Canadian Foreign Policy

As an influential former colony of the once-mighty British Empire, Canada has long considered itself a country whose interests and ideas extend far beyond its own borders. Now an independent nation, the challenge to establish a truly “Canadian style” of foreign policy has proved a leading priority for many generations of politicians, diplomats, and generals.

Stephen Harper and the Japanese prime minister

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with the prime minister of Japan at a 2010 APEC Summit in Yokohama.

In general, Canadian foreign policy has been largely in sync with that of the greater western world, with the Canadian government serving as a loyal partner in the dominant western alliances of the day. This has included service in both world wars, active participation in the United Nations and NATO, defence for democratic-capitalist values during the Cold War, and a strong commitment to international stability and policing in the modern era of terrorism and rogue states.

At the same time, however, Canadian policy makers have long championed the idea that Canada should always be pragmatic and cautious in its deeds and rhetoric, and shy away from overly divisive or belligerent actions that would threaten the country’s reputation as a calm, honest, friendly nation. The central challenge of Canadian foreign policy is thus trying to square the Canadian public’s strong commitment to abstract, feel-good principles like democracy, freedom and the rule of law with the country’s practical desire to protect its interests and safety.

Themes of Canadian Foreign Policy


Prior to 1931, there was really no such thing as “Canadian foreign policy” since the British Empire did not permit its colonies to independently sign treaties, form alliances, open embassies, go to war, or pretty much do anything involving other countries without London’s approval. Canada’s participation in the Boer War (1899-102) and World War I (1914-1918) was thus very much automatic, as all colonies were expected to be willing to fight for British interests as part of the deal.

Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro

The left-leaning Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000), who served as Canada's prime minister from the late 60s to early 80s was famously close to the Communist regime in Cuba, making a high-profile visit to the island in 1976.

Everything changed in 1931, when the Statute of Westminster was signed and the U.K. granted its self-governing white colonies the right to establish an independent foreign policy. Canada’s first sovereign embassy opened in Washington shortly thereafter, and from then on there was no turning back. In the many years since, Canadian policymakers have taken Canada’s right to make independent decisions of war and peace very seriously — not just in regards to Britain, but the United States as well.

While Canada eagerly fought alongside her allies in both World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), as the Cold War (1945-1990) began to unfold, Canada began to chart an increasingly independent course. Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Canada maintained economic and diplomatic ties to the government of Fidel Castro (b. 1926), defying U.S. and South American efforts to isolate the Marxist regime. When war between communist and non-communist forces in Vietnam broke out in the mid-1960s, Canada similarly resisted calls from America and Australia to militarily back the non-communist side. More recently, Canada was one of several western nations to oppose the Second Iraq War (2003-2011) against Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) led by Britain and the United States.

In all cases, Canada’s decision to break from its traditional allies was usually more about image than ideology. Canada remained strongly opposed to the communist side in Vietnam, for instance, and opposition to the war did not prevent the country from providing military and economic assistance to the United States during the conflict, just as opposition to the Iraq war would not prevent Canada from doing the same some 40 years later. In most cases, Canadian demonstrations of foreign policy independence are just that: high-profile (and in some cases intentionally provocative) gestures designed to demonstrate that Canada is not an automatic ally of any partner or cause, but rather a fully independent nation capable of making decisions for itself.


Canada’s willingness to occasionally play contrarian should not disguise the fact that the nation takes its international alliances very seriously. Canadians are often taught, in fact, that their “good global citizenship,” and active participation in every major international alliance and organization forms one of the country’s most respectable qualities in the eyes of others.

G8 leaders

The G8 is an economic partnership of the eight most wealthy and powerful western democracies and is unquestionably Canada's most elite international alliance. Seen here, world leaders (including the Canadian prime minister) meeting at the 1991 G8 summit in London, England.

As a founding member of the United Nations, Canadian politicians and diplomats were leading figures in postwar efforts to help try and permanently re-order global affairs under a more stable regime of international law and regulation. Along with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the UN’s first major document, the United Nations Universial Declaration of Human Rights, was largely authored by a Canadian law professor, John Humphrey (1905-1995), who hoped it would serve as one of the keystones of a new, more peaceful and tolerant world order. Canada was also a founding member of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, a military and political alliance of leading western powers that was used to help guard against Soviet expansion during the Cold War, and in more modern times has been a particularly active member of financial alliances such as the G7, G20, and World Trade Organization (WTO).

In practical terms, however, Canada’s strongest international ties continue to be to the United States and the United Kingdom, with France, Australia, and Israel probably coming in a close second. For historical, ideological, cultural and strategic reasons, these continue to be the countries to which Canada maintains its deepest and most emotional bonds, meaning any disputes or disagreements are bound to provoke headlines.


Anti-Nazi poster

A French-Canadian World War II propaganda poster depicts Canadians crushing the Nazis. The words "you know how to carry the sword" come from the French version of the Canadian national anthem.

By far, World War II remains the most popular and glamourized conflict in Canadian history books and popular culture, with the dominant national memory being one of pride that Canada was able to assist in the destruction of the murderous dictatorships of fascist Germany and imperial Japan. Since then, the idea that Canadian foreign policy should be primarily geared towards the eradication of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism and other oppressive and tyrannical “isms” has proven a particularly powerful motivating force.

Officially, at least, many of Canada’s recent wars have been justified largely on the basis of helping curb dictatorial abuses in other parts of the world. The Korean War saw Canadians fight against the armies of the Communist dictator Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), the Persian Gulf War (1991) centred around expelling the forces of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the present war in Afghanistan (2001- ) pits Canadians against terrorists allied with that country’s deposed fundamentalist Taliban government, while a 2004 military intervention in Haiti helped remove longtime strongman Jean-Bertrand Aristide (b. 1953).

Of course, it’s easy to debate whether Canada’s only interest in fighting these various regimes was to protect their people from tyranny; obviously, there were larger geopolitical and economic interests at play, too — just as there were during World War II. Regardless, the idea that Canada always fights on the side of democracy and freedom remains a source of great patriotic pride, and helps give a theme of consistency and idealism to the country’s 80-year history of independent foreign policy.


For a long time, the idea that Canada was primarily a “peacekeeping” nation was one of the country’s most venerated ideals, celebrated in everything from national holidays and monuments to beer commercials and the ten dollar bill. In recent years, however, the very idea of what peacekeeping is, and whether Canada’s actually any good at doing it, has become more controversial and debated. It may be a foreign policy ideal on the wane.

Peacekeeping stamp

This 2000 stamp, entitled "On Guard for World Peace," features a montage of Lester Pearson, the dove of peace, and the United Nations. It represents a very idealized vision of certain cliched Canadian foreign policy ideals.

In 1956, three of Canada’s closest allies, France, Britain and Israel, all went to war with Egypt over that country’s controversial nationalization of the Suez Canal. In the aftermath, Canadian foreign minister Lester Pearson (1897-1972) spearheaded the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping force, consisting of troops from several neutral countries, to separate the combatants until a diplomatic solution to the Suez crisis could be reached. In the decades following, Canadian soldiers under UN authority served in several other peacekeeping missions inspired by the Suez experience, most notably in the Congo (1960-1964), Syria (1974- ), and Cyprus (1964- ). Honouring Pearson’s original vision, these Canadians served (and continue to serve) mostly as neutral mediators, not combatants, and helped separate or monitor warring factions without taking sides.

Peacekeeping proved an attractive way for Canadians to stay actively involved in foreign affairs while retaining a small military and preserving the country’s reputation of independence from the major powers. It was, as some pundits were fond of saying, a great way for Canada to “punch above its weight.” Beginning in the 1990s, however, Canada quietly began to agree to fewer and fewer peacekeeping missions, in part because the United Nations was starting to fall into lower repute due to a string of failed missions in Somalia (1992-1995), Rwanda (1993-1994) and Iraq (1991-2003), but also because a changing culture in the Canadian defence department was prompting a move away from small, open-ended troop commitments. Since the NATO-led war in Kosovo (1999), and especially since the current war in Afghanistan, Canada has become more comfortable taking sides and fighting in an openly combative role, in what some bemoan as a loss of identity and others claim is just a restoration of a much older foreign policy tradition.


At the end of the day, Canada remains a very wealthy country, and part of that wealth flows from its vast array of financial interests scattered all across the planet. Home to an incredibly globalized economy, Canadians trade with, invest in, and run businesses out of dozens of countries around the world, and the national economy could simply not survive without many of these relationships. High principles aside, this means that a significant amount of Canadian foreign policy is simply devoted to maintaining stable trade partnerships and ensuring conditions remain favourable for Canadian businesses operating abroad.

Canadian oil protesters

Canadian oil, which causes enormous amounts of pollution to extract from the so-called "tar sands" of Alberta, has proven a source of growing controversy for the nation's international reputation. Here, American protesters demonstrate against a proposed U.S.-Canadian pipeline.

Canada’s enormous dependence on U.S. trade, for instance, has been largely credited (or blamed) for the country’s generally pro-American position on most major issues over the years, a fact which can often heighten the already ample levels of Canadian insecurity regarding the relationship. The same is largely true of Canada’s relationship with authoritarian nations like China and Saudi Arabia, which remain similarly warm largely for trade reasons, but also require awkwardly looking the other way on numerous human rights issues in order to maintain.

Foreign policy is not missionary work, as someone famous once said, and most Canadians generally understand that their country must maintain ties to some distasteful regimes and utilize unpleasant or exploitative business practices such as sweatshops and cheap labour in order to provide the country with the goods and wealth it has come to expect. Which is not to say such facts can’t still be unsettling when they’re revealed in a big spread in Sunday’s newspaper.

Links About Canadian Foreign Policy:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada gained the ability to make foreign policy decisions independent from Britain in 1931.
  • The guiding values of Canadian foreign policy are independence, defence of democracies and economic interests.
  • Canada has used both war and peace to pursue its foreign policy goals.
  • Many Canadians believe non-militaristic techniques like peacekeeping and multilateralism form the proper "Canadian" style of foreign policy.