Charles Davies: Punching Below Its Weight: A Reality Check on Canada’s Place in the World


In 2016, the CDA Institute organized a series of presentations to members of the Defence Minister’s Advisory Panel that was assisting in the development of the government’s new defence policy. Among the presenters was Professor Elinor Sloan of Carleton University, who debunked the popular view of Canada as a small but spunky minor power “punching above its weight” in the world by pointing out a few inconvenient facts. The Advisory Panel members clearly took in this message, but unfortunately the narrative still persists in much of the political and public commentary about the nation’s place in the world. 

The fiction of our national weakness is certainly politically convenient. It avoids complex discussions with Canadians about investing in the instruments of state power needed to wield influence, and the sometimes difficult questions on where and how to use them. It also allows political leaders to more selectively pick and choose when they want to take a role on the world stage, focus on that for as long as they wish, then drop it. However, when sustained effort is required it’s another story.  For example, Canada’s engagements in the Pacific Rim have long been hamstrung and rendered largely ineffective by an on again, off again national effort, and even our more enduring institutional commitments to NORAD and NATO have seen great variability in political focus over the years.

This isn’t good enough. The world around us is changing rapidly and we face very real emerging threats that require sustained and effective responses. Canada’s current defence policy identifies three key security trends shaping global events: the evolving balance of power, the changing nature of conflict, and the rapid evolution of technology. Add to these the more worrying fact that the traditional global mechanisms painstakingly built over the past seven decades to peacefully manage international relationships are being progressively challenged and undermined on multiple fronts – most notably by China and Russia, but by others as well – at a time when the United States is gradually retrenching from its role as principal guarantor of many of these mechanisms. 

Canada is a trading nation and it needs a peaceful, stable and equitable global order if it is to continue to prosper. If the international framework that has served this country and the world so well over the past half-century or more is to be to protected and enhanced, Canada will need to do more to take on its fair share of the load in a sustained collective effort with like-minded partners to make that happen.

This article looks at where Canada really stands in the world in comparison to other nations by looking at economic capacity, human capacity, and reputation. The objective is to better inform public and political debate about what this country’s capacity really is for contributing to global stability and security, defending its national interests and furthering its values.

Economic Capacity

Winston Churchill observed that “The power of any government depends ultimately upon its finances.” So, what is Canada’s relative economic position in the global context? Pretty strong, and growing. 

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Canada’s economy was the tenth largest in the world prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  By 2026 it projects that Canada will be in eighth place, overtaking Brazil and Italy. Our economy is already larger than that of Russia. While IMF projections are only estimates based on many assumptions, it is clear that Canada is solidly ranked in the top ten national economies in the world.  As a nation, therefore, we can well afford to build and maintain a substantial “tool box” of state power instruments (diplomatic, military, foreign aid, economic, and others) needed to exercise real influence in global events. 

Further, we are well placed to work collaboratively with like-minded nations. Consider the following:

  • Of the fifteen largest national economies, all but two (China and Russia) are democratic polities that regularly hold elections generally found by independent monitors to have been free and fair, even if not necessarily always perfectly so. While some of these countries face significant ongoing domestic challenges, most are stable democracies with which Canada has many shared values and can build close working relationships.  Six are NATO partners, and we have other formal relationships with several more.
  • The European Union, with which Canada has important trade and other relationships, has a total economy that is second in size only to that of the United States. While the trade bloc largely defers to its national governments on foreign policy and international security matters, it is a body that provides opportunities for collaboration among like-minded states.
  • The North American trade area, anchored on the powerful United States marketplace, is the largest economic entity in the world.

We are by no means in the same economic league as the US or China, but neither are we a minor league player. The question is not affordability, it is whether we have the national will to build and sustain the necessary instruments of state power, and whether our leaders are prepared to pursue the long-term strategies needed for them to be effective.

Human Capacity

Canada is ranked 39th in the world in population size, which places us well up in the top quartile of nations even if we are dwarfed by giants such as China and India. Behind this number, however, lie a couple of important qualitative discriminators. According to Statistics Canada, foreign-born individuals represent over one-fifth of Canada’s total population and this proportion could reach between 24.5% and 30.0% by 2036.” We are deeply connected globally. Contrast this with the United States, where 13.6% of the population is foreign born, or the United Kingdom, where it is just over 14%. Only Australia has a higher proportion of foreign-born residents than Canada, at 29.8% (2020 statistics) however Canada’s immigrant population comes from more diversified regional sources.

A second qualitative discriminator is education. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada’s population has one of the highest levels of tertiary education in the world. Further, it ranks high both in the youngest age groups, where many countries have placed a strong emphasis on advanced education in recent years, and among older generations.  This means that a higher proportion of Canada’s population has both advanced levels of education and substantial work experience than is the case in most other nations.

By any measure, therefore, Canada has the human capacity to be an influential player in global affairs.  Its population size alone merits a strong voice, but its people are also among the most globally connected and best educated in the world. Add to this the fact that as a result of our history we have a society that, while far from perfect, is more practiced than most at finding common ground and workable compromise solutions among its diverse elements.  While much remains to be done to continue building a better Canada, as a population we are well placed to be, and should be, more active and influential contributors to global efforts to maintain peace and stability.


Various organizations publish comparisons of different aspects of nations’ reputations. To consider just two, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks countries on a 100 point scale based on their perceived levels of public corruption as rated by experts and business people. The 2020 Index ranked New Zealand and Denmark together at the top of the list, with Canada tied with several other countries in a respectable eleventh place. 

A second measure is the annual “Best Countries Report” published by the partnership of U.S. News & World Report; BAV Group; and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. They survey some 17,000 people around the globe, to rate countries against 76 attributes grouped into ten categories: Adventure, Agility, Cultural Influence, Entrepreneurship, Heritage, Movers, “Open for Business”, Power, Social Purpose and Quality of Life.  Canada currently ranks number one among all nations rated.

By both these measures, and a number of others, Canada has a very strong global reputation. Among the fifteen largest economic powers in the world, it ranks in the top four in the Corruption Perceptions Index, and leads outright the current Best Countries Report list. This translates into a tremendous reserve of goodwill that the country can leverage in its international relationships. 

On the other hand, a nation’s reputation can be undermined by the actions, or inactions, of its government and this is a recurring problem for Canada. Over many years, successive administrations have made formal commitments in areas ranging from climate change to defence burden-sharing and then failed to honour them. This is not a formula for success in global relationships.

In acting on the international stage, Canadian governments need to more closely follow the respected business principle: promise only what you can deliver, and deliver what you promise. (A variant of this says deliver more than you promise, but simply delivering what is promised would be sufficient.) Failing to follow through on important commitments is false economy as it erodes trust among key partners and seriously undermines our efforts to help shape global events in furtherance of our national interests and values.

Canada’s “Report Card”

If there were a higher level “school principal” issuing report cards for countries, Canada’s would describe a nation getting by in the world but failing to achieve its full potential due to lack of sustained focus and effort to apply the abilities and ample resources it has. It would not be a narrative most students would be happy to share with their parents, or governments with their citizens.

In fact, such a judgement was made in 2020 when the country again failed in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council despite a prodigious political and diplomatic campaign. The tendency for successive Canadian governments to over-promise and under-deliver on the world stage was clearly a factor affecting the election. Examples abound: committing but failing to increase defence spending to the agreed NATO target of 2% of GDP cost support among NATO partners; supporting but failing to implement the UN and OECD development assistance spending target for developed nations of 0.7% of Gross National Income cost support among developing nations; promising major force contributions to UN peacekeeping missions but failing to deliver them cost support everywhere. The list goes on.

Further, successive Canadian governments have not followed any sort of consistent strategy to build and maintain key international relationships, and instead the country has tended to be “here today and gone tomorrow” in regions such as the Pacific Rim, Africa, and Central and South America.  Consequently, as a nation we have many acquaintances globally but only a small number of strong enduring friendships. Small wonder that the Security Council vote went the way it did.


Economic capacity, human capacity and reputation are obviously not the only factors defining a nation’s ability to influence regional or global events. Russia, for example, despite its economy being smaller than Canada’s, wields significantly more influence by leveraging its strength in other areas – notably its large arsenal of nuclear weapons and the substantial conventional military forces it maintains. The cost of this is high – Russia spends nearly 4% of its GDP on defence – but it is determined to wield influence and pursues that objective relentlessly and consistently with not only its military but also the other instruments of state power: diplomacy, intelligence gathering and covert disruption capabilities, cyber capabilities, economic levers including its extensive natural resource base, and others.

It can certainly be questioned whether the cost of this effort is sustainable over the long term, and whether the price being paid by the Russian people is worth it, but political will is clearly a fourth critical factor in determining how much influence a country has. 

For Canada, a different balance in priorities is clearly appropriate, but the country can clearly afford the means to exercise greater influence in global affairs, act more effectively in defence of its interests, and further its values. It has the capacity to contribute much more to the collective efforts of like-minded partners to defend and enhance the international framework that has served this country and the world so well over the past half-century or more. It is not a minor power.

CDA Institute Research Fellow Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a former CAF Ammunition Technical Officer who, among other senior appointments, served as the DND explosives regulator and as strategic planning director for the department’s Materiel Group.

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