In recent decades, Canada has largely outsourced its foreign policy to the United States. We have failed to think for ourselves. We haven’t independently identified and pursued our own goals and interests. Our country has had no made-in-Canada grand strategy for substantively addressing the major issues of international politics. So far in this century, Canadian trade policy has essentially been the sum total of Canadian foreign policy.

So it is quite apt to highlight, shortly after Prime Minister Trudeau’s successful diplomatic trips to the United States and the European Union, what our country requires to begin playing a more serious role in international affairs. We need to integrate and pool our resources with a leading power in the international system, and the US and the EU represent the two possible poles to which we could be drawn to meet these needs.

Canada’s regions are divided geographically from one another, making each one more economically dependent on the United States than on the rest of Canada. This fragmentation has historically precluded us from becoming an independent major power in our own right. In some respects, this has been a blessing, as it has forced us to focus on domestic affairs, transforming us in the process into a superpower of federalism, human rights and multiculturalism.

But not a superpower of geopolitics. Yet if we believe in the rightness of what we’ve accomplished at home, we should try to gain the ability to project our norms and values in a responsible fashion abroad. We should resolve to become a genuine builder of international order, rather than remaining a mere bystander.

To overcome the limitations imposed by our geography, Canada has two options: pursue continental integration in North America (Plan A) or join the European Union (Plan B).

North American countries have a lot in common and fit together symbiotically. They are all nations of immigrants. American migrants to Canada are the best candidates anywhere in the world for assimilation into Canadian society, due to cultural similarities. Both the United States and Mexico have young populations, so continental unity would help to keep Canada’s demographics healthy.

Despite the election of Donald Trump to the White House following a presidential campaign that painted NAFTA in a negative light (to say the least), continental integration may yet have a future. Trump’s victory was a rebuke of the Republican Party’s traditional neoliberal policies, and his presidency may disrupt the American political status quo and result in the election of a strongly left-leaning Democrat down the road.

With the left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador poised for a strong showing in next year’s Mexican presidential election, there remains the possibility that enhanced labour mobility — with greater labour and environmental protections — could become a reality in North America early next decade. Much of the legwork of negotiating those protections has been done through the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

There are already instances where countries of greatly differing sizes have established common markets for labour, allowing workers to move easily between them: for example, Australia and New Zealand, or Russia and Belarus. We can also learn from the EU, whose best practices we could steal but whose shortcomings we could avoid. For instance, a “North American Union” could opt to enhance labour mobility significantly without creating a fully fledged common labour market, so that each country’s specific needs could be considered. Similarly, such a union could have a supranational commission that was capable of proposing policy but would not legislate for the sovereign states that occupy our continent.

On the other hand, if Washington’s isolationist tendencies only strengthen between now and the early 2020s, Canada should begin to explore Plan B: membership in the European Union.

Following the Brexit divorce negotiations, the EU will have to undertake a new round of consultations among the remaining members to create the supranational institutions necessary to deal with the Eurozone and migrant crises. But while greater centralization will be necessary on these files, greater decentralization may be required on others for Brussels to quell the rising tide of Euroscepticism across the continent.

Canada should keep a very close eye on these developments, as they will determine whether possible EU membership would be compatible with our specific needs. For example, there is growing recognition that EU member states will ultimately follow several different tracks of integration instead of different speeds: Not all countries may be expected to join the euro, for instance. This variety of paths would suit Canada well, because we require a devalued currency vis-Ă -vis the US dollar for our exports to remain competitive.

EU membership comes with many important upsides. The organization already possesses international institutions, so the laborious work of creating new ones would not have to be undertaken. Free movement of people would give us a mechanism for increasing our population and thus our international clout, without losing the ability to control our borders. And exporting the European peace project beyond the Old World would show that the Kantian vision of peaceful, liberal and democratic federalism between countries has the potential to go global.

It will be a number of years before Canada needs to consider Plan B. We should use this time to pursue trade deals aggressively with countries and transnational blocs in the Asia-Pacific, and to remain as porous as possible in our strategic interactions across the globe. Not only will these moves help to diversify our country’s geopolitical and trading relationships, they will also allow Ottawa to transform itself into a bridge between East and West if we do choose to join the EU.

Either option — Plan A or Plan B — would give Canada the ability to carry a bigger stick internationally and develop a larger population at home. Both would provide our foreign policy elite with meaningful access to strategic theatres around the world where Ottawa is not a genuine player today: We could help to secure peaceful relations in Asia in the face of China’s rise, preserve European unity and pursue more substantial engagement with Russia and the Middle East. Finally, both plans would layer economic integration with political integration, thus enhancing democratic accountability and assuaging the concerns of middle-class voters.

The difference between the two, in international terms, depends on whether Canada wants to compete with Eurasia — which is currently integrating its economies thanks to projects such as China’s “One Belt, One Road” development initiative — or join it. The answer should depend in part on how the international order evolves over the coming years in terms of the global distribution of material power and normative influence between states.

If we desire a more prominent and meaningful role in global affairs, we must begin to prepare ourselves now. The task of transforming ourselves into a substantive builder of world order will require time and careful planning. We will need to adopt an international posture and mindset that allows for both flexibility and decisiveness – all with an eye toward advancing Canada’s specific geopolitical interests. The end goal may lie many years down the road, but independent, strategically conscious Canadian thinking must begin today, not tomorrow.

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

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