Overseas, parties of the Left today are bursting with new ideas, pushing the limits of political debate to more and more progressive places every day. For Canadian progressives this is certainly exciting and inspiring, but there is one area that progressives cannot simply look abroad for advice: foreign policy.

This policy space may be crucial to Canadian prosperity and security, and will increasingly be a site of conflict for our most pressing threat, climate change, but we are unlikely to hear much about it in this election. Coverage has been minimal. The Munk Debates cancelled an event on foreign policy due to Justin Trudeau’s refusal to participate.

Most of the major parties leave foreign policy to the end of their election platforms, with one or two pages of platitudes dedicated to defence and foreign affairs. The Conservatives, on the other hand, can apparently summarize their foreign policy in four points, with a centrepiece pledge to cut Canada’s foreign aid budget by 25 per cent.

The New Democratic Party’s line of attack on the Liberals has been to take aim at their image as “progressives.” On foreign affairs the NDP certainly have a point when they highlight arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the flouting of previous international carbon emissions targets they lauded, and the very disappointing follow-through around the rhetoric of Canada’s triumphant return to the world stage.

A New Democratic foreign policy would help to make sense of how to exist within an economic system that privileges Canada while working to replace or restructure it.

But what would a truly progressive government do differently? This is important not only electorally but also to help anchor a domestic progressive agenda that aims to tackle transnational issues like the climate crisis, economic inequality, and effective taxation. Foreign policy, however, requires deeper thinking than simply identifying issues and providing solutions. It requires new consideration of Canada’s place in the world and theories on the nature of international power and paths for global progress.

To that end, the NDP should establish a foreign policy commission, which would formally organize policy thinkers to devise a New Democratic foreign policy and advise the party on future policy developments. The first steps of such a commission should be to assess and answer the core questions of a Canadian foreign policy, which are explored in the latter half of this article.

What would a foreign policy commission look like?

Currently, governance bodies within the NDP such as the Women’s Council, Aboriginal Commission, and New Democratic Youth of Canada exist to represent specific core constituencies and articulate policies relevant to each group. A foreign policy commission could be an experiment on new forms of organization and membership engagement within the party. Many European progressive political parties have similar issue-based bodies. By launching a review at the same time, it would convene a forum for members, policy-thinkers, and academics to converse on complex and pressing issues facing Canada.

A political chair and an academic/practitioner chair could be appointed to steer and provide guidance on its organization and lines of inquiry. For more specific policy work on topics, a series of fellows could be appointed, building up the NDP’s intellectual and communication capacity on these topics. A policy forum such as this should spark dialogue and consideration of not just policy positions but the fundamental approach of the NDP at the global level, which will be invaluable when the inevitable trade-offs of governing rise to the surface.

Why would a foreign policy commission help the NDP?

The value of a foreign policy commission would be immense. A flourishing of ideas around a robust global policy agenda would offer the glow of a “government in waiting,” as consistent announcements of new policy content would spark more media coverage. The promotion of deeper thinking on these topics could also build the theoretical coherence necessary to navigate the many political trade-offs involved in global governance such as national sovereignty and global responsibility. Lastly, it would lend itself well towards deepening the democratic structure of the party — something many grassroots members have been calling for — in a way that is meaningful and constructive. This would allow more divisive questions regarding foreign affairs to be engaged with constructively rather than attempting to solve them at convention.

The unraveling of the reformist Greek Syriza government should serve as a potent reminder that ideas on how progressive governments manage their international affairs are deeply important. Without the diplomatic capacity to win concessions from the EU or win allies across the Eurozone, Syriza was forced to break their core election promise and continue administering austerity (though less savagely than before). Similarly, Canada’s success is also highly dependent on our standing in the world as we seek to solve issues requiring global cooperation — the climate emergency, trade, tax avoidance, neoliberalism, and refugee crises.

What would a New Democratic foreign policy look like?

Currently, the Canadian Left lacks a concrete positive vision of a progressive foreign policy that would guide a newly elected government. In some ways what we have is a negative foreign policy, as it is defined consistently by what it is not, making it anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti–corporate globalization. Insightful critiques aside, this gives very little to guide an international policy agenda. Should a left-wing administration try to better live up to tarnished Canadian ideals by offering a more progressive alternative or should the Left try to rethink Canada’s relationship to the world and construct new ideals?

The two seeds of positive, as opposed to reactive, ideas for leftist foreign policy centre on a vague internationalist sentiment. The first stresses extending solidarity past national borders extended to all those who are struggling — this carries with it the imperative of multilateralism and global engagement. The second seeks for Canada to act as a (true) moral power, as opposed to a self-interested “realist” power, and asserts that the promotion of justice should be placed above, or at least made to dovetail with, national interest. Beyond that, there are four lines of inquiry that could structure a New Democratic foreign policy.

1. What is Canada’s relationship to the United States?

The first question of Canadian foreign policy is how to manage our “special” relationship with the United States. Our history is defined by our proximity to this sleeping elephant, and many of our central foreign policy debates feature it.

The Canadian approach on the world stage has been structurally defined by our geography. Our quieter diplomatic method of dialogue and peacekeeping is a contrast to the United States’ approach and results from our distance from direct conflicts. Our “honest broker” strategy is only possible because our deep relationships with the United States and Western Europe allow us influence to build bridges and compromises. Our status as a middle power is confirmed by our allies, who have granted us a place in the club of privileged global powers.

All other global policy directions must stem from the initial position on how Canada relates to the United States. Our military strategy is rooted in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), our economic strategy is grounded in trade with the U.S. (who receives 75 per cent of our exports), and our diplomatic strategy relies on borrowing the influence of our southern neighbour.

A New Democratic government will be forced to choose consensus or dissension, independence or integration. Even constructive pragmatism needs to be theoretically grounded to provide priorities and redlines in structuring this negotiated relationship.

2. What is the Left response to traditional issues of security (namely, terrorism and cybersecurity), defence (NATO, spending levels, defence planning), and conflict (just use of force and military intervention)?

One of the oldest demands of the state is to maintain the security of the realm, and yet the Left’s primary interest in security has almost exclusively been social, allowing the Right uncontested hegemony of this policy area. A New Democratic foreign policy should begin to tackle the security trust deficit by providing answers to issues around security, especially cybersecurity, defence, and the just use of force.

On security, progressives must ground their arguments towards terrorism and cybersecurity beyond a reflexive preference for civil libertarianism and an assumed tranquility through social spending.

Defence is a similarly neglected area for leftist policy thinking, where broad calls for reducing military spending level do not come with a vision for reorienting Canadian military strategy and may instead be more of an echo of the criticism of the U.S. military-industrial complex.

Turning to the just use of military force and the general call for military isolationism, there exists a more concrete demand from leftist thinkers: that Canada should eschew force for peace and stand for anti-militarism in its internationalist engagement. But progressive thinking should also engage with counter-examples such as Canada’s participation in the Second World War, the consequences of France’s socialist prime minister Léon Blum failing to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Cuba’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War and South African Border War, and even NATO involvement in assisting Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State.

Should we ever support complicating the principle of non-intervention and is there ever a situation that demands the military defence of progressive political forces or oppressed people facing human rights abuses? A New Democratic foreign policy should answer these fundamental orienting questions.

3. What is Canada’s grand diplomatic strategy and how does it confront the tensions between national interest, progressive global influence, and commitments to sovereignty and non-interference?

Building the diplomatic aims and conceptual tools of a New Democratic foreign policy should begin with how Canada should act as a moral power. A Canadian Left must answer both normatively and programmatically how to balance the tension of driving global progressive impact, defending national interest, and upholding the autonomy of sovereign states. Canada’s location as a Western developed economy must also be acknowledged, as our immediate interests often diverge from the developing economies.

Similarly, what should be Canada’s relationship to the Global South? Traditionally, Canada has been seen as an honest broker and bridge builder between the established Western powers and the re-establishing decolonial powers. But where should we stand today, especially as we try to avoid paternalism and strive towards more collaborative partnerships rather than outright “development”?

Canada’s relationship to global diplomatic institutions and multilateralism should be explored from a New Democratic perspective. As global policy-making shifts from national parliaments to international summits, the question of democratic sovereignty at a local level and the democratic deficit at the international level lingers. Similarly, retaining Canada’s commitment to multilateralism may constrain more aggressive progressive policy action in favour of consensus-seeking, even with states with questionable records.

The most obvious and pressing requirement of a New Democratic foreign policy is in constructing a new global economic order.

So, how does Canada manage reform efforts at a global level without undermining itself? The demands of building up global progressive power may require us to build alternatives or reform global institutions while simultaneously remaining a privileged member of established networks of power. This political strategy question should be addressed openly and transparently so allies abroad are aware of where a Canadian New Democratic government stands.

The NDP also must conceptualize great power conflict and have an answer to revisionist powers in Russia and China expanding their influence, as this will drive the answer to other foreign policy questions, especially around defence policy.

4. How does the Left transform the international economic order?

The most obvious and pressing requirement of a New Democratic foreign policy is in constructing a new global economic order. Existing arrangements in the form of international economic organizations, trade agreements, corporate supply chains, or merely the outcomes of uneven development must be confronted. As is argued, the nation-state is increasingly limited in the economic sphere and thus the old notion of “socialism in one country” appears more unlikely (if it ever was possible in the first instance). Practical solutions to “globalizing” policy measures on trade, international taxation, financialization, and capital liquidity have to be developed.

While it is uncertain how much policy space there is within a national economy to deviate from economic orthodoxy, Canada is still well positioned to exert influence to redesign the global economy. A New Democratic foreign policy would help to make sense of how to exist within an economic system that privileges Canada while working to replace or restructure it.

These questions could anchor a rethinking of a New Democratic foreign policy, which should work to uncover the principles and policy directions of a progressive foreign policy review. It would be naïve to imagine there will be no trade-offs or difficulties in restructuring the agenda of a foreign ministry under a progressive government. That is why this exercise of formulating a foreign policy agenda with real priorities and guiding principles holds great utility before power. A foreign policy commission would go a long way in providing a forum to make that work happen.