This past June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the G7’s annual summit in Cornwall, United Kingdom, meeting with world leaders face-to-face for the first time since February 2020. He was by no means the star at Cornwall; everyone was more interested in the new yet familiar face on the world stage– American president Joe Biden. His European tour, coinciding with Trudeau’s, was portrayed by the media as the United States’ comeback after four years of Donald Trump’s neglect of America’s allies in Europe and Asia-Pacific. Biden’s Geneva summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16th also gained high-level coverage from the media.
The Biden tour is only one point off a list of things that would have overshadowed Canada’s presence in the G7 summit; this list includes the current rift between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Union leaders regarding disagreements on the 2019 Brexit deal.
Even when Prime Minister Trudeau staunchly criticizes other nations, his words are dusted off easily. This unfortunate circumstance often happens with China, which is currently detaining Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Despite Canada’s multiple calls for the two men to be released, China hasn’t budged. Again, this happened at the G7 Summit when Trudeau called for the two Canadians’ immediate release, but to no avail.
Ever since World War II, Canada has championed the effort of cooperation between nations, promoting itself as a “middle power” that aims to influence the world order for the betterment of society. With the rise of nations like China and India, whose influence beats Canada’s, the Trudeau government has to assess whether its country’s values and efforts still matter to others.
The “Middle Power” Concept
To get a sense of where Canada’s place might be in the world today, one must understand the idea of a middle power. A middle power is a country that can shape certain aspects of world affairs based on specific circumstances; its economic, military, political, diplomatic, and cultural capabilities and resources can exceed most of the world’s countries. However, these capabilities cannot match those of the great powers (which include China, Germany, Russia, and the United States.
It must be noted that there are no clear-cut criteria to become a middle power, as University of Calgary’s Assistant Professor Jean-Christophe Boucher said in an interview for this article. “It seems like we don’t actually know where the threshold is,” says Professor Boucher, who specializes in foreign policy analysis. “And in some respects, we don’t actually know how to quantify it in a way that makes sense to us. We know which ones are the great powers; we know the small powers and what they look like. The middle powers are those in between.”
The important question, he says, is whether these nations between small and great are different, how they are different, and what role they should play in the world.
Professor Boucher argues that the “middle power” label is also one that countries cannot claim for themselves. “It’s actually the other countries who decide if you are a middle power or not. It’s not a self-referential kind of argument. It’s more so recognition from other countries [whether] you are relevant or not for certain conversations.”
Canada’s History as a Middle Power
With its goal to be a moderator on the world stage, Canada became a key player in promoting cooperation after the Second World War. The most significant example was the country’s role in establishing the United Nations (UN). McGill law professor John Peters Humphreys was chosen to be the Director of the UN Human Rights Division whose main objective at the time was to create an international document outlining rights and freedoms that nations should guarantee to all humans. His work as the director led to the creation and the eventual 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document would influence UN members to protect the human rights of their respective countries.
The country’s strong involvement in the UN would continue to be a force to be reckoned with. Then-Canadian Secretary for External Affairs (the past equivalent of Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs) Lester B. Person, who would later become Prime Minister, was instrumental in brokering a deal between the Israeli-French-British alliance and Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis.
Pearson’s diplomacy resulted in the founding of the UN Peacekeeping Force and his 1957 Nobel Peace Prize win. This strong commitment to maintaining world order has certainly given Canada the peacemaking, middle power reputation it wanted, earning a seat in crucial discussions in international affairs.
The Canadian Impact on Today’s Global Affairs
Unfortunately for Canada, international politics has changed in a way that hasn’t benefited its global standing. According to the US News And World Report’s ranking on a country’s power (calculated based on the economic influence, political influence, military strength, strong international ties, and the country’s leader), Canada barely misses out on the top ten at #12.
To understand the rationale behind Canada’s place in the ranking, one must look at two essential factors that contribute to a country’s power: economic influence and military strength. Canada has certainly slipped in both factors. Although Canada can still tout itself as a respectable economic powerhouse, its economy now lags behind India, Brazil, and China—developing countries that grew into emerging markets and are currently outperforming those in the developed world.
Egypt, Indonesia, and South Korea have also surpassed Canada in terms of military strength. However, one must note that the latter is a result of the three nations’ need to protect themselves against regional foes. In contrast, Canada does not need to maintain a larger army since there are no regional threats to its national security.
“[Is Canada] relevant in all aspects? No,” Professor Boucher says. “I would say we’re not an important player in Asia. We’re not an important player in Latin America. We’re not an important player in Africa. We’re an important player in the Western countries and Europe, but that’s it.” Professor Joel J. Sokolsky, a Professor at the Royal Military of Canada’s Department of Political Science and Economics, confirmed this conclusion in another interview with Spheres of Influence. He said that although Canada’s “ability to operate internationally” matters to Canadians, Canada “doesn’t matter a great deal in most of what goes on” in the world.
Professor Sokolsky further argues that Canada’s recent activity in foreign affairs, which includes sending troops abroad, should not be confused with its influence. “We want to be active globally, but with that activity sometimes comes a responsibility that I’m not sure [Canadians] want to assume.” He uses Canada’s involvement in the Middle East to show how Canada’s activity does not lead to much progress. “It’s been active in the Middle East for peacekeeping and other things, but that has not brokered a peace treaty there [and] has little actual influence,” says Sokolsky.
The country could expand its influence, through methods such as sending weapons to the countries it is militarily supporting and guaranteeing their security or enlarging military spending to expand overall support. The question of whether Canada is willing to do so, however, remains. “There’s no appetite in the country for maintaining a large military nor would it be particularly useful for [Canada’s interests].”
Does The “Middle Power” Concept Even Matter?
Professor Sokolsky notes, however, that critics shouldn’t analyze Canada’s foreign policy for its middle power status in the first place. “I’ve come to believe that it’s not entirely useful, certainly [when] understanding Canadian foreign policy,” he says, “because what you end up doing is you describe [Candian foreign policy] and then generalize it” as if it’s like any other country of similar stature and circumstance.
Rather, he argues that Canadian diplomacy should be judged by whether it has been “successful.” “I prefer to look at [whether] Canada has had a successful foreign policy in its relations with the rest of the world,” he says. “Does [Canada’s] relations support the security, the prosperity, and the stability of the country?” The professor uses the example of Canada’s relationship with the United States as a successful part of its foreign policy. It’s a relationship that, he would say, “disproportionately benefits” Canada because the latter shrewdly negotiates trade deals that ensure economic prosperity for its citizens. Canada has also successfully developed a “very close, unique security” with the United States that strengthens North American continental security—particularly Canadian national security.
What Should Canada Seek to Achieve Through Its Foreign Policy?
Although Canada’s role in the world has shrunk in size compared to the overwhelming influence of other nations, it still has a part in the international effort to promote and protect the liberal democratic world order. Professor Sokolsky, whose grandparents were Eastern Europeans who fled to Canada after the First World War to seek a better life, believes that one way of doing so is to model such values that the rest of the world can look up to.
“We’re a fairly tolerant country. I grew with immigrants in my family that were happy to be here. They were happy to be anywhere that wasn’t killing them.” He certainly acknowledges that work needs to be done, mentioning the discrimination that racial minorities face.
Nevertheless, Professor Sokolsky firmly believes that if Canada continues promoting its pillars of diversity and tolerance to the rest of the world, then the country can use whatever influence it has to advocate for global freedom and democracy.