Canada in the World: The Return of the National Interest

Published: Summer 1995    |    By: Andrew Cohen    |    Volume 52, No. 4


On 25 June too, after two years of study, the government of Pierre Trudeau issued a white paper on Canada and the world. Foreign Policy for Canadians’ appeared as six colourful pamphlets. One discussed general goals, the others addressed the United Nations, Europe, Latin America, the Pacific, and international development. An unorthodox presentation for an unorthodox statement, it was the most intense review of foreign policy in memory, proposing the most fundamental departure for Canada since the Second World War. At root, the review said that Canada should be guided by ‘the national interest.’ This was startling not so much because Canada had never acted out of self-interest but because it had never so plainly called it that. To be sure, Canada had established a reputation as a helpful fixer and an honest broker. An instinct for activism made it a peacekeeper, a mediator, a donor and a member of virtually every international organization. Surely this appearance of altruism reflected the national interest, even if the country’s pinched, presbyterian character was unable to say so. Although our mission was not unsung, our motive would go unsaid.

The truth was that the national interest had become bound up in the global interest. For a country living in the shadow of the United States, attuned to the advantages of wielding influence in a fragmented world, multilateralism was an effective way to preserve freedom and independence. At the end of the day the motivation was probably less moral than practical, though Canadians wore the vestments of virtue comfortably.

About the Author

Andrew Cohen is a member of the Editorial Board of the Globe and Mail. He studied political science at McGill University and holds graduate degrees in journalism and international relations from Carleton University. Between 1991 and 1993 he was a Visiting Fellow, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He is the author of A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord, a study of Canada’s constitutional politics.