Canada is and always has been part of an interconnected world. There is always a balance of powers, but those relationships can change and shift. The world is a very different place than it was in 1867.
It was an age of empires in 1867. It was the day when “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Canada was one of many colonies directly controlled by the United Kingdom, including New Zealand, Australia, India, and South Africa.1 Confederation was not independence from the United Kingdom, but rather an administrative division.2 Canadians in 1867 were subjects, not citizens, and foreign policy (in particular military) decisions were not made internally until the Statute of Westminster in 1931.3 Today, most of the former British colonies are fully independent nations. We are part of a loose, primarily symbolic group known as the Commonwealth.4
Two of the other largest, most important empires at the time no longer exist. The Austro-Hungarian Empire spread from Austria, through the Balkans, and parts of what is now Italy.5 The Ottoman Turks controlled most of the Middle East from Turkey to Iraq and everything in between, including Syria and Saudi Arabia.6 They extended into Europe, but not as much as they once had. Austria and Russia had been gnawing away at their borders for over a century.7 Both states ended up on the losing side of World War I and were dismembered, leaving the map looking more like it does today.8 Germany, usually thought of today as the leading nation in Europe,9 was a collection of extremely small states until 1871.10
Russia was and still is a sprawling state, stretching from a rump in Eastern Europe across the top of Asia. Russia in 1867 was rapidly modernizing in an attempt to be taken more seriously as a European power.11 Russia today is similarly trying to rebuild its sphere of influence after “losing” the Cold War.12 The key difference is that Russia in 1867 was trying to get accepted into the European system,13 while Russia today sets itself apart from “The West.”14
Whereas Russia is in the most similar position of modern world powers, the United States is in the most different. The idea of the USA as a major world power would have seemed ridiculous in 1867. They were still reeling from their own Civil War, which ended in 1865, a nation with deep division and instability.15 They had only recently spread across the continent, incorporating the southwest after war with Mexico in 1848.16 The expansionist tendency of the Americans was a major reason for the establishment of Confederation here in Canada.17 However, regarding global presence they primarily favoured isolationism outside of the western hemisphere until entering World War I in 1917.18
China has also risen on the world stage in the last 150 years. In 1867 the Qing Dynasty ostensibly ruled over China. However, after a series of wars with Britain over the opium trade they had become subject to a kind of colonialism.19 China reasserted its independence during the 20th century, starting with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.20 Today they are an economic and military powerhouse; often regarded as the newest superpower.21
Over time, the relative powers of different countries rise and fall. The world map in 1867 had a different array of powerful states than what we see today. However, the basic system of great powers and spheres of influence remains the same; empires other names.
1Robin W Winks & Joan Neuberger, Europe and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), at 263.
2Cole Harris, The Reluctant Land (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), at 451.
31931, 22 Geo V, c 4 (UK).
4The Commonwealth, “Our History”, The Commonwealth Network, online <thecommonwealth.org/our-history>.
5Robin Okey, The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), at 13.
6Eric Dorn Brose, A History of Europe in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 103-04.
7Winks & Neuberger, supra note 1, at 218.
8Brose, supra note 6, p 103-4.
9Stephen Green, “Germany, The Reluctant Leader of the New Europe”, The Globalist (7 February 2015), online: <https://www.theglobalist.com/germany-the-reluctant-leader-of-the-new-europe/>.
10“Franco-German War”, in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, online: <https://www.britannica.com/event/Franco-German-War>.
11Winks & Neuberger, supra note 1, at 219.
12Roland Oliphant, “Russia and the West Have ‘Entered a New Cold War’”, The Telegraph (23 October 2016), online <www.telegraph.co.uk>.
13Winks & Neuberger, supra note 1, at 219.
14Oliphant, supra note 12.
15David W Blight, “Ending the War: The Push for National Reconciliation”, in Major Problems in American History vol 2: Since 1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), eds Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman & Jon Gjerde, at 25.
16Benjamin Keen & Keith Haynes, A History of Latin America vol 2: Independence to Present (8th edition) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), at 200.
17Harris, supra note 2, p 450.
18Anders Stephanson, “Global Competition and Manifest Destiny on the Cusp of the Twentieth Century,” in Major Problems in American History vol 2: Since 1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), eds Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman & Jon Gjerde, at 108.
19Jonathan D Spence, The Search For Modern China (2nd ed) (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1999), at 163.
20Ibid, at 142.
21G John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2008), online: <www.foreignaffairs.com>.