America’s northern neighbor could be the next great power
The land is broad and open, riven and pocked with fresh water, studded by trees, and shot through with veins of oil, coal, and precious rocks. Today, Canada is comfortable and safe, a thriving but middling nation with long shores, often overlooked in the shadow of the United States. Internationally, it is seen as benign and mostly harmless. And yet, because of its natural features, Canada could someday soon be one of the world’s great powers.
Much these days is made about the rise of China and the potential of India, all of it set against the backdrop of diminishing American power. “China will rule the world!” some declare.[i] “Is this the Asian century?” others ponder.[ii] But given the realities of geography and climate, demographics and institutions, the truth is probably neither. The future of global power lies to the north. Given the condition of Canada today and the likelihoods of the world tomorrow, should it choose to do so, Canada could rise to become one of the world’s great powers. Canada owns excellent geography, abutting not two but three oceans and bordering on land one (currently) friendly, wealthy country. Canada has well-established and high-functioning institutions along with a rich, educated, and relatively small population, factors that will become even more significant as natural resources diminish worldwide. Perhaps most importantly, as those global resources deplete under the dual pressures of bloating population and soaring temperatures, Canada will have the vast natural resources other nations covet: petroleum, minerals, trees, space, and most critically, fresh water. With those resources, Canada can feed its people, rev its economic engine, and stoke the fires of a war machine to keep it all secure. Forget the Asian century. Unless a great power war or quantum leap in technology rewrites history in unforeseen ways, the future may very well belong to Canada.
Before the end of the 19th century, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan gazed upon the ocean and saw a “great highway” and a “wide common.”[iii] Control over the watery lanes and fields, he realized, enables the rise of great powers. Great Britain rose to dominance with her mastery of the oceans. Insulated, unlike continental France or Holland, from the European continent and its wars, Britain developed its sea power. It built a roaring and revolutionary industrial economy on the trade enabled by maritime supremacy.[iv] Centuries later, the United States—like England separated by water from Eurasian conflict—rose out of its Civil War to do much the same. Americans poured agricultural and industrial products out along the Atlantic and Pacific “highways” to rule the global economy, the wide common, and then the world.[v] Canada could be next. At more than 200,000 kilometers, Canada’s total coastline far exceeds any other country. It runs 10 times longer than that of the United States and offers Canada easy and unblockable access to the ocean highways and commons. Isolated as it is by ice and water and bordered by the formidable but friendly United States, Canada should also remain relatively untangled from wars that might cripple other parts of the world. While Canada’s northern coastline currently hides under the arctic ice for much of the year, shrinking sea ice due to climate change is opening up arctic sea lanes and ports, giving Canada access not only to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but also to the north. Shorter travel distances and cheaper shipping on those northern routes will enable Canada to truly capitalize on its geographic advantages, especially given its dominant position over the Northwest Passage, which skirts through Canada’s northern islands and will link Canada to a thriving northern Europe.
But Geography alone can’t build a great power. Canada will need to cash in on its natural resources, exporting raw materials and industrial products at premium prices to resource-starved countries across the world. Canada has some of the most abundant natural resources on earth, including petroleum (third largest reserves in the world), coal (fifth largest), iron ore (seventh largest), potash for fertilizer (30 percent of world production), and timber (nine percent of the world’s forests).[vi] Extracting those resources and converting them into energy and industrial products won’t slow global climate change, but that won’t matter much for Canada, which is poised to benefit from a warming climate. According to one major study, in economic terms alone, by 2100 climate change will have added to 247 percent to Canada’s already top-10 gross domestic product; only Russia and some of the Nordic countries are poised to do better.[vii] As the Yangtze, Indus, and Mekong run dry and spark potentially catastrophic conflict among nuclear-armed powers in Asia, Canada’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers—making up some 20 percent of total global fresh water—will provide the lifeblood of Canada’s great power rise. While the drying world scorches under higher temperatures that reduce arable land to deserts, Canada’s frozen forests will transform (partly because of ferocious wildfires) into productive agricultural prairie just as its arctic ports open up. As it has throughout history, the pace of uneven economic growth enabled by these changes will have a large and positive long-term impact on Canada’s relative power. Furthermore, contrary to accepted wisdom, Canada’s diminutive population could also multiply its economic advantages. Small enough to not tax an already-stressed natural environment, Canada’s population size and open landscape also allow room to accommodate immigrants who can contribute to Canada’s economy and add their expertise to its intellectual and technological development. As a result, Canada should have much more than an abundance of resources; it will have the bountiful brainpower with which to engineer and manufacture the machines of industry, agriculture, trade, and war.
It will likely need those machines, too, not only to link its ports to the world and power its economic engine. Canada will need to fight off jealous, resource-hungry competitors. Canada currently spends only about 1 percent of its $1.65 trillion GDP on the military. But with practical experience in recent wars and some of the world’s most advanced equipment, observers still rank Canada’s military among the world’s top 20,[viii] despite the government spending much less on guns and much more on butter. The result is a serviceable military and a prosperous state managed by some of the least corrupt institutions on earth.[ix] Those functional institutions set up Canada to take maximum advantage of the future economic growth and allocate its cornucopia appropriately, balancing the needs of the population with the needs of the military. Although Canada’s armed forces don’t currently cause potential rivals to quake, history shows that the rise of great powers—and the outcome of great wars—depends less on current military power, and more on potential productive capacity.[x] Just as Britain outdid France and Germany, and America outpaced Japan and the Soviet Union, Canada will have the resources, the productive capacity, the know-how, and the well-oiled institutions to rapidly transform its military into a potent force. The future distribution of military power will follow the shift in the productive balances. Canada, with greater productive capacity than its rivals because of its geography, natural endowment, and beneficial effects of climate change, should be able to win a great power war and survive the struggle for resources and power.
In a world of constantly shifting relative power, the future is never certain. Wars, catastrophes, and technological leaps reshape the world in unpredictable ways. But if the past is a guide and forecasts about the effects of climate change hold true, Canada will have the geography, resources, institutions, and productive capacity to leapfrog to great power status. It simply must have the chutzpah to do so. Global policymakers should take note: The future belongs to North America.
[i] Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (Penguin Books: New York, New York, 2012).
[ii] Jong-Wha Lee, Is This the Asian Century? (World Scientific Publishing Company: Singapore, 2017).
[iii] A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1890), 25.
[iv] England’s industrial output made up nearly 20 percent of the world total in 1860.
[v] American national income ($37 billion) was three times larger than its nearest competitors, Germany ($12 billion) and England ($11 billion), in 1914.
[vi] Government of Canada, “Natural Resources Canada”, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/home.
[vii] Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang, and Edward Miguel, “Global, non-linear effect of temperature on economic production,” Nature (Oct. 15, 2015).
[viii] Global Firepower, “2019 Global Firepower Rankings,” https://www.globalfirepower.com/
[ix] Transparency International, “2018 Global Corruption Index”, https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018
[x] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House: New York, 1987).