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Britain needs a foreign policy. Brexiters may fantasise about “global Britain”, but leaving the EU removes one of the twin pillars of its place in the world. The foundations of the second, transatlantic support, have been badly shaken by US president Donald Trump’s America First worldview. To adapt the caustic observation of a postwar American statesman, Britain is losing a continent and casting around for a role.

Hardline Leavers who want a clean break with the EU hold up Canada as a model for future trade relations with the bloc. They are right to say Britain can learn from its Commonwealth partner and Nato ally. The mistake is to think the lesson is about trade. Britain needs a deeper economic partnership with the EU than that enjoyed by Ottawa. Where it can learn from Canada is in reframing the way it looks at the wider international landscape.

By some counts Canada has had a rough 2018. Pushed around over trade by its much bigger North American neighbour, it has also faced the sustained wrath of Saudi Arabia and, most recently, has raised China’s ire. These are not the easiest of times for reasonable, rational nations that set store on playing by the rules. For all that, Canada has been firm in defending its values. Others do themselves no favours by bending to every adverse wind.

Brexit will diminish British influence in the world. A best case outcome would see it more closely align its ambitions with its capabilities. Canada is an exemplar of how second-rank powers can still project influence and ideas on to the international stage. Its present government, led by Justin Trudeau, also has something useful to say about setting the boundary between realpolitik and ethical values in a world increasingly hostile towards liberal democracy.

In part, this is a matter of temperament. Canadians keep an even keel. Britain has found it difficult to shake off the swagger long after its retreat from empire. This week Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, boasted that Britain remains a “tier one” military power. The armed forces chiefs disagree.

Policymakers in Ottawa also seem to have grasped that resolve and restraint are not mutually exclusive. Canada got it right during Mr Trump’s hectoring about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mr Trudeau made some small concessions, shrugged off the goading and then stood his ground where it counted.

The same approach has been on display in Ottawa’s dispute with Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses in the Arab state. Riyadh has disrupted diplomatic and economic ties. To their shame, most of Canada’s western allies have sat on the sidelines. Ottawa has been conciliatory — but not to the extent of resiling from the right to criticise the sorry treatment by the Saudi regime of those who dare express dissent. Mr Trump’s pusillanimous response to the murder by Saudi agents of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi spoke volumes about the relative self-confidence of Ottawa and Washington.

Beijing, fulminating at Canada’s arrest (on a US warrant) of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of the Chinese technology group Huawei, has grabbed two (some reports now say three) Canadian citizens in apparent retaliation. Ottawa’s calm but firm response highlights the contrast between due judicial process and the arbitrary behaviour of the Chinese authorities. Chrystia Freeland, the foreign minister, puts it succinctly: Canada is “a rule of law country”. 

Britain of course sees itself packing a lot more punch than its North American cousin. It is a nuclear weapons power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Its economy and population are markedly larger. In cash terms, Britain spends about twice as much on its military. Oh, and Queen Elizabeth II is still Canada’s head of state.

The differences can be overdone. Both nations are members of the G7 group of leading democracies. Canada does not shirk from putting its military in harm’s way. Its forces are on the front line of Nato defences in eastern Europe and the Baltics. They have trained Ukrainian troops and been engaged against Isis. 

Canada, of course, is condemned to sit in the shadow of its much bigger North American neighbour. Britain can expect something of the same when it detaches itself from the EU.

What Canada and Britain have in common is a huge interest in preserving as much as they can of the rules-based international system. Neither has the clout, economic or military, to change on its own the geopolitical facts of life. Both can make a sizeable contribution to maintaining the rules and institutions that have sustained global peace and underwritten western security.

An international system grounded in shared rules has been their greatest defence against aggression. Put together Mr Trump’s belligerent unilateralism with rising nationalism elsewhere in the world and the need to sustain this global order becomes ever more important. To quote Ms Freeland: “We have built a system that champions freedom and democracy and prevented regional conflicts from turning into total war. Canada for one . . . will not back down”.

Britain still has time to rescue itself from the self-harm of Brexit. But the threats to a world organised around the rule of law are not about to go away. Outside or inside the EU, the Brits have something to learn from Canada.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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