Canada has lost its way in international relations. Its past two attempts to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council failed. The country that invented peacekeeping currently deploys fewer than 60 blue helmets.

Critics say Canada is not pulling its weight in NATO despite its tough talk on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Few countries seek Canada as a mediator. In the most recent case, the government of Cameroon even denied that it asked for Ottawa’s help.

Canada used to be known as a fixer in the multilateral arena and a champion for causes such as fighting apartheid and creating an International Criminal Court. It promoted initiatives such as the “responsibility to protect” and “human security” as well as the treaty to ban land mines.

But there haven’t been too many big ideas in the past two decades. The country’s last foreign policy review was published in 2005 and bragged of Canada’s “role of pride and influence in the world.”

It is time for a clear-eyed review of Canada’s foreign policy. Instead of scanning the horizon for current and emerging threats, and challenges to Canada’s sovereignty and security, it makes more sense to look from the inside out.

This includes identifying vital national interests, managing vulnerabilities, building on comparative advantages and leveraging them to achieve clear foreign policy objectives.

So much has changed in Canada and the world since 2005. Yet there has been no serious process to assess threats and challenges to Canada or provide a sense of direction on how the country should navigate a fast-changing and challenging international environment.

As a result, Canada’s foreign policy is ad hoc and reactive. Its profile, influence, brand and reputation in the world are suffering. Canada needs a foreign policy compass.

Since the Second World War, Canada’s foreign policy has been defined around general objectives to do with making the world safe for Canada, and with promoting political liberty, upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms, and respect for the rule of law.

It was also rooted in ensuring good relations with a select group of allies, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States. At times, Canada’s role in the world was also promoted as a “co-operator” – working for collective action on common problems and promoting development. A bottom line, which should not be overlooked in a federal structure, has always been that external policies should not jeopardize national unity.

But in the past two decades, Canada’s foreign policy has become seemingly off the cuff, driven by diaspora politics, and idiosyncratic. Witness the Harper government’s policies in the Middle East or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gaffe-filled visit to India.

Furthermore, both the country and the world have changed. While geography still matters, the effects of threats without borders – such as pandemics, transnational organized crime, cyberthreats and the repercussions of far-away crises, for example migration – bring new challenges, which have no military solutions.

At the same time, Canada’s population has increased significantly, as has its demographic diversity. Things that Canada used to take for granted — such as a predictable neighbour to the South or a liberal international order — are looking shaky.

True North

The highest priority should be to defend Canada’s sovereignty. It is vital to prioritize security in the High North and Arctic, security in the North Atlantic and to pursue good relations with the United States and Mexico.

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Retooling Canada’s focus and assets within NATO towards defence of the High North would strengthen its role within the Alliance as well as its sovereignty. This would also allow Ottawa to concentrate resources – including defence spending – on clear and limited priorities.

Prioritizing the North does not mean withdrawing from everywhere else. A stable global trade and security environment is in Canada’s interest. The key is to develop and leverage influence in international forums, such as the G7 and the United Nations, and on issues where Canada has credibility.

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Topics where Canada could make a difference — and where it has a self-interest — include disaster-risk reduction, mitigating the security effects of climate change and better governance of the global commons, including oceans, the atmosphere and outer space.

Canada is a great power when it comes to energy – a top producer of oil, gas and hydroelectric power. Canada is also a major producer of uranium and the critical minerals needed for the green and digital economy. Therefore, another foreign policy priority should be to ensure predictable energy markets, supply routes and partnerships.

‘NICE’ foreign policy

One word used to describe Canadians is “nice” and that word can also be used to describe its national interests: N = North America; I = international stability; C = climate; E = energy. That said, nice guys will finish last unless they work with others.

That is why, in an interconnected world, co-operation is in Canada’s interest. Effective multilateralism anchored in the rule of law is realpolitik not fuzzy liberal internationalism.

While focusing on a narrower set of national interests, Canada needs to bolster a rules-based international system. In doing so, Ottawa should explain to Canadians why international peace and stability, as well as good-neighbourly relations, are worth the increased investment of political and diplomatic capital.

White paper for the Great White North

A clearer set of national interests would put Canada in a stronger position with the United States and enable it to define coherent and consistent policies in relation to China, Russia, and the European Union, rather than following events or external pressures, not least from Washington. It would also give Canadians a clear set of unifying objectives and show other countries where Canada stands on key issues.

Canadian foreign policy needs a sense of direction. It needs a compass – pointing north – to navigate the country through difficult times, changing relationships as well as emerging threats, challenges and opportunities. It is time for a white paper on foreign policy for the Great White North.

This article is part of a series on the future of Canadian foreign policy.

Also in the series:

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