UK and Canada Find New Strength in an Old Alliance

A ‘diplomatic romance’ between old friends ultimately reflects a convergence of interests – Canada and the UK have good reasons to gravitate towards each other.

Expert comment Published 12 October 2020 Updated 26 January 2021 2 minute READ

Foreign policy watchers hailing a burgeoning ‘mini-alliance’ between Canada and the UK may not appear to be highlighting anything new, given such a friendship has existed since Canada came into existence and is one of the oldest bilateral partnerships in the world. But something significant has certainly changed recently.

Canada and the UK have been behaving rather like old acquaintances who have suddenly rediscovered how much they share in common. This ‘diplomatic romance’ first budded when the two countries co-chaired the 2019 Global Conference for Media Freedom, and continued when they joined Australia and the US in condemning China’s imposition of the new security law in Hong Kong in May 2020.

But now it is really blossoming for all to see, as the two countries recently coordinated their imposition of sanctions on government officials in Belarus, which was almost immediately followed by the pair then issuing a joint statement calling for a ceasefire in war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh.

Part of this new closeness stems from the close working relationship between UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Canadian foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne, who are said to speak ‘at least once a week’ but may have more contact as Champagne reportedly uses text messages for frequent and informal communication with many of his counterparts.

But more widely, Canada and the UK undoubtedly share core values – democracy, freedom, and the rule of law – that are under threat in many parts of the world, and these issues have been the focus of their recent cooperation, along with their attempts to help bolster the rules-based international order.

The partnership has strengthened gradually, with officials in both capitals recognizing their approaches to foreign policy issues are extremely similar, regardless of ideological differences between the two current ruling parties – Canada’s left-leaning Liberal Party and the UK’s Conservative Party.

Insecurity certainly plays a part, as the UK has to put meat on the bones of its newly-independent foreign policy and demonstrate the promise of a ‘Global Britain’ is more than just words by strengthening relationships with non-European partners and showing how such relationships advance British interests and produce results. Meanwhile Canada feels rather exposed in a world of mounting rivalry, weakening rules, and democratic backsliding.

But the partnership serves their interests in other ways too. Without the weight of the EU and despite having nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the UK must accept it is effectively a ‘middle power’ as Canada has been for decades. Joint initiatives amplify the voices of middle powers, while collaboration also reduces each country’s exposure to targeted retaliation if they issue critical statements about others.

Canada learned this lesson when it called on Saudi Arabia to release imprisoned human rights activists and Riyadh responded by suspending all new trade and investment with Canada and threatening to withdraw all its students from Canadian universities. And it felt targeted by China over the rather arbitrary arrest of two Canadians on espionage charges, seemingly to apply diplomatic pressure on Ottawa. In a nastier world, middle powers need friends.

Some view the Canada-UK partnership as the start of something bigger, as prominent politicians in both countries have talked about widening the partnership to encompass Australia and New Zealand, and form a four-country ‘CANZUK’ group.

But, although cooperation among these countries does make perfect sense as they already constitute four-fifths of the ‘five eyes’ intelligence alliance, in reality Canada is simultaneously seeking to strengthen and build relationships in other parts of the world, so championing the Anglosphere would be too restrictive a vision for Canada’s foreign policy, as well as a rather imperfect fit for a bilingual country.

Canada also prioritizes close cooperation with the European Union. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – a wide-ranging trade agreement between Canada and the EU, signed in 2016 – cemented their economic relationship. Several European countries including France and Germany also count among Canada’s most trusted international partners.

Still, the UK and Canada have clearly grown quite close over the past year. Whether their diplomatic romance lasts remains to be seen, but it evidently serves both countries’ needs and reflects a broadly shared outlook on international affairs. However the partnership evolves, it is striking that in such troubled times for the international order, these oldest of friends have rediscovered just how much they still have in common.