Time to put up or shut up for Canada on the international stage

Is there any more annoying phrase than “the world needs more Canada”?  There is a book by that name by Heather Reisman, head of Indigo books, and a frequent slogan used by that chain.  It refers, I think, to the notion that Canada is such a nice place and that we Canadians are just so gosh darn nice that the world would be a much nicer place if everyone could just be a little more like us.

Don’t get me wrong, I am just as proud of my heritage as the next Canadian and I deliberately wear the maple leaf on my sleeve.  And it is true that we Canadians usually get a very positive response wherever we go around the globe (unlike our US neighbours, especially recently).  That is something to celebrate, I suppose, but it does have its limits.

I thought about this lately with respect to the uprising in Iran against the government and that country’s awful economic prospects.  There were calls to support average Iranians against the theocratic regime and openly criticise the heavy handed response to the protests.   In this vein,  many excoriated the Trudeau government for not doing more.

What exactly should Canada do in this regard?  Issue public statements with no consequence?  Impose yet more sanctions?  Go to war?  What do Canadians expect of their government?

The bottom line is that Canada has very little effect in world affairs, including the Middle East as my friend Thomas Juneau pointed out in a Globe and Mail op-ed (Thomas,  like me, is a former intelligence analyst, although he toiled for National Defence: for the record I support his argument 100%).  We do have some very talented people in the civil service and I had the honour of working alongside many in my 30+-year career.  But our influence is modest at best.

I think the problem lies in several factors:

a) we are a relatively small country (36 million puts us in 38th position in the world) and we may simply not have the resources to leverage more.

b) we happen to live beside the world’s biggest country and it may be hard to come out of that shadow.

c) we are not known as a risk-taking population as a rule and you don’t reap huge rewards without exposing yourself to failure.

Don’t get me wrong, people around the globe do like us, they really do. But I am not so sure they see us as an integral and indispensable partner on many issues.  We are nice and unobtrusive and maybe that is our lot in life.

While I was in intelligence I met with partners in many, many nations.  We always had good things to offer in bilateral and multilateral relationships but those offerings were small.  We were often encouraged to do more but frankly we did not have the horses – or the high level commitment – to do so.  As a result, opportunities went by the wayside.  I am sure the same situation occurs at National Defence and Foreign Affairs and elsewhere.

If we want to ‘punch above our weight ‘ we have to invest in people, resources and materiel (the latter is particularly important for defence).  If we do not then we have to be satisfied with our level of influence on the world stage.  It is time to put up or shut up.

As an aside, I am a huge Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) fan.  In this classic tongue in cheek sci-fi series, the Earth has an entry in the Encyclopedia Galactica that consists of one word: harmless (it was revised to ‘mostly harmless’ in the new edition).  If we want Canada to be other than ‘mostly harmless’ we need to make decisions about resource allocation that will not be easy.  Do we take funds away from social programmes to support our military and intelligence agencies?  Is that what Canadians want?  Is it more important that we have a bigger voice outside our land to the detriment of the problems at home?

All very good questions and ones that we need to resolve if we do indeed hope to have a more significant voice in world affairs.  The challenge is there: will we take it up?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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