The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable “Postcard from Great Britain: London, the EU and the world” in Ottawa on 6 June 2016. These roundtable discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule. This summary reflects Analyst Geoff Tasker‘s perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks our Strategic Partners Lockheed Martin Canada and General Dynamics for their generous sponsorship of the 2016/17 Roundtable Discussion Series.
At a recent roundtable hosted by the CDA Institute, audience members were granted a unique perspective into the inner workings and issues facing one of our closest allies: the United Kingdom. The discussion began with a small dose of reality – that, despite our shared histories and legacy of cultural and strategic partnership, Canadians are largely out of touch with the current realities and nuances facing the UK and vice versa. This is especially true today, with Brexit now a reality and the future of Great Britain becoming even more uncertain.
Without question, the Canada-UK alliance is one of our strongest partnerships, second only perhaps to the United States. The level of cooperation between our two countries is unlikely to waver in the near future. But we may need to review our position in this partnership. With the upcoming US presidential election perhaps heralding a major policy shift and the UK now preoccupied with extracting itself from the EU, both of our most reliable partners are or will be undergoing what was identified as a “severe identity crisis.” While undoubtedly having a large effect on world affairs, from a specifically Canadian perspective, they should also spur a long overdue re-evaluation as to how we wish to position ourselves globally.
The discussion then turned to how the UK has been largely stuck in a transitionary period since the end of the Second World War. Socially and culturally, the UK still retains many of the positive aspects of its strong imperial past; its international and domestic conduct reflects some of this nostalgia toward its former status as an imperial superpower. The UK retaining its nuclear capabilities provides a perfect example of this tension between its imperial past and current status as a “middle power”; a tension which could be factoring into the appeal of greater independence embodied in Brexit.
With the relative size of developed over developing economies reducing however, the new role of Britain as a ‘middle’ power is difficult to characterize. The gradual decline of British influence is readily apparent after World War II, as the country entered into a culture of “enjoying themselves” deservedly so, after a long period of post-war reconstitution and its role in international security was gradually de facto ceded to the United States. It was during this time that the UK also shifted from being an “emigrant nation” toward an “immigrant nation”, a reality that Britons continue to grapple with in terms of what this means to be ‘British’.
Despite these new realities, it is easy to forget how difficult it was for Britain to step down from its undisputed leadership in international fora to something less. This shift of identity is something the British people and political structure will need to address at their own pace. In the meantime, it is important for Canada to position itself appropriately with today’s Great Britain. The UK may still be the more influential/capable nation of the two, but both countries are now more appropriately placed as middle powers, though this may mean different things to each. As such, there is no reason for Canada to play an automatically secondary role to the UK in any international coalition – a perspective that has yet to take firm root. Both countries need to acknowledge and account for this more equitable arrangement as we move into the future.
Rebalancing of our relationship with the UK does not have to be confrontational. On the contrary, as middle powers with a shared history, there is much we can offer each other and a number of new directions to which our partnership can expand. As a multicultural country with a strong history of immigration, Canadian expertise can prove invaluable for Britain as it attempts to balance the necessity of not overreaching its capacity while still remaining open to the rest of the world. A common sentiment in the UK, which largely coalesced around the “leave” camp, is based around uncertainty toward the mass influx of new residents and the effect this could have on British identity. Frank dialogue and support from a more open relationship with Canada could ease this transition and possibly help tone down the levels of distrust felt across the British islands.
Just as Canada can help the UK transition through its period of uncertainty, the discussion also covered areas in which Canada can benefit from British examples. As Canada moves forward with its Defence Policy Review, many are questioning how the multitude of opinions being put forward can be accurately translated into policy. Having recently completed its own Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), widely regarded as having produced a balanced and achievable result, the UK can provide a useful framework for how Canada should structure its own review in order to truly make the most out of the process.
Great Britain’s SDSR focused on three specific themes: how to protect British citizens at home and abroad, how to promote prosperity, and how to project a strong global influence. With these themes grounding the process, the UK review went beyond military investments and was able to draft policy of benefit to British citizens in a wide range of areas. Particular attention was directed to the British strategy of keeping politicians engaged on the review process, as a way to better ensure the recommendations are actually implemented. If Canada wants to draft a new defence policy which will produce tangible results and withstand the test of time, it would do well to follow the British example.
As the UK moves into uncertain territory following its decision to leave the EU, and working to balance an almost nostalgic sense of identity with the reality of its new place in the world, Canada should not distance itself from its trusted ally. Instead, we should reflect on the different sense of memory and identity which resonates in the UK, come to terms with the new position in which the UK has found itself and critically examine both how best we can both help and strengthen our ties. This roundtable provided a snapshot of these issues, reaffirming where we stand with one of our closest allies and presenting opportunities as to where this relationship can expand in the years to come.
Geoff Tasker is an Analyst with the CDA Institute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). His research interests focus on international security and defence policy as well as conflict mediation and humanitarian intervention. (Image courtesy of Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press.)