Canada as Imperial Patsy

Would isolationism really have served us better in the last century?

On August 4, 1914, when the United Kingdom went to war against Germany, it automatically brought Canada along into the conflict. Twenty-five years later, in September 1939, Britain once again declared war on Germany, but a week elapsed before Canada followed suit. The short interval sent an unmistakable message. After years of steady work to sever the political bonds that tied the country to the imperial motherland, Ottawa had gained control over its external affairs. The 1931 Statute of Westminster in particular had empowered Canada to chart its own course and make its own decisions. But by nearly every measure of power, Canada was so much smaller than the world’s leading states that it could neither set the international agenda nor seize the initiative. In most respects, it had to rely on and respond to its great power allies.

Over the intervening decades, through war and peace alike, this basic pattern has persisted, forcing successive generations of policy makers to confront some familiar dilemmas: In a world dominated by the great powers, how should Canada make use of its hard-won independence? How should it conduct itself in the world, especially in times of conflict? The respected journalist Gwynne Dyer grapples with these questions in Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914–2014. The book is “an attempt to make sense of our country’s century of involvement in big and little wars,” Dyer writes. “Not just to recount the wars, but to account for them.” He does not cushion his views with equivocations. Beginning with the second Boer War, none of the conflicts that Canada fought “threaten[ed] what strategists like to call our ‘vital interests,’” he argues. None of the country’s enemies on distant continents could jeopardize its security. To make matters worse, “the alliances and overseas commitments that Canada had made in the course of the twentieth century were unnecessary for our security and often directly contrary to our interests.” These superfluous entanglements, first with Britain and later with the United States, dragged the country into wars in which it had nothing at stake. The wars of the 20th century killed more than 100,000 Canadians. Dyer implies that they died for no good reason.

The book sets out to smash the conventional wisdom that undergirds Canadian foreign policy and unmask the nonsense that, in Dyer’s view, passes for historical memory today. Contrary to the pieties of Remembrance Day, the First and Second World Wars were not struggles to defend freedom or to protect Canada from tyranny. The Cold War was not a fight to uphold liberal democracy in the face of the communist threat. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous, from the beginning. None of Canada’s contributions to any of these efforts made much difference to their outcomes. On the basis of Dyer’s analysis, one might well conclude that Canada should have stayed out of the century’s wars altogether, or even followed the Swiss and the Swedes down the path of neutrality.

Dyer moves swiftly through this revisionist reinterpretation of Canadian history, buoyed along by a style reminiscent of the documentary films that helped make his name. He intersperses narrative passages with the extended testimony of participants, bringing to life the battlefield and the Cabinet room alike. Combatants’ eyewitness accounts evoke deep compassion for the men and women who answered their country’s call. In a letter to a friend, the doomed Talbot Papineau described his experiences in the trenches of the First World War: “I have seen so much death—and brains and blood—marvellous human machines suddenly smashed like Humpty Dumpties,” he wrote. “I have bound up a man without a face. I have tied a man’s foot to his knee when he told me to save his leg and knew nothing of the few helpless shreds that remained. He afterwards died.”

The decision makers back in Ottawa receive much less sympathy from Dyer. He warns readers not to assume “that the people running Canada were as dumb as bricks. They weren’t. They were intelligent, reasonably well-informed people who had to operate, as most politicians always do, within economic, political and legal constraints that they could bend a bit, perhaps, but could not ignore.” This admonition sits uneasily with his portraits of Canada’s leaders, who come off as either fools or knaves. Of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country’s longest-serving prime minister and one of the architects of its independent foreign policy, Dyer writes, “if [he] were a cartoon character, he would probably be Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. He was a dumpy, fussy bachelor with few close male friends … Personally, he was a fruitcake, communing regularly with his dear, dead mother and other denizens of the spirit world.” This is not to say that politicians inherently deserve admiration, but after reading Dyer’s catalogue of vainglory and credulity one wonders how Canada managed to survive the century at all, let alone maintain its liberal democratic traditions and develop one of the world’s highest standards of living.

According to most historians who have studied the period, part of the answer lies in Canadian leaders’ instinctual understanding of the tight connection between domestic politics and foreign policy, and the ways in which both affected national unity. Mackenzie King, whose eccentric personal views hardly influenced his canny, cautious style of politics, grasped this point as clearly as anyone. In the 1920s and ’30s, he refused to commit Canada to any external policy that ran the risk of war, in large part because he feared that a foreign conflict would reopen the wounds that the First World War had inflicted on relations between English and French Canadians. The war’s attrition, which chewed up Canadian soldiers faster than volunteers could replace them, had driven Robert Borden’s Conservative government to impose conscription. Dyer vividly describes the terrible domestic consequences of Borden’s decision. Most English Canadians supported the policy, but the overwhelming majority of their French-speaking compatriots did not. They refused to put their lives on the line in what they saw as a fight to defend British imperialism. In Quebec, increasingly violent riots strained civil order, and police arrested conspirators for plotting to assassinate the prime minister. In Parliament, the Liberal Party tore itself apart, pitting members who sided with the government against those who, such as Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King himself, did not.

By the time of the Second World War, Mackenzie King understood that Canada could only survive if the government kept Quebec onside and did everything possible to avoid conscription. He turned hairsplitting into a high art, crafting finely balanced policies to placate English and French Canadians alike without impairing the war effort. Personality and circumstance prevented him from indulging in Winston Churchill’s heroic rhetoric, but the advantages of his underwhelming methods spoke for themselves. His government eventually did impose conscription for service overseas, but only at the last possible moment and only after a national plebiscite. Even though many French Canadians protested the move, the country avoided the worst of the First World War’s strife. Canada remained united, fought with distinction, and finished the war as one of the world’s strongest military powers. Mackenzie King himself retained his firm grip on power. “Apart from Stalin, I would be the only original [leader] left on either side,” he confided to his diary in April 1945. “I have, of course, led my party longer than Stalin has his.”

Domestic politics always constrain the conduct of Canadian foreign policy. But so too do the dynamics of the international system within which the country operates. The book focuses so tightly on Canada that it ignores this wider context, making it impossible to understand why officials in Ottawa—or London and Washington, for that matter—acted as they did. In discussing imperial politics at the turn of the 20th century, Dyer argues that British officials demanded Canadian soldiers for the Boer War not because they needed them in South Africa, but in order to set a precedent for a future conflagration in Europe. At the same time, they sold Canada out by siding with the United States in the Alaska boundary dispute. The politicians in Westminster treated Canada as a territory to be exploited, not protected, Dyer concludes. His account turns the episode into a simplistic morality play, in which the duplicitous British preyed upon their hapless quarry. But a broader assessment of Britain’s international position at the time would reveal that the country felt squeezed by the growing power of Germany and the United States. It feared that it no longer had the resources to discharge its worldwide responsibilities. In these circumstances, British leaders such as Lord Salisbury looked for ways to trim liabilities—by placating the Americans and allying with the Japanese, for example—while tapping into the Empire’s economic and military potential. This policy did not necessarily serve Canada’s interests, and perhaps even demonstrated the need for an independent Canadian foreign policy. It was nonetheless a sensible and reasonably effective response to the pressures of relative decline.

If Canada’s interests have long been distinct from those of Britain or the United States, how should we make sense of the country’s staunch support for both powers through the world wars and Cold War? In Dyer’s telling, the answer is simple: Canada allowed its more powerful allies to manipulate it into confronting imaginary threats and fighting in conflicts in which it had nothing at stake. In pressing this case, the book relies on dubious assertions about Canada’s adversaries. Neither Hitler’s Germany nor Stalin’s Soviet Union posed any threat to Western Europe or North America, Dyer reassures us. “Hitler never expressed any interest in expanding westward,” he writes. “As for the notion that Hitler was dreaming of ‘world conquest,’ that is as ridiculous an accusation as it was when Kaiser Wilhelm II was accused of the same thing by Allied propaganda in the First World War.” Once Hitler had been defeated, western leaders should have known better than to fear the USSR. In 1945 “the Soviet Union could not possibly win a war with the West, so it was most unlikely to start one.” Besides, by the late 1930s, Soviet foreign policy had lost its revolutionary fervour and became “utterly traditional and non-ideological.” Dyer ridicules the idea that Stalin’s hair-raising rhetoric about an inevitable confrontation between capitalism and communism was anything more than hot air. “It is almost always a mistake to take the statements of ideological true-believers too literally,” he says.

These claims about Hitler and Stalin would be more persuasive if they did not ignore the preponderance of historical evidence. As Gerhard Weinberg and others have shown, Hitler’s writings and speeches did indicate that he nurtured long-term ambitions of global domination, which would spare neither Western Europe nor North America. Similarly, two decades of post–Cold War scholarship have documented the decisive influence of Marxism-Leninism on Soviet foreign policy. Stalin’s goals were complex, to be sure, but, contrary to Dyer’s claims, they were not restricted to Eastern Europe, nor were they “non-ideological.” All the evidence suggests that we should do our adversaries the courtesy of assuming that they mean what they say. Ideas do matter in foreign policy.

The more fundamental question is how we should construe Canada’s interests in an uncertain world. Dyer never spells out his answer, but his argument implies that the country’s interests are so narrow that only a foreign invasion of Canadian territory could threaten them. This approach seems seductively hard-headed, but a moment’s reflection reveals its myopia. Because Canada is a small power swimming in a sea of larger ones, its safety and prosperity have always depended on its connections to the outside world. Just as it is impossible to make sense of Canadian history in isolation from international events, it strains credulity to think that the country could benefit from a policy of self-imposed isolation. Canada’s interests necessarily stretch beyond its borders, encompassing all of those factors that have enabled it to grow and flourish over the past centuries. The country has an undeniable stake in international stability and the security of its closest partners. It also has good reason to use its influence, however limited, to ensure that those partners take its interests into consideration when setting their own policies. If Canada held itself aloof from the vicissitudes of great power politics, it would abandon those interests to the whims of foreign capitals even as it congratulated itself on its moral superiority.

It is therefore possible to understand Canada’s involvement in the great power game over the last century in two ways. According to Dyer, weak-willed politicians allowed themselves to be railroaded into serving first one imperial power, then another. Canada was the perpetual victim of the old amoral story of power politics in which nothing ever changes. But from another perspective, those same politicians turned power politics to Canada’s advantage, using their limited influence to transform the country from a British colony with no control over its foreign affairs into a fully fledged, free-standing state. Rather than an obstacle to Canadian independence, the great power game was a vehicle for achieving it.

The implications for contemporary policy are clear. Over the last century, Dyer argues, Canada might have controlled its own tactics, but it relied on others for its strategy. In a strictly military sense, this may be true. In the world wars, and more recently in Afghanistan, London and Washington enjoyed far more influence over the general direction of allied strategy and policy than did Ottawa, which made its major contributions at the tactical and operational levels. In a broader sense, however, Dyer is wrong. The Canadian government did have a strategy of its own, which steered the country through war and peace toward complete independence and total control over all of its affairs, both foreign and domestic. This strategy culminated with the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, but no successor has emerged since then to guide the country into the future. Current global trends indicate that the next 50 years will challenge Canada in ways that the last 50 years did not. The country will not be able to cope with the challenge by cutting itself off from the world or by pretending that it is above the dilemmas of power politics. Rather, it must start thinking in explicitly strategic terms about its future role in the world. It must learn to play the great power game with the best of them.