Sir Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s most beloved Prime Ministers, opined in 1904 at a packed Massey Hall in Toronto, that the 20th century would “be the century of Canada and Canadian development.… For the next 100 years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.” Laurier made a bold prediction that night, that Canada would be looked upon as a global leader because of its embrace of personal freedom and pursuit of civilizational progress. Ultimately, he signalled the emergence of Canada as an arbiter of moral leadership amongst the world’s nation-states, one that could shape the foundations of the post-industrial revolution international order.
Unfortunately, Laurier’s vision was largely aspirational, as Canada, despite prosperous development, remained in the shadow of both the British Empire and United States throughout the 20th century, which eventually culminated in the post-Cold War United States-led international order we are familiar with today. However, it is my belief that Laurier’s vision is not dead, for it can be realized in the 21st century as the United States declines and the democratic world seeks a stabilizing leader in the face of the tenacious Chinese regime.
It is evident to anyone paying even a smidgen of attention to politics or global news that the United States is rife with internal divisions and external suspicions. Political polarization, an uncoordinated COVID-19 response, and racial fragmentation in the United States fill the social media feeds and cable news segments consumed by global audiences each day, constantly deflating hopes that the consensus global superpower can pull itself together as a nation. Naturally, the ability to focus on global threats and prepare for the inevitable power-balancing and interstate restructuring characteristic of a bipolar international order is hampered by such divisions, as no leader can rally the population.
Compounding these issues is the external suspicion of traditional U.S. allies regarding the commitment of the United States to multilateralism. Former President Trump and his allies in the Republican Party like Congressman Matt Gaetz are skeptical of alliances such as NATO and institutions like the World Trade Organization. In the Democratic Party the progressive faction led by Senator Bernie Sanders and embodied in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is similarly reluctant to indulge multilateral military or economic collectives. Countries like Germany, France, and of course, Canada are therefore questioning whether American leadership can be taken for granted going forward, with the answer likely being no.
China has developed in the opposite fashion, suppressing internal dissent through a social credit system and surveillance apparatus, although completely contrary to individual rights at home, has allowed it to prioritize its global expansion. Economically, China has built an exporting empire and has deeply integrated its economy with those of nearly 70 countries across the globe through its Belt and Road Initiative. Rapid growth and a promising future for the Chinese state has driven it to begin constructing its own global order in anticipation of achieving international hegemony. Institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS display the beginnings of such an order.
Thus, the challenge is clear. If China continues to rise unabated as the United States falls, the domestic authoritarianism and state-centric development model it propagates will attract global admiration, facilitating the dissipation of individual rights protections and economic freedom. Fortunately, as Wilfrid Laurier desired over a century ago, Canada is primed and able to seize the momentous opportunity afforded by this geopolitical paradigm. All it takes is sheer will and two key foreign policy endeavours.
As Ben Judah recently wrote for Foreign Policy, London needs “old allies for new ideas,” about the United Kingdom seeking a proportionate response to Chinese malign influence by forming a formal alliance with Canada and Australia. This is a reasonable proposition in that all three states have been the victim of Chinese state infiltration and predatory economic manipulation, along with the added advantage of avoiding the complications associated with dealing with European Union member states. I would simply add that Canada ought to assume explicit leadership of such an organization.
Canadian primacy in this alliance avoids the unwanted associations with the British Empire attached to CANZUK and places Canada’s image at the forefront of the new democratic order. Generally seen as a peacekeeping state concerned with self-determination, Canada is the ideal contrast to the civically repressive Chinese model. By prioritizing soft-power, diplomatic toughness, and joint responses to Chinese provocations, this group could be maximally effective. Through this approach Canada would be providing moral and ideological leadership for those fearful of China while directing international forums with the strong backing of the United Kingdom and Australia.
In addition to a formal Canada-Australia-United Kingdom diplomatic alliance, it is essential that Canada does not make the perfect the enemy of the good when shaping the international system. Blunders such as failing to secure a United Nations Security Council seat or hastily signing up for interventionist coalitions should not be repeated on the off chance of eventual success, rather organizations particularly relevant to 21st century geostrategic competition should be bolstered through increased funding and personnel allocation. Specifically, the Five Eyes intelligence partnership is a cornerstone of any Canadian-led democratic order.
The intelligence sharing and threat detection alliance that is the Five Eyes has helped thwart Chinese state infiltration of telecommunications and 5G networks recently in each of its five member states, the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Not only is buffing the Five Eyes worthwhile for obvious reasons, such as deterring Chinese cyberspace or telecommunications espionage, but perhaps more importantly, it puts concrete action behind Canada’s moral leadership. Maintaining the freedom of the world-wide-web, the safety of citizens’ intellectual property, and the privacy of their telecommunications is contrary to the publicly invasive Chinese regime.
Laurier could not have predicted the modern international order, in fact it is arguable whether he could have predicted an international order at all, but his aspirational vision for Canada to be a moral beacon of light for those nations around the world that desire individual freedom can nonetheless be achieved today. Through the policy endeavours outlined above, I firmly believe Canada can assume primacy in the international democratic order and nurture its development, creating resilience in the face of a rising China.