Robert Teigrob: «I think we’re returning to a post-1945 status quo.»

Logan J. Borges speaks with professor Robert Teigrob of Ryerson University, based in Toronto, Ontario, and today, we wish to speak with him on the diplomatic role of Canada in the post-Soviet space, particularly Ukraine and Russia, and its intersections with American foreign policy. As a historian, Dr. Teigrob specializes in twentieth-century international relations, focusing…

Robert Teigrob: «I think we’re returning to a post-1945 status quo.»

Logan J. Borges speaks with professor Robert Teigrob of Ryerson University, based in Toronto, Ontario, and today, we wish to speak with him on the diplomatic role of Canada in the post-Soviet space, particularly Ukraine and Russia, and its intersections with American foreign policy.

As a historian, Dr. Teigrob specializes in twentieth-century international relations, focusing on the ways in which war, decolonization, race, culture, and the development of international organizations and law have influenced the modern global order, and is also an accomplished author as well, with publications including 2009’s Warming Up to the Cold War, 2016’s Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian and American History and Memory, and 2019’s Four Days in Hitler’s Germany: Mackenzie King’s Mission to Avert a Second World War. Dr. Teigrob has also taught and worked at colleges and universities throughout Ontario, the United States, and Germany.

A transcript for the interview can be found below


Logan: How are you doing today?

Teigrob: Doing fine Logan. Thanks for those kind words. Nice to talk to you.

Logan: It’s always a pleasure to speak with you sir. To kick this off, I wanted to establish, perhaps, the historical background for the audience. So I wanted to ask, what perhaps is the general historical pattern of interaction between Canada and the United States whenever their foreign policies have intersected on similar issues?

Teigrob: Yeah, I think you’ll find, in terms, it’s difficult to find two countries in closer allignment on foreign policy in the post-war era than Canada and the United States; they’re neighbours, they share the world’s longest border at about 9000km, they’re close military allies, they’ve fought in some of the same wars of the twentieth century, on the same side. Perhaps most importantly, they are significant trading partners, and, in fact, the United States trade relationship is the worlds largest in terms of the total value of goods and services that move across the border. So all of this suggests very close cooperation. Now having said that, there are some other variables at play, and that has to do with things like the political parties that are in charge at any given moment in both Canada and the United States. It’s an overgeneralization but in general liberals in Canada tend to coordinate closely with democrats in the United States, while conservatives in Canada tend to coordinate closely with republicans, and there are exceptions to this rule, but the political regimes in each state matter at any given moment. And because of this too we have some important divergences and disagreements in the post-war era between Canada and the United States over, for instance, policies towards Cuba, policies toward Israel, Canada recognized the People’s Republic of China prior to the United States doing so (to the eternal rage of Richard Nixon, one might add). And in 2003 the United States encouraged and kind of expected Canada to join the war in Iraq, and Canada did not, so they are partners who work together and sometimes disagree.

Now, in every interview since 2016, I also then add the caveat, “but then there’s Trump.” Because Trump was such an outlier that Canada really had to work carefully to align its policies with its own values with its own interests, and also with the interests and values of its other allies while not trying to unduly provoke or upset the United States, and again what’s key here is the importance of that trading relationship. So Canada and the United States during the Trump era differ wildly in areas such as climate change policy, immigration policy, and perhaps most importantly, vis-a-vis this interview we’re doing here, on the responsibilities toward the liberal international order, the order based on the rule of law and the authority of international institutions like the United Nations. Trump was not a big fan of those types of organizations, institutions, and arrangements, and Canada traditionally has been very committed to those types of multilateral approaches to international governance, so Canada really had to walk a very, very tricky line between 2016 and the inauguration of Biden in 2021. But that again is an exception to a general rule of very close coordination and cooperation.

Logan: I see, so following 2020’s election, the relationship of the United States in Canada is perhaps returning to a normal pattern of interaction, as you said?

Teigrob: Yeah I think we’re returning to a post-1945 status quo.

Logan: Mmh, I see, specially speaking of that, in what ways do you think the legacy of the Cold War then has persisted in the intersections of American and Canadian foreign policy, since as you say we’re returning to that post-’45 order of relations?

Teigrob: Yeah, yeah right, I mean the Cold War created institutions that turned out to be if not permanent then at least very durable. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), for instance, from 1949 to the present, is a Cold War institution that has outlived and outlasted the Cold War. Canada coordinates its foreign policy through NATO, and NATO, despite all of its lip-service to being a democratic organization of equal states, is a US-led institution, so the United States looms very large in the formation of Canadian foreign policy, with respect to Canada’s involvement in NATO. In 1957, Canada and the United States also created what was known as the North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD to coordinate the defence of North America, so this is part of the joint-defence of North America and this is still the mechanism through which the two nations seek to protect North America. So those are two important ways and important institutions that are really hold-overs from the Cold War. I should also note that with the end of the Cold War there was a lot of hope for the breakdown of the old Cold War animosities, but the reality that we see today, is that the two nations that were considered principle adversaries during the Cold War, Russia and China, remain the nations of greatest concern to nations like Canada, who claim to support the liberal international order. So in many ways Canada is still kinda fighting the same battles that it did during the Cold War.

Logan: I see, and perhaps that suggests too, that, perhaps despite all the talk of NATO’s role, change of role in the early 2000s that its, somewhat, returning to the same function?

Teigrob: Yeah, NATO saw itself as pivoting away from a heavy concern with Russia and the East, and its definitely realigned its focus back to the old Cold War, East-West divide, you’re absolutely right.

Logan: Great, this is actually a great segue into my next question then, since perhaps the biggest, one of the biggest things when it comes to talking about NATO is expansion into the post-Soviet space. So I was wondering, particularly with Canada, how do you think Canada’s diplomatic foreign policy can be defined and characterized in the post-Soviet, Eastern and Central-Eastern European space?

Teigrob: So post-war but in Soviet Central and Eastern Europe. Canada, I think the watch-word, has been “proceed with caution”, and deferred to the United States. Beyond that Canada saw, in its own limited way, to promote democracy, to promote economic liberalism, to fight corruption, but I don’t think there was really a specifically Canadian policy toward that part of the world in the nineties and for the next couple of decades. It was a policy that was planned in conjunction with the United States; in conjunction with NATO; and in conjunction with the European Union, an organization to which Canada maintains close ties, so there wasn’t anything specifically Canadian about it. It was like a lot of Canadian international endeavours, a multilateral effort to forward what were considered mutual interests.

Logan: Hmm, I see, so it’s like Canada merely taking a backseat in support of US or European-led policy. Do you feel that that general trend has remained the same even after 2014 with the events in Ukraine and what followed between Russia and United States in the fallout of those events?

Teigrob: Oh, well Canada still is closely coordinating its policy with the same partners I’ve mentioned, but it has definitely become more involved. It has become more focused. I mean, we have Canadian soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, a couple hundred of them, as a result of the 2014 conflict, so that’s something new. Direct military assistance, since Canada is providing, financially has been increased to Ukraine, so again this is not a specifically Canadian approach, but Canada has definitely become more heavily involved and more focused. The one area where some have called for greater Canadian interaction is to play a greater role in trying to mediate the dispute, which has traditionally been a role that Canadians have embraced in other geopolitical contexts since the Second World War, the idea of Canada as a peace-keeper, peace-maker. We don’t really see Canada taking a forward position on that front, on that file, for reasons we could get into, but some people have criticized Canada for overlooking a potential opportunity to take on this mediation role in the region which is largely been absent from Canadian foreign policy since 2014.

Logan: Actually, would you be able to enumerate some of those reasons that said, they would be interested to see, there is a great interest as to Canadian concern for Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis the EU and especially with the Donbas conflict.

Teigrob: So the question is why, what is limiting Canada’s ability to provide mediation in the region?

Logan: Yes please.

Teigrob: Well, I think, Canada has the largest population of Ukrainians in the world outside of Ukraine and Russia. So the diaspora community in Canada numbers about 1.5 million, it’s about almost 3 times the number of those Canadians that trace their ancestry to Russia. So Ukrainians are Canada’s 11th largest ethnic group, and it matters to Canadian politics and Canadian political fortunes to speak strongly on  behalf of Ukrainian interests, and I think that is one of the reasons that has inhibited Canada’s ability to provide a mediation role. But in Canada’s defence here it’s not just about politics; I don’t think Canada’s taken its position on Ukraine primarily because of its Ukrainian population but because the global community as a whole sees Russia as the aggressor and the violator of international law, and so simple neutrality is not possible under the circumstances. This does not mean that mediation is not a worthwhile endeavour, but the idea that Canada would enter mediation, as being seen as a completely disinterested partner is simply not possible under the circumstances.

Logan: So it’s more a question of supporting Ukraine against what they see as Russian interference and crossing the international law. So that leads me then to the last, my last question, then. So, recently, Ukraine’s presidency under Volodymyr Zelensky has been criticized for what’s seen as a backslide in confronting Ukraine’s endemic corruption, including utterances of concern from western partners such as Canada and the United states, voicing concern for Ukraine’s ability to confront its own corruption. We’ve said that the concern is to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian interference and crossing of international law, but to what extent then do you think this might negatively affects Kyiv’s ability to sustain western support?

Teigrob: So, backsliding on corruption. Yeah, this is a concern but it’s not the primary concern; the primary concern is Russia and Russian aggression, and Russian lawbreaking, and as long as that remains, the West will not abandon Ukraine, really no matter how badly it is governed. The principle at stake is whether nations have the right to exist free of foreign interference, or whether we are going back to a world where nations feel free to readjust political boundaries with armies, with military means. And so, again, that is the overriding concern, and that’s the concern that’s going to keep NATO, Canada, and the United States heavily involved in the situation, in defending the right of Ukraine to exist as an independent nation. China, for example is watching this closely, as China, like Russia, would rather see the world community fold in response to aggressive expressions of power politics. And so this is not a situation that is solely about Ukraine, and Ukrainian corruption or any other domestic concerns that are going on in Ukraine, however important, are going to be secondary to the overriding principle of defending international sovereignty and borders.

Logan: I see, so this is much more internationally connected a question, the end of which we can only judge perhaps. That then wraps up my interview. Thanks so much for giving us the time today to answer some questions Dr. Teigrob, this was really a pleasure, and Ukrainians and the audience at Hromadske Radio will be greatly fascinated to hear all this.

Teigrob: OK thanks Logan it was great to talk to you, great to see you again, and take care.

Logan: Alright, you too and stay safe!