The Vital Role of Citizens in Resetting Canada’s Role in the World

We need to engage the broader population if we want to know how much sacrifice we can ask of Canadians.

by | May 21, 2020

The yawning gap between a Canadian foreign policy designed for a rules-based international order and the coming age of disorder has become a chasm after the earthquake of COVID-19.  To find a previous era in which the urgency for a transformation of our foreign policy is as pressing, think of the scale of the challenges Canada faced after the First World War, when we first developed our own autonomous foreign policy. Or after the Second World War, when Canada shifted focus from the British Empire to align with the U.S. and the multilateral order we worked together to build.  At a stretch, we might consider the 1980s when the Cold War gave way to globalization and Canada embraced free trade.

We can look back at these periods to identify three ingredients required for the nation to contemplate the scale of change required.  In all three, a hard-charging Prime Minister provided political leadership.  Borden used his seat at the Imperial War Cabinet to insist that Canada speak with its own voice in making the peace at Versailles. St-Laurent edged aside the cautious MacKenzie King and created space for the internationalist agenda advanced by his Foreign Minister Lester Pearson. And it is hard to imagine the 1988 Free Trade Agreement without Brian Mulroney.

Ideas are the second ingredient, and when necessary, the government has grown the public service to provide them.  Canada’s diplomatic corps was launched in earnest to support the role Borden created for Canada, and grew significantly under St-Laurent.  The public service demonstrated its aptitude in shifting to support the different ideological agenda of Brian Mulroney, led by deputy ministers such as the recently deceased Sylvia Ostry.

The third, indispensable requirement is public engagement. Each of these tectonic shifts in Canada’s foreign policy was accompanied by a determined effort to sound out the Canadian population.  Our very organization was launched by Borden in 1928 to educate the Canadian public opinion about global affairs.  St-Laurent first articulated his vision of a Cold War foreign policy to students and faculty at the University of Toronto in the 1947 Grey lecture. And Mulroney would not have turned the public around on free trade if it were not for the Royal Commission led by Don MacDonald in the early 1980s.

There are two main reasons why public engagement is necessary for significant policy changes to take place. First, major foreign policy decisions will often come at a cost to a subset of the population, because dramatic policy changes always involve very difficult trade-offs. The space that exists for major policy change is determined in part by the scale of concessions that citizens would be willing to tolerate.

Take one inescapable debate in the current foreign policy debate: Canada’s relationship with China. Should we limit our engagement with the second largest market in the world due to a number of credible national security concerns? This goes beyond balancing the interests of canola farmers with supporters of human rights. As a whole, our citizens stand to lose if we limit our prosperity by restricting trade with China, just as they stand to have their rights infringed if our government is not sufficiently vigilant to the threats posed by an assertive authoritarian world power. The effects of the decision Canada takes will be felt through the entire population.

The second reason why transformational policy change is impossible without public input is that citizen engagement can help determine which policies might to survive a change in government. Free trade survived the transition from Brian Mulroney to Jean Chrétien. In contrast, the emphasis the latter introduced on human security did not survive the transition to Stephen Harper.

In an increasingly partisan political environment, only policies with support from both sides of the political spectrum are able to survive a change in government. If new approaches are not framed to appeal beyond the government’s political base, they will not produce lasting change.

No doubt, public engagement provokes skepticism among foreign policy professionals.  Surely the profusion of voices and opinions adds so many chefs that it spoils the broth.

Of course, we should not look to the public as a source of ideas. The public is the intended beneficiary of the policies to be proposed. They need to be involved to help policy-makers know if the changes they propose will stick.  The public will not be in the kitchen, it will be at the table judging the broth that the chefs produce.  We ignore the customer at our peril.

The value of engaging citizens comes down to how citizens are engaged.  The foreign policy debate must be taken beyond the communities that already express interest in international affairs.  We need to engage the broader population if we want to know how much sacrifice we can ask of Canadians.  We should focus not on stakeholders but on voters as a whole if we want to know what changes will endure a change in government.

The conventional political wisdom is that citizens don’t focus on foreign policy. But with COVID-19, thousands of Canadians have now died because of a global threat, exacerbated by failures of international cooperation to contain it. Hundreds of thousands are out of work as the economic impact of the pandemic plays out. International affairs has touched the lives of everyday citizens in a way not seen since the world wars.

The CIC is willing to take a bet that citizens do care about international affairs in this time of crisis.  If we can demonstrate that the conventional wisdom is wrong, it could be a game changer for Canada’s foreign policy. Government could find the courage to press for more ambitious change in the rules and institutions that manage global threats. It could back these calls with investments on the scale of the last time Canada stepped forward to rebuild the international order.


Ben Rowswell is the President of the Canadian International Council. Ben has 25 years of experience as a practitioner of international relations. He earned his expertise in international security serving with the United Nations in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, as Canada’s first diplomatic envoy to Baghdad, Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and as the head of the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar at the height of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. He established the Democracy Unit of Global Affairs Canada, worked closely with human rights movements as a political officer in the Canadian Embassy to Egypt, and most recently as Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017.