Strange as it may seem today, India and Canada were once bound by shared idealism and a liberal internationalist commitment to a normative global order. That era ended in the mid-1970s, and since then, Canada has found it hard to build a sustained and productive relationship with India. If Ottawa takes a fresh look at Delhi and begins an engagement rooted in realpolitik, the current crisis in bilateral relations might yet serve a purpose. One thing that puzzles the Indian foreign policy elite about the current crisis is Ottawa’s utter unwillingness to take a political look at the character of the Khalistan militants operating on its soil.
External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s frequent reference to Canada’s permissive “vote bank politics”, which have become especially acute under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, explains one part of the problem. There is another source of the Canadian establishment’s inability to hear, let alone understand, India’s concerns about the criminal violence of the Khalistani groups operating on its soil. It is Canada’s entrenched culture of self-righteous posturing.
The American scholar and columnist Walter Russell Mead, who has written perceptively about the US and the Anglo-Saxon engagement with the world, drew attention to this when he moderated Jaishankar’s talk at the Hudson Institute in Washington last week. Mead recalled the comments by Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State during the early years of the Cold War, on Canada’s tendency to moralise. As the US embarked on a muscular foreign policy aimed at taking charge of the world in the aftermath of the Second World War, it had to endure endless lecturing from its northern neighbour. Discussing international affairs with Canada, Acheson said, was “like listening to the stern daughter of the voice of god”. Acheson was, of course, no American redneck. (The myth of “nice Canadian” versus “boisterous American” endures to this day). He was the son of English migrants from Canada and was quite familiar with its culture.
Richard Nixon, struggling to cope with the political turbulence at home and the world at the turn of the 1970s, could not stand the liberal condescension of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Canadian PM). Nixon, in private, called Trudeau a “pompous egghead” and other unprintable expletives.
Canada’s moralpolitik had some utility. It helped define a Canadian identity – after all, it is not easy to live in the shadow of the US. It is also quite easy to be “principled” when you are not responsible for anything, let alone running the world. With the luxury of a strong military alliance and expansive economic relationship with the US, Canada could often grandstand on global issues and differentiate itself from Washington. Ottawa, for example, established full diplomatic relations with China in 1970, nearly a decade before the US did. Ottawa also reached out to Cuba with some fanfare in 1976 when Pierre Trudeau visited Havana and met Fidel Castro. Although the trip seemingly defined Canada’s independent foreign policy, it was facilitated by the US decision in 1976 to loosen the embargo on Cuba.
The episode, however, is emblematic of an enduring narrative – the US is a “mischief-maker” and Canada is the “helpful fixer”. If the US relies on blunt instruments of military power, Canada would focus on diplomacy and engagement. The US, with its burden of “securing the world from communism and other evils”, had to dirty its hands. Seizing the high moral ground allowed Ottawa to present itself as the “White Knight” of North America.
Independent India, it turned out, loved Canada’s moralpolitik because Delhi was in the same mode in the 1950s and 1960s. Delhi and Ottawa were in the same corner preaching the virtues of a normative global order when the great powers were spoiling for a war that could turn nuclear. If the US was taking care of Canadian security interests in the Cold War era, Jawaharlal Nehru believed Delhi faced no threats to its security. That provided a basis for an interesting convergence on global issues in the early Cold War from the Korean War to the Suez Crisis. Nehru and his Canadian counterparts — especially Louis Saint Laurent and Lester Pearson — would call for restraint in global affairs and occasionally help defuse conflicts.
Although Canada was a founding member of NATO and India the leader of the Non-aligned Movement, the two sides found it beneficial to work together. For India, an empathetic Canada was a valuable partner when its relations with the West were under growing strain. Canada could carve out a global niche by acting as a bridge between India and the US and between the West and the developing world. Beyond this, Ottawa’s liberal internationalism saw Canada become a major partner for India. Under the Colombo Plan, Canada offered significant developmental assistance to India. It also empathised with newly independent India’s ambition to develop advanced technology, especially nuclear.
Canada helped India build a research nuclear reactor, CIRUS, that would hone India’s skills to produce plutonium that could be used in making nuclear weapons. Canada also joined hands with India to design and develop a heavy-water natural uranium power reactor (CANDU) that would form the foundation for India’s programme for nuclear electric power generation. If nuclear technology outlined the expansive horizons for the India-Canada relationship in a troubled world, it also became the focus of the breakdown in bilateral relations. Canada reacted with ferocious anger to India’s first nuclear test in 1974. India’s moralpolitik claiming it a “peaceful nuclear explosion” did not calm Ottawa’s claim that Delhi betrayed Canada’s support for civilian development of atomic energy. Canada was among the last nations to come to terms with the US effort to end India’s disputes with the global nuclear order during 2005-08.
Even as the nuclear contentions peaked and receded, Canada’s minority politics at home began to cast a shadow over bilateral relations since the 1980s. The effort to manage this negative dynamic showed some promise when the conservative Stephen Harper was in power from 2006-15, but began to break down when liberals under Justin Trudeau took charge. In dressing up his domestic political calculus on cultivating Khalistani extremists in the rhetoric about freedom of speech and the rule of law, Trudeau was simply falling back on the time-tested liberal Canadian moralpolitik. The costs of that strategy for Canada’s relations with India – whether Trudeau underestimated them or did not care – are now at hand.
But Canada’s India relationship, which holds great economic and strategic potential, is not beyond repair. In the last few days, India has been pointing the way out. Delhi has clarified that the assassination of terrorists abroad is not India’s policy and will cooperate with Ottawa based on credible intelligence-sharing. India, in turn, expects Canada to stop empowering the Khalistani extremists, end the current political impunity they enjoy, and crack down on their violent activities.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express