Canada’s Commonwealth edge

New research suggests paying heed to Commonwealth ties would be a shrewd foreign-affairs strategy

I’m not much of a monarchist, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. On the other hand, I am struck lately by new legal and economic research that strongly suggests paying close heed to old Commonwealth ties would be a shrewd foreign-affairs strategy, not a nostalgic distraction, for Canada.

My colleague Aaron Wherry has already drawn our attention to reports on a fascinating new study that charts the shrinking international influence of the American constitution, and argues that the Canadian approach—specifically the 1982 adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—has been so widely emulated that Canada might even be called a “constitutional superpower.”

The study, “The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution,” written by David S. Law, a Washington University in Saint Louis politics professor and Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia law school, and published in the New York University Law Review, cites Canada’s constitutional innovation as a powerful influence in, among other places, South Africa, Israel, News Zealand and Hong Kong.

The appeal of the Charter, the late Pierre Trudeau’s signature prime-ministerial legacy, seems to be that it was purpose-designed to guarantee a suite of rights in countries that follow the British common law tradition. The Charter’s protection of rights is supple—in contrast to the rather rigid U.S. guarantees—always allowing courts to interpret the law to limit rights in ways that are “justified in a free and democratic society.”

It’s striking that the study emphasizes how Canadian constitutional influence is greatest within the old British imperial sphere:

“Within this family of nations defined by historical and linguistic ties, constitutional convergence has been occurring in the direction of the Canadian model it is possible to speak of a ‘new Commonwealth model of constitutionalism’ in more ways than one: this emerging model appears to encompass not only a set of institutional mechanisms for reconciling judicial and legislative power, but also a set of substantive rights guarantees and limitations.”

Moving from constitutional studies to economics, a London-based policy research centre called the Legatum Institute has published a new report by the futurist author Joel Kotkin called “The New World Order,” which highlights the lasting potency of the Anglosphere—even in this age of rising Chinese, India and Brazilian global reach. Kotkin acknowledges, of course, the growing clout of clusters of countries dominated by China and India, but he reminds us that the core English-speaking nations still account for a quarter of the world’s economy, more than any other “cohensive global grouping”:

The USA, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand overall boast a population of roughly 400 million, three quarters of whom live in the United States. They retain close ties with each other both culturally and economically. A look at the foreign direct investment of the United States, for example, shows a powerful tilt towards Anglosphere countries, notably the United Kingdom and Canada.

“Much the same can be said for Australia, an Anglosphere core country whose economic future might seem to lie with the Asian economic superpowers. But Australia’s overseas investment tilts heavily towards Anglophone countries, notably the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, neighbouring New Zealand and the non-core but English dominant republic of Singapore.”

These two studies are well worth keeping in mind as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits China this week. I’m not suggesting taht Canada should turn its back on the rising Asian economic reality, in favour of some comforting fantasy about securing its future through ties to familiar old trading partners that speak the same language. What we should be thinking harder about, however, is leveraging the measurable advantages Canada inherits by dint of its historic positions in the Commonwealth and as the U.S.’s closest neighbour.

For instance, shouldn’t we consider Canada’s complex historic ties with Hong Kong as a more central element in our approach to trade and investment with China? (Years ago a smart Canadian diplomat told me the Hong Kong connection had the potential to be Canada’s best way into the mainland market.) If Canada’s constitutional law is so influential, shouldn’t that be traded on at every opportunity to deepen Canadian middle-power linkages to countries, including Asian countries, that might share fundamental elements of our approach to human rights? (I trust Conservative resentment of the Trudeau taint on this calling card wouldn’t dissuade them from using it.)

It’s a fast-changing world, but in ways that look to be only increasing the value of Canada’s political, cultural and economic patrimony. It’s almost enough to make me consider toasting the Queen.

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