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Loyalty or autonomy? Canadian and French divergent strategic behaviors in time of power transition

Entre fidélité et autonomie : les divergences stratégiques du Canada et de la France
Pierre Colautti-Féré et Jacob Fortier
p. 165-187


Face au déclin de la puissance américaine et à l’affirmation croissante de la Chine et de la Russie, les principaux alliés de Washington doivent faire des choix stratégiques en matière de politique étrangère et de défense. Or, les alliés américains semblent faire des choix stratégiques divergents afin de faire face à la transition de puissance. Représentatifs de ces différences stratégiques, la France et le Canada n’adoptent pas les mêmes comportements stratégiques pour s’adapter aux changements ayant cours dans le système international. Le fait que des pays membres de l’OTAN ayant des intérêts relativement similaires adaptent leurs politiques étrangères et de défense de manière aussi diverse révèle, à notre avis, des différences plus profondes sur la façon dont ces pays perçoivent les menaces à l’ordre international ; la façon dont ils conçoivent la transition de puissance en cours ; et la capacité relative de chaque État à changer sa politique étrangère. Dans cet article principalement descriptif, nous caractérisons ainsi les comportements stratégiques de la France et du Canada en période de transition de puissance à l’aune de ces trois axes de divergence.

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We acknowledge with thanks the editors of this special issue, Jean-Christophe Boucher and Laurence Cros, for their constructive comments and suggestions, and the two anonymous reviewers. We are also grateful for the insights provided by Stéfanie von Hlatky, Justin Massie, Jonathan Paquin, Laurent Borzillo, Maxandre Fortier, and all participants at the conference ‘La politique de défense du Canada et de la France dans un monde désordonné’, which took place in Paris in November 2021. Jacob Fortier would also like to thank the National Defence MINDS program for its financial support. Final responsibility for the article remains with us.

1The current international system is undergoing important transformations. At the core of these changes lies the United States’ relative decline in power and China’s rise as a credible peer competitor, which has given way to a return of multipolarity and renewed great power competition (ALLISON 2017; LAYNE 2018). Indeed, China and Russia have all shown increasing bellicosity towards U.S. hegemony and have repeatedly challenged the rules of the current liberal international order (LIO). China, for instance, has taken a much more confrontational posture vis-à-vis the American presence in Southeast Asia and is asserting its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas through manifestations of military force (MORTON 2016). Similarly, Russia has engaged in a hybrid war in Ukraine and continually threatens the Baltic states with military deployments near their borders (LANOSZKA 2016), in addition to interfering in the electoral process of several liberal democracies (ZIEGLER 2018).

2Alongside the threats posed by China and Russia, the election of the Trump administration in 2016 further delegitimized the institutions, alliances, and norms at the heart of the liberal order (STOKES 2018). Indeed, the ‘America First’ nationalist and protectionist doctrine Washington endorsed as an official foreign policy has shown that the United States is no longer willing to shoulder alone the entire burden of maintaining liberal international order (IKENBERRY 2018). In addition, Washington has harshly criticized some of its NATO partners for failing to meet their own burden-sharing goals for the alliance’s common defense. As a result, concerns about the U.S. abandonment – that is, the fear that Washington will not provide support in those contingencies where support is expected (CHA 2000) – have become more salient. The waning of America’s hegemonic power, therefore, poses a significant strategic challenge to U.S. allies who helped establish the liberal order and benefited greatly from it (MASSIE and PAQUIN 2019). Indeed, these allied countries face new threats from the new assertiveness of China and Russia but are unsure of the role the United States will play in ensuring their security (LAYNE 2009; COOLEY and NEXON 2020).

3The transformation of the strategic and security environment of U.S. allies is prompting them to make strategic choices with respect to their foreign and defense policies (MASSIE and PAQUIN 2019). Historically, U.S. allies have often chosen different paths to ensure their security and maintain their position in the international order. The current context of transformation of the international system exacerbates these strategic divergences, resulting in very different strategic behaviors among the United States’ allies. Representative of these strategic divergences, France and Canada do not implement the same foreign policy strategies to deal with the rise of new powers and the relative decline of the United States. We recognize that the two countries do not perceive their role in the international order in the same way and have distinct capacities to implement their foreign and defense policies. However, they are among the United States’ greatest strategic allies and share common values, in addition to influencing each other within a ‘Francosphere’ (MASSIE 2013). According to Justin Massie, France is indeed fundamental to the Canadian strategic culture and specifically to the decision-making process on the use of armed forces (MASSIE 2008). Moreover, Paquin and Beauregard (2013) point out that Canada has, in the past, often aligned its foreign policy with that of France. Yet, the two countries now seem to be adapting their foreign and defense policies in very divergent ways with respect to the changes taking place in the international system.

4On the one hand, Canada is firmly reaffirming its loyalty to Washington and NATO, which together represent the main pillars of its defence. Ottawa also seems convinced of the leading role that the United States must play on the international stage in order to preserve the liberal order. Thus, recent changes in the strategic environment do not appear to radically disrupt Canadian foreign and defence policy. On the other hand, France has made numerous declarations concerning the strategic autonomy of Europe and the need to prepare for an abandonment of the United States, without, however, completely reconsidering its security alliances with Washington. Unlike Ottawa, Paris seems in a position to reorient its foreign policy, in particular through the diversification of its security partners.

5What characterizes the strategic differences between Canada and France in dealing with changes in the international system? What perceptions lie behind such opposing strategic behaviors? That NATO member countries with relatively similar interests adapt their foreign and defense policies in such diverse ways reveals, in our view, deeper differences on how these countries perceive threats to the international order; how they conceive the ongoing power transition; and each state’s relative capability to change its foreign policy. In this mainly descriptive paper, we therefore intend to characterize both allies’ behaviors in time of power transition relatively to these three axes of divergence. Drawing on official statements, white papers and secondary sources, we identify major differences in how both states conceive their strategic environment and seem capable to change their foreign policy. Our purpose is less to identify the reason why Canada and France behave in this way, than to highlight significant differences between two NATO allies’ strategic responses to the current transition of power in the international system.

6This paper is organized as follows. In the first part, we detail the three axes of divergence that we use to illustrate the distance between the strategic behaviors of France and Canada. The following section examines in more detail their strategic behaviors in relation to the axes of divergence. In a comparative design, we identify elements of the two countries’ official discourse to characterize their respective perceptions of security threats, their anticipation of the power transition, and their willingness and capacity to change their foreign policy. We finally discuss the major strategic differences between France and Canada in conclusion.

Identifying strategic divergences

7As mentioned above, our objective in this article is to highlight essential divergences between the strategic behaviors of France and Canada in dealing with the transformation of the international system. To do that, we rely on works which argue that the strategic behavior secondary states adopt in time of power transition is often contingent on how they perceive threats to their security and evaluate their capacity to change their foreign policy and benefit from changes in the international system. This reading is consistent with neorealist theory. Indeed, major neorealist works have focused on threat perception to explain states’ foreign policy (WALT 1987) and underlined how states are rational actors who make choices based on their strategic environment assessment (CHRISTENSEN and SNYDER 1990). In order to identify and characterize the differences between Canada and France strategic behaviors, it is, therefore, necessary to reflect on (1) how the two countries perceive the threats to their security, (2) how they anticipate the transition of power, and (3) how they are able and eager to reorganize their foreign and defense policy to adapt to the new challenges they face.

Threat perception

8Threat perception is often central in models used to explain how states react to changes in the international distribution of power. Indeed, an abundant literature claims that states oppose rising powers that may pose a threat to their security (balancing), ally themselves to the rising hegemon (bandwagoning), or adopt an ambiguous strategic positioning, often called hedging (LOBELL et al. 2015; CIORCIARI and HAACKE 2019). According to neorealist theorists, states respond to the dominant power (WALTZ 1979) or the threatening state (WALT 1987) by balancing against it or by bandwagoning with it. Fearing that the assertion of a revisionist hegemon like China would affect the balance of power in the international system and thus have “unwanted consequences” for their security, states tend to counterbalance the emerging power, either through internal or external efforts to maintain the status quo (WALTZ 1979, 118). Facing a particularly threatening power, states sometimes calculate “that [their] security is integrally intertwined with the security of [their] alliance partners” and, thus, seek to chain gang with their allies, especially for front-line states like Poland or Japan whose borders run along those of a revisionist power (CHRISTENSEN and SNYDER 1990, 140).

9We, therefore, consider that threat perception is central to the strategic positioning of a state and that it is necessary to identify it in order to characterize the strategic differences between France and Canada. We measure threat perception by analyzing official documents, such as white papers and public remarks or interviews made by state officials (President, Prime Minister, Ministers, Directors of national agency). Specifically, we seek to identify references to security threats related to the transformation of the international system in the public communications of both countries. This is, of course, an important methodological limitation since it is not guaranteed that actual threat perceptions are entirely consistent with those publicly communicated by state officials. For this reason, we also rely on secondary literature, which identifies the level of threat perceived by Canada and France with respect to the assertiveness of Russia and China.

Perception of the transition of power

10How states judge and anticipate changes in the distribution of power in the international system is also often discussed in the literature on strategic state behavior. Indeed, the decision of states to balance, rally, or protect themselves against powers that threaten their security depends on the changes they foresee in the international system. For example, by joining the rising power, states believe the side they support will triumph over the declining hegemon, which, in turn, will profit them as the new world order is constituted and its benefits are redistributed (SCHWELLER 1994). This is one of the hypotheses put forward to explain the behavior of the Philippines vis-à-vis China and the United States. During a trip to Beijing, President Rodrigo Duterte announced his desire to separate from the United States on the military, social and economic levels (IDE 2016). Ultimately, U.S. allies may balance against China or Russia to maintain the liberal world order and protect their interests, or conversely, bandwagon with the powerful revisionist states to benefit from the reconstruction of the international system. The strategic behavior of France and Canada must therefore be interpreted in light of their respective perceptions of the opportunities that may arise from the transition of power.

11As with threat perception, we rely primarily on the public statements of Canadian and French officials to reveal how the two states anticipate the transition of power. We argue that their strategic differences have much to do with how the two states view the transition of power in the current international system and the benefits they might derive from it. We rely on the model of Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder, who assert that the perception of system polarity and offense-defense balance affects the behavior of states (CHRISTENSEN and SNYDER 1990, 139).

Strategic flexibility

12Our final point of divergence concerns the strategic flexibility of states. We consider strategic flexibility as the ability to achieve the desired foreign policy change to adapt to the deterioration of the strategic environment. We acknowledge expressly two dimensions of flexibility that influence the maneuverability of a state. The first one describes the internal constraints, that is, the resources available and the institutional, political, and technological constraints permitting the application of those resources.

13For example, suppose secondary states decide to opt for strategic autonomy in order to cope with changes in the international system. They must mobilize substantial internal resources to access the means, capabilities, and capacities necessary to implement that autonomy (ZANDEE et al. 2020). However, states may lack the financial resources and technological and industrial expertise to support this foreign and defense policy shift. They have thus little choice but to rely on alternative partners (BARNETT and LEVY 1991, 375-76).

14In addition to internal strategic flexibility, we recognize an external dimension that includes credible alternative security partners. It is not so much a question of which allies should be the best, but rather who can be available and helpful in reorienting one’s foreign and defense policies to address systemic changes (ROTHSTEIN 1968, 59-64). A state that takes advantage of alternative allies to change its strategic alignment is a good representation of successful external strategic flexibility.

15We, therefore, assess in this paper the flexibility of Canada and France to secure their interests and cope with the global power transition. We consider strategic flexibility as the main feature in explaining the behavior of states in the face of both American abandonment and the international transition of power. A lack of flexibility - no security alternative - requires states to maintain their alignment with Washington or to invest internally massively. On the contrary, broad strategic flexibility and new credible partners available make it easier for states to change their foreign policy. Ultimately, while the strategic behavior of states derives from their perception of the security threat and their anticipation of the rebalancing of power in the system, their strategic room for maneuver constrains them in the behavior they can actually adopt.

16In sum, our descriptive analysis in a comparative format allows us to identify major divergences between the strategic behaviors of two important U.S. allies in a period of power transition. The next section focuses on comparing the behavior of the two states along the three axes of divergence.

Canada: still searching for its place in a changing world

17Although Canada’s strategic culture has evolved significantly over the past century, specific characteristics remain. First, the country sees itself as a middle power that has always sought to improve its international position by mediating within the Atlantic Alliance and promoting international peace (BLOOMFIELD AND NOSSAL 2007; WOHLFORTH ET AL. 2018). Second, Canada’s strategic culture is characterized by its security dependence on the United States and its bicultural Atlanticism, i.e. at the junction of the Anglo-Saxon world (U.S.A and UK) and France (MASSIE 2013, 246). Indeed, Canada often defines itself as the United States’ staunchest ally. The election of Donald Trump and the implementation of important protectionist policies as well as the president’s harsh criticism of liberal institutions, have, however, weakened this ‘privileged relationship’. Still, the tenacity shown by Ottawa throughout Trump’s presidency to maintain good relations with the White House revealed how crucial the relationship with Washington is for Canada (BLANK and GATTINGER 2018). At the same time, Canada continues to reiterate its commitment to the liberal international order, from which it has benefited greatly, and to stress the importance of the security alliances of which it is a member. Thus, the decline of American hegemony and the strategic consequences it engenders for the international system do not seem to force Canada towards a drastic realignment of its foreign and defence policy. Specifically, Canada continues to demonstrate its loyalty to the United States and its NATO partners (NATIONAL DEFENCE 2021). For instance, 540 members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) serve on Operation Reassurance as part of a NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia and participate in NATO’s deterrence measures in Eastern Europe against Russia. The CAF also assumed command of NATO Mission in Iraq between November 2018 to November 2020, which aim is to help strengthen Iraqi security and military forces to prevent the return of terrorism and assure regional stability (NATIONAL DEFENCE 2020).

18Nevertheless, Ottawa does not seem particularly prepared for great powers’ competition. Additionally, its investment in defence remains modest (1.4% of GDP in 2020) and does not have a strategy for Asia. In other words, Canada does not balance internally against China. Moreover, Canada’s ambitions to contribute to peace and security do not meet its limited capabilities. Thus, Canadian leaders do not seem to know what strategy to adopt; Canada’s foreign and defence strategy remains largely ambiguous (RODMAN 2020). Jocelyn Coulon, the former advisor to Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion, argues that Canada should prioritize its relation with Africa (COULON 2017) while former diplomat Hugh Stephens urges Canada to diversify its relations in the Indo-Pacific region in order to avoid dependence on the United States and China (STEPHENS 2020). Ultimately, Canada is still searching for its place in a changing world.

Threat perception

19Since the invasion of Crimea, Canada has toughened its tone vis-à-vis Russia, and now refers to its military adventurism as a direct strategic threat to the liberal and democratic world (GLOBAL AFFAIRS CANADA 2017). As for China, Canada remains more nuanced, but the tragic saga of Huawei and the two Michaels’ detention reflected the increasingly strained relations between the two countries. In its political statements, Canada is often reluctant to refer directly to China as a strategic threat and rather laconically condemns unilateral actions and threats to peace without specifying their origin (DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE 2017, 50; 2020). The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director, David Vigneault, however, recently accused China of using all elements of state power to carry out activities that pose a direct threat to Canada’s national security and sovereignty (CSIS 2021). Canada’s then top general, Jonathan Vance, highlighted the risks associated with Chinese coercive diplomacy and cyber attacks (VANCE 2020). Canada has also followed its allies in condemning Beijing’s repressive actions in Hong Kong (GLOBAL AFFAIRS CANADA 2021), and participated in some maneuvers in the South China Sea where a Canadian Warship recently transited despite diplomatic tensions with Beijing (THE CANADIAN PRESS 2021).

20Historically, Canada has avoided public debate about the strategic threat that China may pose to Canada (MANICOM 2012), and despite recent tensions, China’s rise to power is still often identified as an economic opportunity rather than a strategic issue. In sum, Canada is gradually becoming aware of the possible threats posed by China’s ascent, but Ottawa lags behind other allies, such as Australia, which has been at the forefront of the growing confrontation between the ‘West’ and Beijing (KÖLLNER 2021). Regarding Russia, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians report identifies it with China as the primary culprits of espionage and foreign interference (NSICOP 2021, 21). Canada is thus more explicit regarding the Russian threat, which was already identified in the 2017 Defence Policy as a challenger of the international security environment (DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE 2017, 50). To face these threats and meet its alliance commitments, Trudeau’s governments planned to modernize Canadian military equipment (IISS 2021, 43-44). Canada intended to replace its CF-18 aircraft but delayed its final decision in 2022 whereas the Army would receive a new Armoured Combat Support Vehicle. The Defence Ministry also planned to improve its surveillance capabilities in the Arctic and provide the Navy and the Coast Guard with 15 new vessels, including destroyers, frigates, and icebreakers. However, Canadian military expenditure remains limited and does not meet the NATO standard of 2% of GDP (NATO 2021).

Perception of the power transition

21In an address to Parliament on June 6, 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland indicated that Canada supports the integration of emerging Asian powers into the global system in a way that is additive and which allows for the maintenance of the best aspects of the previous international order (GLOBAL AFFAIRS CANADA 2017). Canada thus recognizes that the global balance of power is evolving, but remains strongly committed to the rules-based international order that promotes both its political and economic interests (DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE 2017, 50). Canadian references to the current transition of power therefore generally emphasize the multipolar aspect of the international system rather than the competition between the great powers and the revisionist attitude of China and Russia. Ottawa also insists, in its political statements, on the preservation of liberal institutions and the maintenance of multilateralism which are essential to Canadian strategic interests and which are expected to play a promising role in ensuring a pacific global transition of power (PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA 2019a; 2019b; SCHERER 2021)

22Prime Minister Trudeau’s statement to President Biden on American leadership, which, according to him, has been “sorely missed over the past years” (ASSOCIATED PRESS 2021), perfectly illustrates Canada’s preference for maintaining U.S. preponderance in international affairs. The current distribution of power in the international system still favors the United States, which profits Canada, but securing a future beneficial to Canadian strategic interests also requires a sustained commitment by Washington to major security alliances and liberal institutions.

Strategic flexibility

  • 2 On this issue, see NOSSAL 2020.
  • 3 On Canadian attitude toward defence issues, see BOUCHER 2020

23Canada’s geographic proximity to the United States means that its powerful neighbor primarily provides its external security2. Moreover, the absence of direct security threats in recent decades has made Canadian defence policy reluctant to consider anything other than the integration of its defence with that of North America. As a result, there is a strong incentive in Canada to pass the buck to the United States in order to face the emerging threats related to the transition of power in the international order and the return of great power politics. Canada’s room for maneuver to modify its foreign and defence policy in order to cope with the relative decline of American hegemony is indeed quite limited. Canada’s current strategy is consistent with its previous behaviors: to achieve security at home and conduct limited but valued engagement abroad that does not endanger its economy (LEUPRECHT and SOKOLSKY 2015). In addition, it would be more difficult for the Canadian government to justify massive defence investments when the country does not face direct threats to its sovereignty and when Canada can rely on the United States to provide much of North America’s security3. Economic and health crises are expected to be a priority by Canadian governments in the future. The Canadian easy riding or buck-passing strategy has pleased governments so far, and is therefore likely to remain (RODMAN 2020).

The reluctant ally: France’s greatness and the European autonomy

24Unlike Canada, French leaders are particularly enthusiastic about promoting French foreign policy orientations and therefore frequently appear in the media to defend the government’s choices on these issues. Moreover, France’s role in world politics is the subject of significant public debate, in contrast to Canada, where foreign policy issues are little discussed in the public sphere. Indeed, the French Republic, whose memories of a glorious past where the country had a preponderant role in international affairs are often at the heart of foreign policy discourse, positions itself much more explicitly with regard to the power transition and current threats to the international order.

25Since its election in May 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has striven to ensure that Europe develops technological, industrial, financial, and military capabilities to decide on its own without being dependent on China, Russia, or the United States. In other words, France aims to strengthen European strategic autonomy. In the run-up to the last G7 and NATO summits, the French president evoked that two of his main objectives were to have European autonomy recognized by his partners and “to build a new partnership with the United States” (ÉLYSÉE 2021). Macron’s position for greater autonomy is consistent with a conception widely shared by French elites on the particular role that the country must play in world affairs. Regularly identified by the United States as an unruly ally within NATO, France has often not hesitated to challenge the strategy of its American ally and to stand apart. The most notable examples are France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1966 and Jacques Chirac’s firm opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003.

26The desire for strategic independence from the great powers is often expressed through a Gaullist nostalgia for the greatness of France. It is thus a recurrent conception that can be explained by two major beliefs shared by many French political elites. On the one hand, French policymakers consider what Alice Pannier and Olivier Schmitt qualify as “France’s missionary self-understanding” (2019, 899). French exceptionalism is thus used to justify an ambitious foreign policy and the defense of universal values such as the protection of human rights (RIEKER 2017). On the other hand, French leaders often think that their country deserves better status on the world stage, given its permanent position on the United Nations Security Council, its nuclear capabilities and its leading role in the economic and technological field. This idea is sustained by the memory of periods when France played a significant role as a great power in the world. Therefore, for many French policymakers, both beliefs justify France’s approach to strategic autonomy to restore the country's declining great power status. However, the complexity of contemporary threats and France’s limited capabilities to address them prevent it from acting unilaterally, which ultimately justifies the country’s integrated involvement in coalitions (PANNIER and SCHMITT 2019). In short, France’s current position is to use the power transition to establish a fourth way between the United States, China, and Russia. Consequently, the French president pledged at multiple occasions to restore the greatness of France through European strategic autonomy (GHECIU 2020).

Threat perception

  • 4 More than 30 000 military personnel are deployed, including near 22 000 abroad (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉE (...)

27Like most of its NATO allies, including Canada, France faces various security threats. Indeed, the French Strategic Review released in 2017 identified several threats such as Islamist terrorism (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2017, 37), proliferation (38-41), cyberattacks (35), grey zone conflict and hybrid strategy (47), or military competition between great powers (41). Due to the numerous Islamist attacks on its territory during the 2010s, France played a leading military role in order to disintegrate transnational Islamist networks. France nevertheless depends on partners to cope with the broader nature the threats it faces and the proliferation of theaters of operations4.

28Regarding China and Russia, French authorities expressed great concerns because “not only [these countries] have capabilities that are often superior in number to those of Europe, but they are [also] engaged in a policy of capability modernization and technological catch-up” (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2017, 41). These considerations have prompted the French president to implement a two-sided diplomatic policy combining appeasement and collaboration with firmness when the latter is necessary (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2017; ÉLYSÉE 2020). Moreover, the deterioration of the strategic context with the growing assertion of revisionist powers justified a strategic update (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2021a), as well as an increase in the defence budget and a modernization of capabilities (JOURNAL OFFICIEL 2018). Accordingly, the Programme Budget Law foresaw that France would reach 2% of GDP devoted to defence by 2025 (finally reached in 2020) and an investment of nearly 200€ billion between 2019 and 2023. The Ministry of Armed Forces also planned to increase the number of troops since French authorities recognized officially in the Strategic review that the French armed forces are under high pressure (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2017, 28). Finally, the renewal of military capabilities will enable France to face the return of open warfare, hybrid and cyber threats (JOURNAL OFFICIEL 2018, 28, 45-52; see also ÉLYSÉE 2020). France’s willingness to demonstrate its military force is also seen as a means to appear as a great power (GHECIU 2020, 33).

Perception of the power transition

29In an address to the French Military Academy (École de guerre) on February 7, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron confessed that “A new hierarchy of powers is materializing, at the cost of a global strategic competition, uninhibited, carrying risks of incidents and uncontrolled military escalation for the future” (ÉLYSÉE 2020). Macron’s position can be summed up in three main postulates. First, China’s assertiveness is “the most striking phenomenon of the beginning of the century” (MINISTÈRE DE L’EUROPE ET DES AFFAIRES ÉTRANGÈRES 2018, 3). Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China offers an alternative model to the liberal order, which could potentially result in a restructuring of the institutions within which global diplomacy takes place. Moreover, the relationship between China and the United States will be decisive for international stability and security, as the two great powers could stumble into military confrontation (MINISTÈRE DE L’EUROPE ET DES AFFAIRES ÉTRANGÈRES 2018, 3; ÉLYSÉE 2019). The second element in Macron’s statement concerns the threat posed by Russia to the unity of Europe and NATO. Nevertheless, French leaders do not conceive European security without a relationship of trust with Russia (ÉLYSÉE 2020; LE DRIAN 2020).

30Finally, Paris often points to U.S. unilateralism, which undermines liberal values of respect for multilateralism, international cooperation, and international law. In addition, the election of Donald Trump reinforced the idea that the United States can be a threat to the liberal order, thus forcing Europeans to take their responsibilities to protect the standards that make up this international order and to guarantee the security of Europe themselves (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2021a, 41). In times of strategic competition, U.S. and European interests may not always be aligned. In an interview with the media Le Grand Continent, Macron added that “it is therefore not tenable that [France and Europe’s] international policy should be dependent” on the United States (MACRON et al. 2020). Ultimately, Russia remains the main threat to Europe whereas China seems to be the major (systemic) challenge. In short, the unilateralism and anti-liberal populism of the Trump administration have revealed the fragility of the liberal international order, which prompted French President Macron to position himself as chief defender of liberal values (GHECIU 2020, 35-36) by setting up a fourth path between the great powers.

Strategic flexibility

31Although France remains committed to its alliance with the United States, French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued in an address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that France “need[s] to find support everywhere [it] can” (PARLY 2017). The France-United States relationship still prevails in specific areas, especially in the fight against terrorism and intelligence sharing. The United States thus remains a significant ally to France. However, French leaders worry about U.S. commitment to European security and fear U.S. abandonment (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2019). Although French Presidents regularly attempted to persuade the United States to remain engaged in Europe and French-led operations in the Sahel (PANNIER and SCHMITT 2019), Paris has prepared for the eventuality of a U.S. withdrawal as suggested by the Trump presidency.

32As a result, France has reinvested both in its diplomacy and its armed forces, as explained above. France thus has much more internal flexibility than Canada. On the other hand, strategic flexibility depends primarily on the availability of (external) partners. It seems that France can count on credible and valid alternatives, thanks in particular to the growing awareness of its European partners. Paris has fostered collaboration within small groups of states, especially with crucial members of the European Union, such as Germany, Italy, and Spain. Regarding industrial cooperation, France, Germany, and Spain will collaborate in the Future Combat Air System (FCA) which consists to build a sixth-generation fighter. The Germans and the French also collaborated in the Main Ground Combat System, a new tank to replace the French Leclerc and the German Leopard. At the same time, France started alone the construction of a new aircraft carrier to replace the Charles de Gaulle. In addition, European Union security and defense cooperation is also making headway. While noteworthy developments have been observed on critical initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or the European Defence Fund (EDF), new initiatives, such as the Strategic Compass, were also initiated (FIOTT and ZEISS 2021, 161-176).

33However, the British exit from the European Union is changing France’s strategic environment. Although Britain remains a powerful ally, Brexit illustrates a broader challenge for France: attracting and convincing its partners of the legitimacy of its strategy of autonomy from the United States. Therefore, if France has difficulty engaging its partners beyond rhetoric, Paris can still act in some respect unilaterally, or even in a disruptive way, in order to inspire action (MAJOR 2021). French leaders are thus trying to change the mentality of European allies. “It is a matter of conceiving the terms of European sovereignty and strategic autonomy” to avoid becoming the vassal of great power “and no longer have a say” as President Macron explained (MACRON et al. 2020).


34Despite the election of Joe Biden and the expected return of American leadership on the international scene, doubts persist about the ability and willingness of the United States to return to its past level of engagement in world affairs. Moreover, the relative decline of American power at the expense of China is causing Washington to shift its attention from certain regions of the world to Asia. In fact, the return to great powers competition is no longer hypothetical, but very real, which is not without posing security threats to France and Canada. Indeed, both countries must adapt to the increasingly assertive presence of revisionist powers in the international system that threaten the rules-based international order from which Canada and France have greatly benefited.

Table I. Synoptic comparison of the strategic divergences between Canada and France

Axes of divergence



Threat perception

Explicit on Russia.
Nuanced on China, which is more or less perceived as an (economic) opportunity.

Explicit on both Russia and China.

Perception of the power transition

Perception is slowly changing, but little emphasis is generally placed on the evolution of power distribution in the international system.

The power transition is a challenge, but also an opportunity.

Strategic flexibility

No room for maneuver.
No willingness to change its foreign policy.

Alternatives exist, but attracting them over the long term is a significant challenge.
Willingness to diversify its strategic alignment.

35However, the security threats implied by such a rebalancing of global power and an upcoming revision of the international order are not exactly the same for the two countries, nor are they effectively perceived in the same way in Ottawa and Paris. Canada, until very recently, disregarded China’s rise to power and viewed it primarily from an economic opportunity perspective. Likewise, while the threats that China and Russia can pose to Canadian security and strategic interests are becoming clearer, the country remains laconic in its official statements regarding the threats emerging from a changing international order. In France, officials are much more explicit in their condemnations of aggressive Russian and Chinese behavior, as well as the more or less long-term threats posed by the return of rivalries between great powers. Paris has gone so far as to adapt its defence budget accordingly and invest in a diversification of its military capabilities, which suggests a perception of the threat much more acute than Canada.

36How both countries judge the current global power transition is even more representative of their strategic divergences. In its policy statements, Canada has emphasized that the integration of emerging Asian powers into the global system should occur in a way that is additive and which allows for the maintenance of the best aspects of the previous international order. The rebalancing of power in the international order, which is intrinsic to the transition of power, is often sidestepped in official Canadian statements, which focus instead on protecting multilateralism and international institutions. France, for its part, clearly approaches the competition between great powers linked to the transition of power in the international order and sees it as an opportunity to reposition Europe and ensure its strategic autonomy.

37The ability and willingness of the two U.S. allies to change their foreign and defense policies to address the transition of power and threats to the liberal international order are very different, which explains the divergent approaches taken by the two countries. Canada’s unique geographic position and the virtual absence of direct threats to its sovereignty mean that the country relies heavily on Washington for its security. It could hardly be otherwise since Canada’s strategic destiny is in some ways tied to that of its powerful neighbor. For France, the room for maneuver for a transformation of its foreign policy is more complex and therefore allows Paris to consider a change of course. Indeed, Paris envisions a future in which Europe would have much greater strategic autonomy and would therefore be less dependent on the United States to ensure its security.

38Despite divergent strategic attitudes, both countries have remained deeply committed to their shared history with the United States and the defense of liberal values. Both states, therefore, have little interest in abandoning the liberal international order that has favoured their interests, but as demonstrated above, they do have an interest in considering alternative security paths to adapt to global upheaval.

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2 On this issue, see NOSSAL 2020.

3 On Canadian attitude toward defence issues, see BOUCHER 2020

4 More than 30 000 military personnel are deployed, including near 22 000 abroad (MINISTÈRE DES ARMÉES 2021b and IISS 2021).

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Pierre Colautti-Féré et Jacob Fortier, « Loyalty or autonomy? Canadian and French divergent strategic behaviors in time of power transition »Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies, 91 | 2021, 165-187.

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Pierre Colautti-Féré et Jacob Fortier, « Loyalty or autonomy? Canadian and French divergent strategic behaviors in time of power transition »Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies [En ligne], 91 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2021, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierre Colautti-Féré

Pierre Colautti-Féré is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Laval University in Quebec City. He is also an emerging scholar at the Network for Strategic Analysis (NAS). Pierre holds a master’s degree in international studies from l’École d’études internationales at Laval University. His research focuses primarily on the foreign policy and defense strategies of US allies in times of great power rivalry and transformation of the international order.

Jacob Fortier

Jacob Fortier is a master’s student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal. He is also an emerging scholar at the Network for Strategic Analysis (NAS). His dissertation project is funded by SSHRC and FRQSC. His research interests include secession conflicts and political violence. He has also worked at the Ministry of Executive Council as an information officer. He previously attended Laval University (distinction) and the University of Mannheim in Germany.

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