Is Canada Imperialist?

By Stephen Gowans

Canadians measure their country against the United States. And the US benchmark defines their aspirations. If only Canada had a military to bestride the globe, moan many Canadians, a foreign policy leadership involved in all significant matters of international affairs, a reputation as a global leader, and an informal empire of countries governed by marionettes answerable to Ottawa. While many Canadians would like to elevate Canada’s role on the world stage to that of an imperial power on par with the United States, some on the left have gone beyond other Canadians’ aspirations. These leftists define Canada as a country with an “imperialist project,” all the better, perhaps, to show that just like their US counterparts, they too have an honest to goodness imperialist beast to slay, right here at home.

Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, cites numerous examples of retrograde Canadian behaviour on the world stage. These include Canada supporting a coup in Honduras, taking a lead role in promoting market-oriented reforms in Haiti, and military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Gordon believes these actions show Canada to be an imperialist country, just like the United States.

But in Gordon’s world, dominating other countries politically, backed up by military might—in other words, having an empire, whether formal or undeclared—is not the essential feature of imperialism. And for a leftist aspiring to wrestle with an imperialist beast at home, it’s a damn good thing. Turns out, Canada doesn’t have one.

So, if Canada is empire-free, how is that it has come to be called imperialist? Gordon says because Ottawa’s foreign policy supports Canadian business interests abroad (it “drains the wealth” of other countries.) Implicit in this view is the idea that any country with foreign investment outflows, and a foreign policy aimed at protecting and promoting them, is imperialist. Which means that counting the countries that aren’t imperialist becomes a task a kindergarten student can handle. One…two…three…four….According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, even developing countries generate massive foreign direct investment outflows, $356.5B in 2011.

By Gordon’s definition, then, imperialism becomes a near universal, applicable to all countries but the poorest. That’s fine, so long as we acknowledge that if almost all countries are imperialist then imperialism doesn’t mean much of anything. When Lenin spoke of the advanced industrial countries carving up the world amongst themselves into mutually exclusive spheres of influence, we knew what he meant. A few rich countries dominated the rest of the world, and had hostile relationships with each other. Lenin’s definition wasn’t a near universal that would allow leftists in practically every capitalist country to claim that their country was also imperialist. If “imperialism” means much the same as “capitalism with foreign investment outflows” we no longer need the term imperialism. And exactly where is Canada’s unique sphere of influence anyway?

In a Briarpatch Magazine article titled “Canada’s imperialist project” Gordon says that Ottawa’s foreign policy is “increasingly aggressive” but offers no evidence that it’s any more aggressive nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Canada’s long history of entanglment in other countries’ military aggressions makes Gordon’s examples of Canada’s supposedly new muscular foreign policy—supporting coups in Honduras and Haiti, and a largely symbolic military presence in Afghanistan—seem rather wimpy by comparison. Canada sent troops to Europe in 1914 to participate in a bloodletting that had nothing whatever to do with Canada, intervened militarily in the civil war in Russia to crush the nascent Bolshevik revolution, participated in the UN “police action” in Korea from 1950-53 to prevent the Koreans from uniting under Kim Il Sung, and joined NATO to roll back communism. However, Gordon appears to harbour the delusion that foreign policy in Canada used to be a rather benign affair until the country underwent “significant transformations…over the last 20 years of neo-liberal entrenchment.” This is the myth of the capitalist golden age, within which lurks the deception that it’s not capitalism, but its neo-liberal variety, that is the problem.

Canada has long had enterprises with investments overseas, governments that support them, and a foreign policy subordinate to that of countries that have normally been understood to be imperialist—Great Britain initially and the United States later on. But Canada has never had the clout to dominate other countries politically—not in a world in which the greater power has always been in the hands of truly imperialist countries.

But we don’t have to call Canada what it isn’t to recognize that it doesn’t wear a white hat on the world stage (contrary to what many Canadians believe). Nor do we have to stretch the definition of imperialism on a Procrustean bed to make it fit Canada. Like other capitalist countries, Canada uses what leverage it has to promote the interests of its corporations, bankers and wealthy investors abroad, and this involves the exploitation of people in other countries, some of them the world’s poorest.

Canada may have recognized the coups in Haiti and Honduras, but it didn’t engineer them. (The Marshall Islands recognized the coups, too. Does that make the Marshall Islands imperialist?) Canada participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, but it didn’t initiate it, and nor was its contribution large enough to make a significant difference. The United States led the NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Libya, in which Canada played bit roles. It is unimaginable that Canada would have—could have—led these campaigns. Participate vs. led. Canada participated in WWI, but no one thought its participation made the country imperialist—only part of an imperialist bloc led by Great Britain. Today, Canada is part of a much larger imperialist bloc led by the United States, in which exist separate semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs based on the vestiges of once formal European empires.

Which isn’t to say that Canada wouldn’t have engineered coups d’état, initiated invasions and fought wars for the re-division of the world had it the resources to do so and an empire, formal or otherwise, to defend and enlarge. Capitalist imperialism depends on two conditions. A compulsion to seek profits abroad. The means to dominate. Canada has the first, but not the second. If Gordon would like to call Canada an aspiring imperialist power, I’m happy to agree. But for the moment, the reality is that Ottawa contents itself with the being a second stringer on team USA, called in every once in a while to relieve the first string, and free to do its own thing, so long as it checks with Washington first. Hardly the picture of an imperialist.

4 thoughts on “Is Canada Imperialist?

  1. I think you’re confusing imperialism as a phenomenon with Lenin’s explanation of it.

    The question I set out to address in critiquing Gordon was a definitional one: Does Canada meet the definition of an imperialist power, as imperialism has always been understood? Since imperialism has always referred to the political domination of one country by another the answer is no, since there is no country we can point to that Canada dominates.

    Of course, you’re free to re-define imperialism any way you wish, including as export of capital, but since practically every country in the world has outflows of foreign investment, practically every country must, under this very restricted re-definition, be imperialist, whereupon “imperialism” becomes a near-universal and therefore a nearly useless concept.

    Did Lenin re-define imperialism as the export of capital? No. He defined it the way everyone else defined it. He noted that the world had been divided among (i.e., subject to the political domination of) a handful of very rich and very powerful states. (Canada, by the way, was not among the very rich and very powerful states Lenin was referring to.) Capital export was part of Lenin’s explanation of political domination, not his definition.

    To elaborate: Lenin set out in 1916 to explain how it was that the world in his time was dominated by what you’ve called “global hegemons.” In his view, monopoly capitalism compelled the export of capital, driving states to politically dominate the recipients of their capital in order to safeguard their investments. “The necessity of exporting capital,” explained Lenin, “gives an impetus to the conquest of colonies, for in the colonial market it is easier to eliminate competition, to make sure of orders, to strengthen the necessary ‘connections’…” Lenin wasn’t changing the definition of imperialism. He was merely explaining imperialism (i.e., the political domination of other countries) as it found expression in 1916.

    So, in your answer to your questions:

    • Have I re-defined imperialism? No, I’ve used the original definition.
    • Is my definition of imperialism different from Lenin’s? No, it’s the same.
    • Have I equated imperialist countries with “global hegemons”? Yes. But so too did Lenin, who referred in his pamphlet on the subject to “the handful of very rich and very powerful countries” (i.e., “global hegemons”) which had divided up the world.
    • Doesn’t the fact that Canada belongs to an imperialist bloc make it an imperialist country? No. Belonging to an imperialist bloc is different from politically dominating other countries. The United States politically dominates Iraq. Canada, a member of the US imperialist bloc, does not.

    Gordon guts imperialism of its essential feature—political domination. He then re-defines it as the export of capital. This is problematic for the same reason re-defining any word is problematic: it creates confusion. But it’s also problematic because it casts the net too wide. Many countries export capital, but don’t politically dominate the countries they have foreign investments in. Most of Canada’s foreign investment is in the United States. That doesn’t make Canada an imperialist country vis-a-vis its next door neighbour.

    The way to avoid the confusion Gordon’s redefinition creates is to acknowledge that “imperialism,” like “socialism,” has come to mean so many different things to so many different people, that it no longer serves the purpose of establishing a common basis of understanding. We need more descriptive terminology. So, how about this? I’ll say “political domination of the affairs of other countries” and you and Gordon can say “foreign investment outflows.” That way we’ll be clear on what each of us is talking about and that we’re talking about entirely different things.

    The challenge for you and Gordon, however, will be to explain why anyone should care about Canada’s foreign investment outflows. And that will take some care in defining what the problem is. Gordon’s concerns, I suspect, are not with all foreign investments outflows, but with (1) those that disadvantage the countries that receive them, and (2) the way in which the state in Canada promotes and protects them. But I think you’ll find that Canada promotes and protects those of its foreign investment outflows that disadvantage other countries by operating within the framework of political domination exercised by the United States. In other words, Gordon’s Imperialist Canada might be more aptly titled How Canadian Businesses Profit from Imperialist America.

  2. Although I enjoy your blog immensely, I must respectfully disagree with you this time. Although I agree completely with you that Gordon has sought to establish a “golden age” of capitalism in Canada that never existed, I think in other ways you fall into his very trap, by misconstruing what imperialism actually is. If Canada is, as you admit, part of a large imperialist bloc, does that not make it an imperialist country? In “Imperialism,” Lenin stressed that imperialism was a system, the highest stage of capitalism, not a foreign policy, and he went on to identify its primary characteristics. Whereas militarism and foreign conquest were certainly a factor, the domination of finance capital over industrial capital and the export thereof was a far more significant development – after all, foreign domination and militarism have existed since the Bronze Age. You seem to be redefining imperialism to restrict it to global hegemons such as the U.S. and the British Empire that preceded it, based on a reluctance to acknowledge that, yes, most developed countries are, indeed, imperialist. This doesn’t rob the word of its meaning, as you seem to fear, but merely describes how the world has changed in a hundred years, Your reference to “semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs” seemed a tad slippery, as “sub-imperialism” is not, I suspect, a concept that Lenin would have recognized. The characterization strikes me as an attempt to acknowledge that Canada, like many other countries, although not imperialist hegemons, are certainly imperialist. It’s certainly a bigger question than the operation of foreign military bases – which, as I recall, the Soviet Union also possessed, although for very different reasons.

  3. As stated above “Well argued”.
    Why isn’t there more debate here on this?
    When people say to me Canada is “imperialist”, I ask, “How many overseas military bases does Canada have?”
    I don’t know because it’s a very small number. Insignificant.
    How many does the USA have? Well over 700 and these are the ones we know about.
    Check out “Base Structure Report” on the internet.
    It’s a yearly report from the US Dept of Defense on their bases.

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