Navigating a Crowded Field: Canada and the Summit of the Americas

Andrew F. Cooper CIGI Associate Director and Distinguished Fellow

The University of West Indies is an oasis of tranquility in the hectic environment of Trinidad anticipating the 5th Summit of the Americas (SoA). But the St Augustine campus is in no way disconnected from the Summit. Beside CIGI’s conference examining “Inter-American Cooperation at the Crossroads”, there are major civil society/trade union events taking place.

Canadian think tanks and research institutes, along with Canadian state officials, are playing a major role in the multi-dimensional components of the Summit. The timely CIGI conference has been organized in partnership with Laval University and the Institute of International Relations at UWI, with CIDA and DFAIT providing financial support. At the launch of the conference last night, Canada’s Assistant Deputy Minister for Latin America and the Caribbean and SoA Sherpa, Alexandra Bugailiskis, presented an overview of expectations for the Summit and Canada’s continued interest in deepening relations across the hemisphere. The level of debate has certainly been high, with many key players engaged.

Despite its enthusiasm, Canada cannot assume a leadership role in the Americas for granted. Certainly – and perhaps understandably – much of the Summit media attention overlooks Canada. The themes of interest are: the Obama phenomenon; the ascendancy of Brazil as a global/regional power; the role of China and India and Spain as powerful external players in the hemisphere; and, the status of Cuba in the Inter-American architecture.

Additionally, the new institutional forums of relevance to the Summit have no formal connection to Canada. This is most apparent in the evolution of the Union of South American Nations. It is also evident in the formation of the ALBA group, a caucus centred on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies (whether of a tight or loose type), including Bolivian President Evo Morales (just off a hunger strike that has also grabbed the spotlight).

However, Canada has some possible routes to re-position itself within this crowded field. In functional terms, there are a variety of issue areas where efforts c could be concentrated. Canada needs to determine what niches are in its best interest and run hard on them, rather than overstretching its finite capabilities. This approach plays into the diffuse nature of the agenda being discussed in Trinidad, ranging from environmental sustainability to energy security to human prosperity. It also plays into Canada’s residual strengths at both the state and non-state levels. It is clear that Canada can’t be everywhere doing everything in the region. It has to pick its spots and stick to the game plan.

In geographic terms Canada has a generalized affinity – but no privileged relationship – with a number of countries in Central and South America. The missing element here is a pivotal strategic initiative vis-a-vis the Caribbean generally and the English-speaking Commonwealth countries in particular. The focal point of this sort of initiative will inevitably revolve around a push on a free trade deal with CARICOM. Still there is a solid logic to expand this initiative to allow it to take advantage of the pillars already in place with regard to the Canadian-Caribbean relationship, encompassing strengths across the spectrum from the extensive movement of people (both on the basis of immigration and tourism), investment, and the strong presence of Canadian banks.

These and many other important debates are being teased out during our discussions here at UWI, and will play out in more practical terms as Summit deliberations begin to gear up.

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8 Responses to Navigating a Crowded Field: Canada and the Summit of the Americas

  1. Dee says:

    You have commented that Canada needs to determine what niches are in its best interest and run hard on them — but what I’m wondering is if Canada’s “special relationship” with the U.S. factors into Canada’s strategy to re-position itself in the Americas? If so, how?

  2. Sieg Holle says:

    Canada needs to determine what niches are in its best interest and run hard on them, rather than overstretching its finite capabilities. I agree with this strategy. Find a mutual self interest and stick with it rather then fish endlessly with limited bait. Good luck in finding that mutual interest

  3. Andrew Cooper says:

    Dee, Your comment deals with the most important question on Canada’s international role. Nothing is going to replace the US as the main game for Canada. But building niches in the Caribbean expands on some additional strengths not weaknesses. As demonstrated by the banking and energy areas, Canada already has built up a formidable presence. So targeting the Caribbean is not a repeat of the Third Option where government tried to lead business. On the Caribbean business (and people to people connections) have led government. The fact that Prime Minister Harper is visiting Jamaica after the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad is a good sign. On top of economic interests there are the diplomatic incentives for expanding the relationship. Haiti, Cuba, drugs are all issues where working with the Caribbean countries and not just the US is valuable. The Obama administration’s opening to Cuba has been well received, however the US is still regarded with some suspicions in the region on the sanctions issue, as well as on immigration. Canada has far less negative baggage on these sorts of issues.

  4. Andrew Cooper says:

    Sieg, You are right that there will be some challenges. But there are some obvious candidates for locating these niches that fit the mandate of the Summit. Green technology is a good illustration of a relatively de-politicized area. But even the tougher issues are worth pursuing. Human security might head the list as the crime rates become an increasingly high profile concern. And as I mentioned there is a general meetings of the minds between Canada and the Caribbean on some geo-political issues including critical engagement with Cuba.

  5. Andy says:

    This is an intelligent and well reasoned and thoughtfull position for Canada to assume a leadership role in the Americas. However,it should take into account the vlatile nature of the american electorate. Just as the electorate repudiated George Bush’s policies and lurched sharply left,the electorate may reject Obama’s massive debt creation and lurch sharply to the right. Given yesterday’s sellout performance by Gov. Sarah Palin in Indiana, Consideration should be given as to whether there should be a two tier plan for the Americas. Whether there is a left wing or a right wing goverment in the U.S.A is crucial to any rational plan for the Americas.

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