Foreign policy is an art, not a science. There are no absolute answers and often much room for nuance and differences of view — provided they are based on analysis. However, some recent critiques of the government’s foreign policy still ply old nostrums about Canada’s Boy Scout vocation.
We are told by the National Post’s John Ivison that a “milder, gentler Canada” is needed in the Far East and that we should be unbiased “interlocutors” in the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, even as China flaunts every known principle of international law with its unilateral imposition of an Air Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea.
Ivison also resurrects that old canard that we have forsaken our role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East. But we were never able to play such a role because it was really only the United States — incidentally the most “biased” mediator of all — which could ‘deliver’ the Israelis to the negotiating table.
To paraphrase former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, many of the government’s critics seem to think that Canada’s role is to be unbiased, obedient, loyal, faithful and “all those Boy Scout words” — as if international politics is like sitting around a campfire. It isn’t.
The world is increasingly what Ian Bremmer calls a ‘G-Zero world’, where every nation is looking out for itself. The old world order built out of the ruins of the Second World War is crumbling with the decline of U.S. power and influence and the ‘rise of the rest.’
More than ever before, Canada has to look out for its own interests and not assume that others will take care of us — or necessarily see us as a model of how they wish to organize their own politics and conduct their affairs.
Campfire critics also believe that we should be “supplicants” when we deal with Washington on issues such as beef, lumber and energy. Quite frankly, the notion that Ottawa should go on bended knee when it deals with the White House or the U.S. Congress is demeaning in any circumstance. Politics in the boisterous, increasingly unsteady and cantankerous capital to our south is a contact sport.
We only got a free trade deal with the U.S. by being tough, by asserting ourselves and our national interests — and by walking away when it seemed that our terms would not be met.
Today, as the U.S. plays the “hub and spoke” game in its negotiations with Pacific Rim countries after frustrating the entry of its two NAFTA partners, fingers of scorn are bizarrely and mistakenly being pointed at our own government.
Campfire critics also believe that Canada’s foreign policy should be one of “follow the leader,” where, in the words of University of Ottawa Professor Peter Jones, we “roll up our sleeves” and “help” the Americans “look for answers.”
Well, we did just that in Afghanistan and in Libya. In neither case were any Canadian interests at stake other than alliance solidarity, principally with the United States. We also spent billions to upgrade security and surveillance at our shared border and tightened refugee and immigration procedures in order to accommodate American concerns, enhance the ‘Beyond the Border’ initiative and improve flows of people, goods and services.
The question the critics should be asking is why there’s been no dividend for Canada from these commitments. Through what perversion of logic can any blame be attributed to Canada?
We can and should play a constructive role supporting U.S. global initiatives — geopolitical and economic — where it is appropriate, but what critics are loath to acknowledge is that, for such support to be effective, there needs to be credible and confident leadership on global issues by the United States. Regrettably — and as former defence secretary Robert Gates revealed with startling candour in his new memoir — that kind of leadership has not been much in evidence in the Obama administration. Criticism and concerns about America’s diminishing role are widely shared among European and Asian allies — something to which the carpers in Canada, who concern themselves more with likeability than achievements, seem oblivious.
Campfire critics use outlandish labels as if they had a monopoly on virtue and wisdom. They may not like some of the decisions the government has made when confronted with hard choices — that’s their prerogative — but it’s also the prerogative of the democratically-elected government to make those choices while it holds office.
Suggestions that the Harper government emulates the Tea Party are also completely fabricated and unspeakably out of place. The electorate ultimately will decide, but sweeping claims that Canada has become irrelevant on the world stage defy reality — and insult our intelligence.
Derek H. Burney, an officer of the Order of Canada, is a senior strategic advisor to Norton Rose Fulbright. Mr. Burney is chancellor of Lakehead University and was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor (on leave) at Carleton University.