited in scope. Our time in Mali, now extended while Romania prepares to take over, was the Justin Trudeau of peacekeeping operations –– pretty on the surface, but lacking depth.

Mali is a dysfunctional state ravaged by Islamist violence, government violence, and corruption. Attacks on peacekeeping installations are common, making Mali the most dangerous UN peacekeeping destination. As sophisticated and effective as the helicopters med-evac capabilities may be, they were never going to help remediate the entrenched issues in the state, and they only flew out for 10 calls. Critics of the mission point to Canada’s mining interests in Mali as the real reason the region was chosen for Canada’s UN comeback, and suggest that sending a contingent to Mali was an attempt to bolster Canada’s Security Council seat bid.  

Even a 2015-Trudeau-brand feminist policy like the Elsie Initiative, directed at involving more women in peacekeeping missions, seems hypocritical from a nation that now has a history of retreating from global engagement.

Rhetoric does not win back trust or garner influence. Nor does it replace outdated aircraft and ships.

The reality is that international clout requires military strength. Without that, our prime minister has only pretensions to international authority. Yes, Canada values soft power over aggression, but that can’t be all we have. Without the spectre of a stick in the background, soft words are meaningless. Diplomacy must have real power behind it. Preferably up-to-date real power. A fleet without gaping holes where Arctic capability should be. Aircraft newer than the pilots flying them. The sort of power that enables us to comfortably fulfill our international commitments.

This situation can’t be wholly blamed on Trudeau’s government, or even on Harper’s. As a nation, we are averse to conflict and apathetic regarding the maintenance of even minimal forces.

There is a tendency in our country to think of everything to do with the Canadian Armed Forces –– like having a defence budget, studying military history, or wearing a red poppy for Remembrance Day –– as glorifying war. This is ridiculous.

There is a difference between glorifying war and being capable of actively participating in world affairs. There is a difference between militarism and maintaining forces that command respect.

Our scorn of military strength has ensured that we remain a middling power with little influence on the world stage. If that is what Canadians want, then we can continue to base our national security policy on the proximity of the U.S. military. We should retract our bid for the UN Security Council seat and stop making commitments that we do not have the capability or the conviction to keep.

Most importantly, our politicians should stop embarrassing us by self-righteously commenting on the affairs of other nations as though our opinion matters when it doesn’t.

Canadians need to realize that looking down on investing in a strong military does not make us morally superior –– it makes us impotent. We can have all the good intentions in the world, but if we do not properly fund the Armed Forces, we will never have “clout.”