Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada West | Multilateralism à la carte, the Canadian way
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President Donald Trump And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Joint Press Conference February 13 2017

08 Mar Multilateralism à la carte, the Canadian way

The new world geopolitical balances have weakened multilateralism in favor of national Souverainism. But relations between the European Union and Canada could built a new pragmatic bilateralism, a democratic governance built on shared values, respect for human rights, sustainable development and peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is the Canadian way, an interesting solution also for Italy.


The challenges and the future of international cooperation have long been subject of the debate of scholars in international relations. The slowdown, if not the almost total paralysis of the multilateral dynamic who accompanied the collapse of the liberal order, brings with it a sense of loss and brings back memories of the first lessons of political science: Who Governs?[1] The institutional and ideological plot, built in the aftermath of the Second World War, seems to have disappeared.

The usury of multilateralism is of particular relevance for the future of democracy in a moment of great uncertainty that involves all the actors of the international system.

In this context, in the Western field, the European Union and Canada are faced with the complication of the power system and an uncontrollable adaptation to the speed of change that makes it difficult to see what awaits us behind the current transition. For both, the challenges and opportunities offered by the complexity of global governance are great.  

For the EU, which is the form and substance of multilateralism, the European project no longer represents either a dream or an opportunity, but a necessity for the future (Tocci 2018), but this presupposes a consistent determination and will in the longterm vision, a farsighted vision that is lacking in current political culture and in the European institutions themselves.

As for Canada, the decline of multilateralism calls into question the temporal and effectiveness of the agreements and partnerships that defined international relations for decades.

The Canadian politics after World War II between internationalism, multilateralism and the balance of the relationship with the United States.

Canada’s contemporary foreign policy has been shaped by its relationship with the United States and by its adherence to the international liberal order as a result of the Second World War, in which the transformation and complication of the power system has a significant geographical component.



President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shake hands during a joint press conference, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)



The relations with the powerful neighbor have always been structuring not only for sharing an extensive border but for a high level of cultural proximity. In fact, among the circumstances of world disorder, the most problematic development for Ottawa was precisely the politics of the Trump administration, “reticent” to the promotion of democratic values of Wilsonian matrix and therefore to the slackening and rethinking of the relations with the system of the International institutions. In these terms and to this day, the challenge of adapting Canada to global dynamics and maintaining values such as internationalism and multilateralism, on which Ottawa’s foreign policy is based, is not easy at all. If you look more closely, the same space for internationalism has been historically limited by the fact that the country has always been subordinated to a more powerful subject from the economic, political and military point of view: first Great Britain, then the United States (Mank, 2019).

Ottawa has tried to balance the independence and interdependence in the shadow of the American neighbor and this has sometimes been expressed in tensions and contradictions between values and interests. The search for this balance is now complicated because it requires a more cautious management of the relationship with the United States after they have revised downward the system of international relations that since the end of the Second World War had for four decades ordered the world.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Canadian foreign policy had established itself on the principles of liberal internationalism, multilateralism and respect for international institutions, promotion of the values of peace, social justice, human rights, the principle of not resorting to force in the resolution of international conflicts. In a speech in 1947, Louis Saint-Laurent, the 12th Prime Minister of Canada, had tried to define Canadian values and role in the world in this sense, a vision that was mainly embodied by the liberal colleague Pearson, Nobe Peace Prize winner in 1957 for the role played during the Suez crisis.

In the 1960s, the defense of these values is reflected in the Canadian opposition to the Vietnam war. The realism and safeguarding of vital interests had already led, at the end of the previous decade (1957), to the creation of the NORAD (North American Airspace Defense Command), the joint US – Canada Command in charge of protecting the airspace of the two States. Without forgetting that Canada was among the original members of the Atlantic Alliance.

The internationalism carried out in the seventies and eighties by Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and then from 1980 to 1984) and successors coexists with the agreement with the United States. If sensitivity to environmental issues manifests itself in the Montreal Protocol for the protection of ozone (1985), on the trade front, we come to the signing of the free trade agreement with the US (1988), however preceded by quite a few debates for fear of American domination not simply economic, but also cultural. The same applies to the signing of the NAFTA in 1994, the agreement that also included Mexico.


Pierre Trudeau speaking at a fundraising meeting for the Liberal Party at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal, Québec.


In order to “remedy” to this bilateralism, Prime Minister Chretién published a white paper in 1995 which reaffirms the attachment to the cause of multilateralism. In this sense, the Canadian commitment continues with the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines (1997) and the role in peacekeeping operations

In 2006, with Harper’s conservatives coming to power, there was a sharp slowdown in this multilateral tradition, with a turn towards a foreign policy characterized by a new “moral” style conservatism, nourished by the conviction, which might influence the same Canadian society, that the West holds a moral superiority. Thus, a parallelism is established between the domestic and the international politics of George W. Bush and even a sort of neo-continentalism that manifests itself through an almost unconditional support to the American ally (Descheyer2015). A power claim based on hard power is realized with the strengthening of military identity, the criticism of the methods of traditional diplomacy and the emphasis placed on bilateral relations with partner countries rather than on multilateral institutions.

Environmental policy is redefined to support the oil industry and make the country an energy superpower also through the withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol in 2012. The attitude towards the Arctic is emblematic with the claim of sovereignty summed up well in the slogan use it or loose it”. This decade of pause from the traditional values of internationalism, an ideological expression of the school of Calgary, is also affected by a changing world:  the return of power comes back after the phase of the nineties in which the State had been partially marginalized in favor of international organizations and NGOs.

Harper is skeptical towards multilateral liaisons. These are not abandoned yet, but we focus on a selective number of objectives, promoting an enlightened sovereignty that defines a “natural extension” beyond the frontier of one’s own interests. From the ideological point of view, however, a rigid moral attitude towards the opponents, if it has negative effects even for a great power (read American intervention in Iraq), can be completely unsuccessful for a medium power that has in the attitude to the institutional cooperation and mediation its strength and from which it derives its influence on the international scene.


Justin Trudeau: liberal pragmatism

Only with Justin Trudeau (2015), aware of the limited hard power capacity of the country, there is the return to a policy more focused on dialogue with the international community as a whole. The election campaign of the liberals aims to re-establish Canada’s role in the world through strengthening international institutions, primarily the United Nations. Trudeau promises a renewal with the multilateral tradition of the past that had not only been a feature of the post-war era, but had made Canada the country of respected international citizenship.

With the victory of the liberals changes the approach: the government policy becomes more inclusive on the internal level and resumes the search for a difficult balance between values and interests on the international level.

Canada is back with an agenda whose priorities are support for international institutions, progress in gender equality, promotion of trade and good relations with Washington. Nevertheless, there is a certain pragmatism that materializes in the concept of “responsible conviction” enunciated by the Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion (2015-2017) for which values and principles must include a sense of responsibility, or rather a policy without dogmatism, in search of concrete results, making Canada a “resolute builder of peace”. The right way was a form of liberal pragmatism, less ideological than traditional liberal internationalism, to cope with the multiplicity and dynamism of today’s crises.

The foreign policy statements of the Trudeau government, according to the combination of assets/values, reflects the uncertainties heightened by the international scenario of the moment and suffers from a certain discontinuity regarding the necessary parallelism between foreign and domestic politics. This emerges in the key sectors of economics, defense, environment in a difficult juggling between bilateralism with the United States, certainly not an absolute novelty for Canada, and the fluidity of the international system, a circumstance that increases uncertainties and can compromise the results of the actions. In economic terms, for example, the renegotiation of NAFTA was not among the Trudeau’s priorities. Now the new trilateral agreement (USMCA), if positive allows access to the American market, which constitutes 75% of Canadian exports, however inevitably connects Canada’s policies to Sino-American relations and the protectionism of Trump.


A screen capture taken from the Liberal Party of Canada website


In the Defense industry, the lines indicated in the Strong Secure Engaged Document (2017) take note of the changes in the international system, for example in the Arctic. Here they are funding and equipping forces to project power into an area that is under the lens of global geopolitics due to global warming.

Three priorities listed in the Strategy: defense of Canada, North America, and support for international security. For international security of particular importance is the strengthening that can be implemented precisely through the cooperative action to support the rules aimed at inhibiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), border security, democracy, trade.

The experts[2] are questioning some dossiers. One wonders, for example, if it would not be appropriate to increase the defense budget – currently representing 1.23% of GDP – towards the NATO standard (2%). From this point of view, namely the support for multilateralism, greater NATO activism would be desirable, if only because in the Defense sector the collaboration continues and will continue to be managed in a multilateral context. On the same topic, the urgency of the renewal of the entire fleet of CF-18 Hornet[3] fighters is called for, the updating of the North Warning System at the end of the operational life cycle is also necessary to ensure situational awareness in the Arctic. Finally, and with regard to new threats, the need to show interest in the continental ballistic defense system (BMD) is highlighted.

In terms of the environment, the Trudeau Government has joined the United Nations lines on sustainable development and the Paris agreement on climate, but this action was less incisive on the one hand for the withdrawal of Trump from the COP 21 commitments, on the other for the same internal “constraints” as the support for the construction of oil pipelines aimed at selling energy in the Asian market. If the environmentally-conscious legislation in the construction sent conflicting signals to the industry (Mank 2019), at COP 24 in Poland last December the need for leadership on the issue clearly emerged and Canada would be an ideal candidate in this sense , although there are numerous criticisms addressed to Ottawa for a certain discrepancy between intent and concrete actions[4].

It will not be easy to reconcile the economic needs of a large energy exporting country with the environmental demands that today, with the consequences of global warming, are no longer a mere principle, but a necessity to overcome unsustainable costs in the future.

Finally, despite the change of course, the Liberal Government has not entirely succeeded in re-establishing Canadian reputation in those key roles traditionally held by Ottawa in the areas of development aid, humanitarian assistance, conflict resolution, peacekeeping.



The way to strengthen alliances with partners and allies, in consideration of the fact that relations with Washington will continue (for all) to remain less stable, will sooner or later take advantage of a new roadmap of foreign policy adopting, as far as possible, a multilateralism à la carte, with the aim of creating consensus around the fundamental principles of respect for human rights, openness to trade, social justice, defense of institutions of democratic governance.

Moreover, multilateralism remains the obligatory choice for medium-sized powers. Even if today it seems to have largely lost its ability to reconstruct the international order by disciplining its system of relations between States. In fact, as we have seen for the particular cultural and geographical circumstances, bilateralism and multilateralism in the Canadian experience are not rigid concepts, as multilateral commitments and bilateral practice have been conveyed by the imperative to better manage the relationship with the United States.

The world, which has archived the post-Cold War period, generates huge challenges and brings countless opportunities for those actors like Canada (and the EU) to whom, at least on paper, is given the opportunity to play a more significant in the world arena. Canada will need to develop a more ambitious foreign policy vision based on certain priorities and prepare the appropriate resources for it by pursuing democratic standards and values, while strengthening its geostrategic repositioning.

For Trudeau’s Canada, values and interests must be brought forward in parallel. As highlighted by Foreign Minister Chrysta Freeland[5] at the beginning of 2019, in relation to the issue of respect for human rights, if in short the defense of values can create problems with some countries (Saudi Arabia and China), in the long run it is exactly the system of values the only instrument suitable for guaranteeing the vital interests of a nation.

In the final analysis it would seem that Canada and the European Union, to continue our parallel between the two sides of the Atlantic, due to a certain difference in hard and soft power, can afford much less than others the luxury of derogating from the values and to the principles, in spite of, and indeed above all in consideration of the phenomenon of the return of power of the States in the world panorama. A nation as rich as Canada without specific security problems, even at the time of the disintegration of threats, has an interest in a stable order and a multilateralism that needs renovation, but which must continue to provide a fair space for international organizations to promote a sense of trust, identity, expectations of widespread reciprocity, with wide sharing of benefits. At least for the West.

To resume the initial speech, the world scene is configured in a very different way from the past. International cooperation is in crisis, but still essential. If multilateralism is found to be a system of inclusive and democratic values, it remains valid as an empirical practice, a method for solving common problems, where the action of States as individuals would be ineffective. The current and difficult transition phase will most likely lead to a less convergent, less inclusive and less institutionalized but more flexible system. Less stable, but more resilient, more able to resist breakage.

*Political Analyst


[1]     Robert Alan Dahl, 1961

[2]   J. Collins, First Principles and  the national Interst, Report Card on Canadian Defence Policy 2018, J. Collins 2018

[3]   Axe, Canada’s Air Force : Destined  to become old and  obsolete  The National Interst, January 5, 2019

[4]   v. N Deisori, Katowice COP 24″I canadesi lo sanno” Il canada e la leadership internazionale a tema ambiente, http://www.centrostudi


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