Canada and the UK: A Long and Enduring Partnership

Main Image Credit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Biarritz. Courtesy of The Office of the Prime Minister, Canada.

The common interests and tight bonds between the UK and Canada are so obvious that they sometimes need restating.

‘Global Britain’ and ‘The World Needs More Canada’ do not have much in common as foreign policy objectives. The former is the aspirational perspective of a permanent UN Security Council member, with a long history of global engagement and leadership, seeking to regain a measure of sovereignty from a successful exit negotiation with the EU. On the other side of the Atlantic, is an aspirational view from a much younger – albeit founding – member of NATO and the UN seeking to both benefit from, while not being subsumed by, its relations with its southern neighbour. Both have special relationships with the US, but a common heritage with each other in that relationship.

The UK and Canada both have strong common strategic interests. Both countries face the same enemies and share many common values. Both have a strong set of parliamentary traditions, separation between elected leaders and heads of state and very similar arrangements concerning the independence of their public services and judiciary from party politics.

The UK’s developing relationship with the EU is somewhat similar to Canada’s with the US. Close trade and economic linkages with the larger partner are vital in both cases, yet the ability to maintain a visible and distinct position is, in Canada’s case, and will be in the UK’s, a key feature in foreign policy. Canada, for instance, has always taken a foreign policy stance on the Middle East, Central America, Africa and on international liberal order instruments, like the International Criminal Court, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Trans-Pacific Partnership and international development, distinctly different to that of the US.

In defence, UK and Canadian policy, structures and ethos at the strategic, operational and tactical levels have marched in step since the 1890s. This long and cherished history of close cooperation on defence, intelligence and operational doctrine speaks eloquently to how a more collaborative approach to strategic interests would be a force multiplier for both partners in the near future.

Coincident with the Trump Administration's mix of impulsive and, on occasion, less than coherent foreign and trade policy engagements, the UK and Canadian governments have found themselves making joint declarations on Nagorno-Karabakh, implementing sanctions on the increasingly illegitimate government in Belarus, and condemning China's new authoritarian security law imposed on Hong Kong, a city with historic British ties and a significant Canadian population.

Joint Interests

American disconnect from, or, worse, efforts at weakening international multilateral frameworks like the WTO, NATO, the World Health Organization and others leave a dangerous vacuum. Whether or not this gradual disengagement persists after January 2021, it offers the opportunity for two like-minded democracies, with decades of collaborative experience between them, to develop an expansive bilateralism which is a force for good in the world and embraces common values of peace, order and good government.

The background conditions for such a development are auspicious. Both countries have been senior players in the Commonwealth and serve as the organisation's most substantial funders.

Both countries offer training opportunities and officer education to friendly countries around the world. More could be done together, extending the linkages with both like-minded and internationally trusted partners.

Both countries' universities and technical colleges attract the best and the brightest of the global student population. Both have well-developed and respected intelligence establishments. There are close formal and informal links concerning disclosure, shared trust and communication protocols between them. Collaboration in more remote locations and joint active cyber measures in their common interest could be extended in reach and breadth.

Both share a common concern about Russian adventurism in eastern Europe, in the Middle East and in the Arctic regions. Royal Navy ships and RAF units have been in Canada's northern regions exercising and training with Royal Canadian Navy vessels and the Royal Canadian Air Force in the face of Russian air and maritime encroachments. Canada has been a regular participant in NATO exercises in the eastern European and Scandinavian regions most at risk from Russian aggression for many years. Both Canada and the UK have been, and remain, substantial players in efforts to assist Ukraine in strengthening its defensive capacity in the face of Russia's multi-platform aggression.

Unlike the UK, Canada is a Pacific Rim country, with exposure to and interests in the Pacific – interests that embrace many Commonwealth countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand. However, the UK has always had, and, with its new global ambitions, is likely to see an increase in its own vital interests in the region on economic issues, technology and migration. Like the UK, Canada has been active in speaking out against military-dominated governance and human rights persecution in Myanmar. Canada and the UK also share a significant concern with China’s ongoing rule-breaking, its arbitrary detention of their citizens abroad and its treatment of Asian allies and partners in China’s immediate neighbourhood, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

While Canada and the UK’s future foreign policy goals will seek to avoid entanglement in a US–China economic Cold War or in pushing China down the path of militarism, both countries would wish to reflect the fact that ongoing trade relations with China will be tempered by strong encouragement to improve quality standards and make its Belt and Road initiative have more international value and relevance with a less predatory financial model. Both countries share the same firm policy that seeks to encourage China to work with the international system of governance to support future pandemic preparedness and the fair distribution of any nationally produced vaccine.

The Challenges of Working Together

The challenges outlined can be supported by both the UK and Canada’s respected and prominent roles in the security mandates of multilateral forums. The contribution which each country makes to the increasingly important roles of both NATO and the Arctic Council will serve as appropriate venues through which challenging discussions may be broached with increasingly difficult partners. Having strived, by way of effective dialogue, to always work towards the highest common solutions instead of the lowest common outcomes, both Canada’s and the UK’s presence in key multilateral forums including the G-7, will facilitate and provide space for the sort of discussion which can help ‘nudge’ trickier partners in the right direction.

Canada's landmass is many times that of the UK, and its population is half of the UK's. Each has its own domestic defence and security profile, and particular sovereign requirements and priorities. But the global reach of both countries, both through NATO and independently, would benefit from a more articulated collaborative strategy, maximising the histories and unique skills of each through considered and strategic collaboration. At a time when the UK’s security-relevant departments consider approaches to service amalgamation, integrated operations and niche defence capabilities – changes which Canada has, over the past 20 years, been forced to implement and learn from – greater dialogue on defence and security cooperation makes sense. In the coming months we are likely to see the emergence of a UK–EU arrangement that is not dissimilar to Canada’s framework agreement with the EU, notwithstanding the fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that the EU has rejected this option. Either way and whatever agreement is reached, such collaboration will also facilitate – either directly or indirectly – ongoing transatlantic interoperability with NATO partners in the wake of new threats and vulnerabilities.

Boosting regular exchanges between military colleges and officer professional development programmes; joint forward placement of logistics and supply hubs facilitating more efficient global response capacity; joint intelligence and interdiction activities on people smuggling, money laundering and illicit drugs; joint European and Canadian Arctic patrols and intelligence work to increase creative restraint signalling to the Russian government; a joint intelligence coordinating group; an exchange of senior civil servants; and a regular Canada–UK Arctic and Asian theatre programme of joint patrols and exercises, would all expand the reach of each partner.

As the nature of conflict is going through a dynamic transformation, it follows that the intellectual and tactical acuity democracies bring to the prevention of conflict will also have to be transformative. Whether it is the integrated operations framework spoken of recently by the UK Chief of Defence Staff, or the priority of using the threat of force, including cyber, information, and ‘eye in the sky’ capacities to prevent conflict often referenced over the years by his Canadian counterpart, necessary cyber and information skills would benefit from concerted joint effort.

As was the case in the two world wars and Korea, Canada and the UK on the same side, fighting for the same values, often before the US was ready to engage, is nothing new. Now is the moment to take this cooperation, with its strong traditions, vital structures and growing common interests to a new level.

Hugh Segal chaired the Canadian Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and is the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Ann FitzGerald is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario. She is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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