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Canada Shows Its Strength

John Kirton

Published in the Toronto Star on October 31, 2006

"An emerging energy superpower" is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared Canada to be when he was in Britain in July. "A country that leads," he added in Afghanistan in the spring and again in America and Canada this fall. Is Harper right? Understandably, many have their doubts. For never before has a new Canadian Prime Minister made such far-reaching claims about Canada's power, purpose and potential influence in the world. And these come from a young Albertan with little previous interest or involvement in international affairs, no ministerial experience, and heading a new Conservative party, a minority government and a cabinet with virtually no foreign policy experience at all.

Yet Harper's very freedom from old categories, his fresh look at the fundamentals and his fast learning on the job have led him to the correct conclusion. For a highly capable Canada has now emerged as a principal power in a rapidly changing world. It is a world defined by a vulnerable America and by a growing demand for, and dependence on, things Canadian from the many rising powers in the world. This makes Canada a well-connected, consequential and cherished country within the global clubs and powerful countries that count in today's world.

As an energy producer, Canada ranks first in uranium, second in hydroelectricity, third in natural gas, seventh in oil and fifth overall. Along with Russia, it is the world's only full-strength energy superpower, with league-leading supplies of all the resources that fuel the world. Canada's long tradition of the rule of law, market economy, entrepreneurship and innovation confer added advantages. In the new world of renewables, Canada is coming on fast. Its superpower status on energy gives it influence on the hardest political-security subjects, such as nuclear proliferation and human rights abuses in Iran and counterterrorism and peace in the Middle East.

The "superpower" label will seem a stretch for many modest Canadians. But the great American international relations scholar, William T. R. Fox, who conceived the concept in 1944, highlighted the privileged geopolitical position of countries of transcontinental reach, bordering on the three great oceanic theatres of world politics — the Atlantic, the Pacific and, importantly, the Arctic.

Canada is now the second most successful territorially expansionist state in the world, ranking behind only a Soviet Union-turned-Russia that has been downsizing in recent years. Canada's vast territorial domain — on land, under its Arctic ice, and on its continental shelf and seabed — gives it great surplus energy supplies, and much else, from league-leading mineral and commodity capabilities to defence in depth from deadly threats of both the classic military and the new terrorist, environmental, health and demographic kind.

Just as land, labour and capital constitute economists' fundamental factors of production, so resources, population and technology combine to confer political power in the world. In population, Canada is one of only three G8 countries with an expanding citizenry, thanks largely to its large net intake of legal immigrants and their integration into a multicultural Canada with a social cohesion that Europeans would love to have. In technology, leading edge RIM Blackberrys and Bombardier railways are conquering the world, while Canadian astronauts and their Canadarm proudly plant the maple leaf in space.

From these foundations Canada is mounting a G7-leading economic performance. It stands first in projected GDP growth this year, in delivering consecutive fiscal surpluses, and in reducing debt as a ratio of GDP.

It has a strong currency, low inflation and unemployment, a sustained current account surplus and a pension plan able to provide for its expanding population for the next 70 years.

Militarily, Canada is the third largest provider of troops in combat in Afghanistan — the source of the attacks on 9/11 that killed 24 Canadians in New York and the central front in the global war on terror now. At home Canada stands out as the only G8 country to have virtually no one die from terrorism on or over its soil since the club was created more than 30 years ago.

This secure Canada stands in stark contrast to its southern neighbour. The U.S. is rapidly becoming "America-the-vulnerable" and even "America-the-vanquished" rather than the single remaining superpower of the immediate post Cold War years. Since that Cold War victory America has been struck at home by deadly assaults from abroad, from terrorists in 1993 and 2001 and hurricanes in 2005. The latter reduced America's already scarce energy supplies and brutally rendered real the long Cold War fear that America would lose a city to an attack from outside. Abroad, an America at war on several fronts is afflicted by the rising body count and costs in Iraq. Iraq could well become the first big war since Vietnam that Americans have fought and lost. "Canada-the-capable" is helping a hard-pressed America out, as the top supplier of regular and emergency energy exports at home and tough, well-trained troops to wage war in distant Afghanistan.

Beyond America, many consequential countries now offer alternatives to the capabilities, such as foreign direct investment, that a predominant, capital rich America long provided to Canada and the world. Moreover, a reviving Japan and Europe, and a rapidly rising Russia, India, China and Mexico are becoming more dependent on the capabilities that Canada has.

Even should a declining America suffer a severe downturn, this diverse array of growing, more prosperous, global powers should provide a durable demand for Canada's energy, mineral, food and other surplus supplies. Canada and its young Albertan Prime Minister should thus survive any coming commodity boom-turned-bust much better than the last time in 1979.

With global demand and dependence closely matching Canada's surplus capabilities, the country is becoming one of the great global connectors within the top tier clubs that count. From the North American Summit in the spring, through the G8 Summit in the summer, to the Francophone Summit this fall, Harper's Canada became a leader. Canada largely drafted the G8's statement on the Middle East and ensured that the 50 members of La Francophonie endorsed its principles this fall. The APEC and NATO summits this month offer additional opportunities for influence, perhaps in inducing others to join Poland in helping Canada out in Afghanistan. Already Harper's summit diplomacy, which has put in first place the leaders of France and Mexico along with America, shows Canada's global reach.

Canada's privileged position is helping shape the world the way Canadians want. Against America Harper's Canada has secured the long-awaited softwood lumber deal, a delay in America's protectionist passport plan, a suspension of American live fire exercises on the Great Lakes, and a resumption of open Internet pharmacy sales to the U.S.

It has also helped prevent America from opening to oil exploitation the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve on Canada's border, or physically challenging Canada's Arctic sovereignty claims. Canada has kept its distance from America on Iraq, Ballistic Missile Defence, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and a new convention to control conventional arms. Globally, Harper is advancing core Canadian values, such as defending democratic states attacked by terrorists, cultural diversity assaulted by winner-take-all markets, human life imperilled by genocide in Darfur now and Turkey long ago, the ecological riches of the oceans against those who would fish them out, and the need for arms control for all.

These realities of Canada's rising capabilities and clout have been clearly recognized by those who count. From America have come Alan Greenspan to Harper's Alberta to talk about the oil sands and a very busy Condoleezza Rice to Peter MacKay's Atlantic Canada to thank a country that Americans on diverted aircraft needed to stay alive on Sept. 11 five years ago.

Further afield, Britain's Tony Blair also recently spoke at home about Canada's growing relevance to the world and to a Britain whose own surplus supplies of energy are starting to run out fast. His conclusion: Canada is now "a major superpower in the energy field."

John Kirton is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto and author of Canadian Foreign Policy in a Changing World (Toronto, Thomson-Nelson, 2007).


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