Canada’s Role as “The Empire’s Ally”

Prof. Greg Albo

An Interview with Greg Albo and Jerome Klassen

Jordy Cummings (JC): One of the overarching themes of Empire’s Ally in general, and your contribution in particular, is a questioning of the predominant thesis held by supporters and detractors of the Conservative government, that is to say, the idea that there was a qualitative shift in Canadian foreign policy in the last few years, as if being “empire’s ally” is something new.

Can you delineate what has changed in Canadian foreign policy, and what has stayed constant, and connect that, in turn, with shifts within the Canadian ruling classes?

Greg Albo (GA): Let me clarify this by elaborating a few basic themes that I and others attempt to raise in the collection in situating Canada as a core imperialist state playing both an independent and supportive role in relation to the U.S. empire and its strategy of primacy in the world order.

First, in relation to Canadian foreign policy debates, it is necessary to take distance from the dogmas about the Canadian state that even much of the Left has taken aboard. This was seeing Canada as a ‘middle power’ that forged a theory and practice of foreign policy based on new formally equal status of states by the United Nations. For Canada, this meant serving as ‘loyal ally’ to the U.S. in an evolving multilateral world still braced by the Cold War: of nation-states steadily increasing the economic and military interdependence of the continent within formal institutions; developing with the U.S. joint interests in a liberalized international trading system and defending against external — read communist and socialist movements — threats; prioritizing ‘systemic peace’ in relations between the cold war blocs; cultivating a ‘quiet diplomacy’; and contributing to multilateral institutions and fora where differences in tactics could be debated and compromises negotiated between greater and lesser powers in the context of the U.S. strategy of détente. This position was associated with the thinkers that ‘made’ Canadian diplomacy — G. Ignatieff, Pearson, Holmes, and others.

More recently, this was the view that the imperatives of economic integration need to be ‘balanced’ by ‘human security.’ An arsenal of new doctrines of multilateral governance need to be integrated into the foreign policy practices ‘agenda-setting’ powers: democratic capacity-building, developmentalism, peace-building, responsibility-to-protect, discursive diplomacy, civil society enhancement, responsible governance and so on. This has been the approach of M. Ignatieff, Byers, Axworthy and host of others, and formed the key thinking behind what critics have labeled ‘human rights imperialism.’ For these liberals and social democrats, Harper represents a Canadian turn to the foreign policies of a rogue state as it abandons many of these policies and moves toward a practice of diplomatic isolationism from multilateralism.

But Canada has always played, we argue, an important role in imperialism, from the supportive position of Britain in the Atlantic slave triangle to a key ally of the British and U.S. across the 20th century in the making of global capitalism. It has done so, we argue in Empire’s Ally, as a ‘secondary imperialist power.’ This has meant pursuing and developing its own imperialist interests and capacities, but aligned with the dominant imperialist states of the U.K. and the U.S. This is a pattern of ‘co-operative specialization’ in foreign policy as Canada cooperates closely with the lead imperialist power. Over the Cold War period, this meant specializing in diplomacy, peace-keeping and soft power, and in the text Jerome Klassen and Paul Kellogg lay out how this worked. In the period of neoliberalism, the foreign policy tasks have shifted: Canada now specializes in diplomatic coverage for foreign intervention (as in Haiti, Lebanon, Honduras), advancing free trade agreements (NAFTA, with CETA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the hard power of ‘disciplinary militarism’ of foreign combat missions. When looking at the overall position of Canada within the imperialist hierarchies of the state system, it is the continuities that stand out, and it is from there that the specifics of the Harper regime need to be judged. This is pretty much a unique thesis to Empire’s Ally, as only a few writers have pointed in this direction at all, and none of these develop a Marxist-inspired critique of Canadian foreign policy.

Second, the American state’s position as the dominant imperialist power and its continued pursuit of primacy has been a consistent in framing Canadian foreign policy. Obama, for example, never broke with any of the strategies and practices taken up by Bush in the ‘war on terror.’ He continues with the constant referrals to the U.S. as the ‘indispensible nation’ and has acted on the basis of American exceptionalism with respect to the norms of the world order as, for example, the right to deploy drones at its discretion. This is a strategy of ‘disciplinary militarism’: the use of armed force to compel states, if their domestic capitalist classes and political elites are not already doing so, to adhere to the neoliberal world order under U.S. hegemony.

Alongside the American-led international policies for free trade, capital mobility, and the re-capitalization of the banking system, they have formed the basis for what can be called a ‘new imperialism’ in terms of the geo-economic framework that has emerged. This has evolved since Reagan and consolidated as part of the way neoliberalism has formed the new basis of social rule in the 1990s. It is blindingly obvious that Canadian foreign policy even since Mulroney has been a key support to this strategy. What we attempted to do in Empire’s Ally was to accept this context and address how the Canadian state and capital out of their own interest fit within this context, and the way the Canadian state transformed its internal and international security regimes as a result of the Afghan war, as part of what Adam Hanieh refers to in the volume as a ‘single war’ across the Middle and Far East. A lot of conventional military analysts have referred to this as a ‘revolution’ in Canadian military and foreign policy, and there is something to that. But they totally neglect the continuities in Canadian imperialism and simply ignore the role in supporting the internationalization of Canadian capital.

Third, capitalist states always need to be assessed as making, mediating and reflecting the balance of social processes; in other words, as being the institutionalization of social struggles within liberal democracies. They are not neutral instruments held accountable by, and responding to, parliamentary deputies. As such, the department and branches of the state are also being re-ordered and shifting in the internal hierarchy of state power to reflect shifts in social struggle and ruling class strategies. This theoretical point is often seen to be obvious in the case of the Canadian state, given the degree of its autonomy from popular democratic forces, and the way the Canadian state has been continually re-organized to assist capital accumulation, including the foreign and military apparatuses, and trade and capital flows from Britain and the U.S. with Canada.

Since 2001 and the opening of the new round of military interventions, there has been a substantial re-ordering of the Canadian state: a general degradation of the institutions of representation and democratic processes; a hardening of the state in terms of policing, prisons military and the security apparatuses, in all its dimensions, from border security to CSIS; a re-orientation of the economic and trade policy branches to facilitate the internationalization of capital and the competitive capacity of labour processes; and a restructuring of the military and diplomatic apparatuses. But it builds on the project of ‘deep integration’ between Canada and the U.S. since the 1990s. ‘Deep integration’ follows the internal logic of neoliberalism and the linkage between national security and economic liberalization that have been integral to the exercise of American imperial power.

It would take pages to catalogue all of the policy shifts that have been made, but a few can be signaled: the Fortress North America realignment of border and security relations with the U.S., as well as economic competitiveness; the support for FIPA, CETA, TPP and a host of other ‘free trade’ agreements that secure new mandates for the internationalization of capital; the cooperation around continental energy policies, particularly around the extreme energy policies of offshore, fracking and the tar sands; the remaking of Canadian defence policy to secure the Arctic for North American control and for the deployment of Canadian troops in joint operations in multiple battlefields; and the recasting of Canadian diplomatic offices and practices to support ‘hard power’ deployment and alignment with U.S. policies with respect to the Middle East and Latin America. It is this phase of the new imperialism in Canada that we attempt to document in Empire’s Ally, and the way that the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan helped facilitate these transformations.

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