It’s election time in Canada. Michael Ignatieff, leader of the opposition Liberals, has put the Conservatives “on probation” and spent the summer digging up issues to force the government to fall come this new parliamentary session. Initially, the major divisive issue was Employment Insurance (EI) reform, revolving around mundane EI hours-worked criteria. But, now, Ignatieff’s time for action has come–and since the EI issue has found little traction–the Liberals are accusing the Harper government of having neglected Canada’s place in the world. In a recent speech to the Canada Club in Ottawa, the Liberal leader called for a “muscular internationalism” and a greater global role for Canada at the UN and in Africa. I’m glad that a party leader finally wants to discuss Canadian foreign affairs, but I’m disappointed at the lack of substance.

Like all politicians, he spoke in hollow platitudes and feel-good language, talking about Canadian peacekeepers and recalling the middle power status Canada enjoyed during the Cold War. He affirmed that inflated sense of purpose that far too many Canadians have–that we actually matter as a country. More precisely, we tend to think that we matter more than we actually do. The Cold War is over, meaning that Canada can no longer leverage a role as a buffer and negotiator between the USSR and the United States. And no longer can we rely on our economic prowess to make our presence felt. Today, in the multipolar world, emerging countries like India and China have already surpassed Canada in terms of GDP (PPP adjusted). Although per capita we remain far ahead, in international politics what counts is the total wealth of a nation: Russia ($15,922 PPP per capita) matters more than Luxembourg ($82,306 PPP per capita). The vapid rhetoric, pronouncing Canadian relevance to foreign affairs–“the world needs more Canada”–is nothing but nostalgia.

The Conservatives are equally liable for propagating the myth. The recently announced plans to stage battles replicating Canadian combat in Kandahar–with explosions and all–at the Embassy in Washington, D.C speaks to a desperation for attention in Ottawa, a cry for relevance. In what is Canada’s largest combat role since the Korean War, Afghanistan, we’ve contributed 2000 troops, or about 2% of the total foreign troop presence. Some of the blame lies with the severe budget cuts the Armed Forces faced in the aftermath of the Cold War under the Chretien governments. But this decrease is largely due to the de-militarization of Canadian society over decades. Like all Western nations, with perhaps the exception of the United States, Canada sees no need to exert or even posses a military force capable of defending the nation. By extension, its influence, which is always a function of the fear one instills in others, wanes. The de-militarization has also been good, allowing us to spend on the health, education and well being of our citizens. But it has its obvious drawbacks.

With a relatively smaller economy and weaker military arsenal, are we condemned forever to insignificance? Bluntly put, yes. However, nations can always carve out roles of importance–as we did during the Cold War, and earlier within the British Empire–by coming to terms with reality. Pointless talk about Canada taking a lead in international politics or past Canadian contributions to peacekeeping will get us nowhere. If we are not willing, and more likely cannot, to make significant contributions to the world, then our rhetoric must match that reality. That means moving away from empty boasting and entering into a serious debate about the limits of Canadian foreign policy and, along with it, what we actually can and should accomplish. It requires escaping the false illusion of Canadian power that existed under the American Empire. In a multipolar world, we no longer have an empire patron to help advance our goals, and we no longer have the military or economic power that we once did.

Forty-four years ago, George Grant lamented for a nation that had never developed a true sense of nationalism and a global role, succumbing to the shadow of the American Empire almost instantaneously as the sun set over the British Empire. Now we live in the shadow of multiple powers. It’s time to think hard about what the implications are and to ditch the platitudes.

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