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.