Reflections on the National Interest

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


5 years ago

Granted, the lion’s share of 21CQ’s projects and activities concern international and global questions and problems. These projects, from the former Soviet space to Western Asia and international criminal justice, involve no national interests at all – 21CQ seeks simply to play a practical, facilitating role to help solve critical, often wicked problems. We do so by analyzing, framing, introducing, convening and, to be sure, floating and communicating – publicly and privately alike, patiently, on all continents – algorithms for solution. Many of these algorithms are deliberately “asymptotic” by nature – that is, they are intended to approximate a solution to a framed problem, in full recognition that the “exact” solution will be better approximated over time, through iteration and, to be sure, through intense collaboration and input from the various parties concerned.

I have updated readers and followers of 21CQ and GB on these projects and activities in past posts, and will continue to do so as we approach the fifth anniversary of 21CQ and the tenth anniversary of GB in 2018. (Watch for a host of events – to be announced soon – marking these anniversaries.)

Only a handful of 21CQ’s projects turn on the Canadian national interest per se – to wit, Canada at 100 Million (by the year 2100), the Quebec Question, the Aboriginal Question, and Arctic Futures. A number of subinitiatives, falling under the aegis of one or more of these questions, also have Canadian interest “content” – for example, 21CQ’s work to advance a national languages strategy in Canada.

But what is the national interest? Clearly, the present tensions between Canada and the US have put this question into relief. Instead of jumping to a list or ledger of Canadian national interests xyz, let me attempt to approach the question “asymptotically”, as it were – approximating or framing the answer with several “limiting” considerations and factors.

Mental Map

First, are Canadian strategists working from the correct mental map? Answer: not yet. Within the “ACRE” framework for which I have argued in the pages of GB for the last near-decade, Canadian leaders and intellectuals still only “feel” the “A” (America); they may be persuaded through argument to accept the other borders, but they still fancy them abstractions – in particular, the “C” (China) and the “R” (Russia). (“E” is for Europe.)

Bref, Canadian strategists still understand poorly the real estate or geography they are managing, or will have to manage this century. And within the ACRE framework, Canada will not only need to maximize its interests vis-à-vis the US (“A”), but indeed minimize the frictions at all of its borders – not to mention minimize frictions in the relationships between its border neighbours (i.e. between the US and China, or between Russia and Europe, or Europe and China).

How, then, should Canada understand its interests vis-à-vis countries outside of the ACRE framework – say, India, Israel, Ukraine, Iran, Australia or Argentina (or any number of other countries)? Answer: these are not core countries of interest for Canada, tout court. They present no existential imperatives for Canada, and are to be understood, first and foremost, through the framework of their relationship to the ACRE countries that are of fundamental, existential import for Canada. In other words, Canada may have various interests, projects and activities in any or all of these countries (befitting a country of global presence and growing proportions, if not ambitions), but these interests, activities and activities are necessarily secondary, tertiary, contingent or even discretionary in nature.

How to ingrain a ruthless sense of national interest and a proper mental map in the Canadian strategic psyche? Answer (in part): foster carefully a proper Canadian “Northern School” of international affairs, built around a crop of top young strategists living or working mostly in and around the Canadian North (although likely hailing from other parts of the country), with a felt apprehension of the entire geography of the country. On this logic, let me make the call for a brand new school of international affairs at the future Yukon University – Canada’s first Northern university, to be launched in the next couple of years.


How are Canadian leaders to “really” know when a national interest is a stake? Answer: they will “feel” it, intellectually and, necessarily (perhaps most importantly), gutturally. Today, as mentioned, only the “A” vector of Canadian foreign policy and economic behaviour is truly “felt” by Canadian leaders and strategists in intellectual and guttural terms – that is, it is understood to have consequentiality, and failure in respect of the “A” game is known to come with material costs.

Virtually no other possible Canadian interests, and specifically in respect of the remaining C, R and E vectors, are “felt” to the same degree – that is, each of these other vectors is far more abstract or virtual in the Canadian strategic psyche, and even if there is a degree of intellectual understanding (or susceptibility to such understanding through explanation and debate), there is almost no guttural connection to these vectors or, specifically, to national failure in respect of these vectors.

How do we build a national mentality in Canada that has a proper appreciation of the country’s core national interests in the 21st century? Answer: by educating a new generation of strategic leaders with exactly such an appreciation, conscientiously conditioning and testing them through choreographed institutions, and accompanying this with political example, correction and pedagogy.

If Israel and Singapore have the army, and America and the UK have their elite universities, what institutions has Canada got to form a strategic leadership cadre or critical mass of top strategists in whom a felt sense of national interest (and service in defence of national interests) is hard-wired? Answer: we do not yet have any such bespoke institutions; they will need to be created in the coming years.

Diasporic Dynamics

Full confession: I do not do diasporic politics. Having been raised essentially on the soccer (football) pitches of Toronto, I can swear in some two dozen tongues, from Jamaican patois to Mandarin.

And yet I insist, analytically, that there is no place whatever for diasporic considerations in any serious formulation of Canadian strategy in general, and in the determination of Canadian national interests in particular. More granularly, this means that the presence in Canada of a large diaspora from country X or region Y (Canada enjoying, happily, large diasporas from scores or countries, and from nearly every region of the world) should have absolutely no bearing on the degree or intensity of Canadian interest or engagement in a particular country – that is, in strategic terms.

Canada will, quite naturally, have cultural or sentimental or people-to-people interests or activities in countries with large diasporic representation in Canada, but these should not be confused with strategy or strict national interests. Indeed, the extreme porousness of Canadian interest calculations today to diasporic briefs betrays the patent absence of a rock-hard Canadian conception of the country’s proper national interests (discussed above).

Here are some propositions to better understand how the diasporic dynamics and pressures in Canada ought to be figured into Canadian strategy and national interest determinations.

1. Even if Canada has a large diaspora from Country X or Region Y, Canada’s interests in relation to X and Y must be mediated first and foremost through the ACRE framework discussed above. If X and Y are completely peripheral to the ACRE framework, then Canadian engagement in X and Y is entirely discretionary and peripheral, rather than fundamental.

2. Unless members of a particular diaspora from Country X or Region Y work in official positions in Canada’s strategic community (or as advisers thereto), the “brief” from or preferences of that diaspora (assuming such a brief is even unified or coherent or representative) in relation to Country X or Region Y should have no materiality in official Canadian strategic disposition and national interest determinations. To the contrary, Canada should by now have huge global analytical coverage in its official strategic community – in the intelligence services, in the Canadian Forces, in the diplomatic service, and in top ministerial posts – by virtue of its wide-ranging diasporas and diasporic talent (language, mentality, relationships, felt understanding); again, filtered through an official, “hard-headed” national interest calculus.

3. On a strict national interest calculus, the presence of a diaspora from Country X does not give Canadian activities vis-à-vis Country X any conspicuous legitimacy (strategic, political or “moral”). Indulging a belief in Canada’s conspicuous legitimacy in foreign conflicts by virtue of diasporic presence or briefs has, in recent years, led to the use of loose, confused or even fraudulent formulations of policy proclaiming Canada to be on “the right side of history” or, in less sweeping terms, as “standing with the people” of Country X – in the event, against a particular government or authority or other group of people in Country X. Query: How does Canada “know” (or know more about) what the people of a foreign country want? Who (which people) asked Canada to “stand with the people”? And, most importantly, what Canadian interest, hard-headedly, does the act of “standing with the people” (as it were) serve?

Values vs. Interests

Should Canada pursue national interests at the expense of national values? The question is absurd. And yet it is perennially asked, to the perpetual confusion of Canadian strategists and decision-makers.

The question is absurd in logical and conceptual terms. This is so because if a national interest is, by definition, to be pursued as a national priority with the full range of a country’s instruments and assets (discussed below), then a country that wishes to export or communicate certain values necessarily has a national interest in exporting these values. In other words, the value – again, assuming a country wishes to export or communicate it (not always or necessarily the case) – is identical with a national interest, rather than being contrary, contradictory, hostile or foreign to it. And the ability of the country to both frame and actually deliver the value beyond its national borders turns on the very same scaffolding of national instruments and assets on which national interests turn. We turn to these national instruments and assets next.

For instance, concretely, if Canada “values” federalism and minority rights, and assuming it wishes to export these values in certain cases, then the export of federalism and/or minority rights constitutes a proper national interest. A Canadian security interest in Country Z matched up against a federalism preference for that same country therefore comprises not a conflict between an interest and a value, but rather a more basic conflict, tension or perhaps even consonance between two interests.

On the other hand, if a Canadian security or economic interest in Country P appears, prima facie, to be inconsistent with a domestic Canadian value like some species of social right or liberty, and if there is no particular Canadian ambition or energy to export, press or communicate that right or liberty in P, then that right or liberty is strictly a domestic one – that is, it is not a Canadian interest. There is no tension or conflict.

Means Versus Ends

What are Canada’s national interests, exactly? And what are they in the ACRE countries? In other words, what’s Canada to do in the world (or domestically in light of the world)? In other words still, what are Canada’s strategic “ends”?  Conventional analysis and pedagogy in Canada and many Western countries would suggest that Canada ought first to determine what its “ends” are before making investments in the supporting means.

I have been arguing for some time, however, that in Canada’s case, this logic should be flipped on its head. In other words, given the ACRE pressures ahead of the country this century, Canada will first have to scale up, mentally and in terms of assets, before it can properly define its specific interests and activities vis-à-vis most of the major countries (all great or nuclear powers, for all practical intents and purposes) at its borders.

In other words still, Canadian strategists do not yet have the right mentality and sufficiently important and large assets to be able to properly frame their interests. Once that mentality is there (or as it is developed, deliberately and systematically) and once more impressive strategic assets are in place, through very deliberate investment, choreography and planning over time, then Canada, strategically more mature, can properly enunciate its interests in the various specific ACRE theatres (and in other theatres besides).

Consider, for instance, the Canadian asset of population. If I have long been arguing for 100 million Canadians (give or take 20-30 million, easily) by century’s end, then I must also concede that, psychologically, the Canadian at 100 million will be materially different to, if not entirely unrecognizable from, the Canadian at 37 million today (just as, of course, the Canadian at 37 million is psychologically unrecognizable from the Canadian of 3-4 million at Confederation in the late 19th century). The Canadian at 100 million will (likely) think bigger, have different suppositions about the size and potential of his/her country, and will (hopefully) be part of a more competitive, energetic domestic brew within which even mainstream ideas and initiatives may be largely foreign to what is within the realm of the possible (or acceptable) for the Canadian at 37 million.

The same applies, of course, to the presumption of the possible for Canada in the aftermath of major investments in its own proper human foreign intelligence capabilities, properly global diplomatic relationships, a substantially larger military assets and, supporting all of these, a larger population, a larger economy and, to be sure, a more capacious (even “term-setting”) national strategic imagination.

Bref, Canada’s long-term strategic plan must, for at least the next decade, consist in the building up of assets, capabilities and means. Once we begin to feel our greater scale and think commensurately with this scale, then Canada’s specific strategic ends will become more plain.

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