Time for Canada to reconnect with the world

The Globe and Mail

May 19, 2011

While Canadians have been preoccupied these past few weeks by new Dippers and up-and-down-and-up Canucks, a lot has been happening out there in the world. We’re involved in (another) war, Osama bin Laden is gone and the Arab world is undergoing revolutionary change.

Yet we barely talk about these things among ourselves – we certainly seem not to have expected that they would be discussed in an election campaign. It is as if Canada was on another planet, with all these developments having no bearing on us.

The future is uncertain – but maybe this uncertain future has something to do with rapidly increasing gas prices, so, if for no other reason, we should be paying more attention to what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. We ought to determine our interests and act accordingly.

Canadian CF-18s are attacking targets in Libya. Who knows – a Canadian bomb might kill Moammar Gadhafi. Are we okay with this? Canada is part of the Contact Group on Libya, an ongoing oversight of the “NATO plus” engagement with Libya. What is Canada saying at these meetings about how to end what seems to be a stalemate?

In my judgment, the government made exactly the right decision to intervene in Libya. But we ought to be talking about it, figuring out the next steps. This is all the more relevant when we see Canadians packing up in Afghanistan. As a country, we have not talked much about that conflict the past few years. But we should be discussing whether our military intervention worked, whether our development assistance money has been effectively spent. There might be lessons.

We initially engaged there to help find Mr. bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, there might only be 100 members of the organization left in Afghanistan. Of course, there are probably many more across the border in Pakistan, but we are not engaged with them. Having taken on the responsibility to protect human rights and promote economic development in Afghanistan, how do we feel this is going? What should we be doing in the years ahead?

For many years, Canada has been promoting peace in the Middle East, in particular the establishment of a Palestinian state and assurance of the security of Israel. Recently, there has been a marked tilt towards Israel. It can be argued that opportunities for peace have been squandered. What will happen next? Will the Israelis shoot if thousands of Palestinians attempt to cross the border? When the Arab Awakening moves beyond its immediate challenges, the likelihood is that public opinion in the Arab world will take a much tougher line on issues such as the building of new settlements on the West Bank.

Iran, still with its nuclear ambitions, is trying to assert itself in the region, taking maximum advantage of the turmoil. Saudi Arabia is pushing back. Shiites and Sunnis are part of the equation. Bahrain is in the middle. Yemen is a serious mess, with a significant al-Qaeda presence.

Egypt’s future is far from clear. Will the military make space for democracy to develop? If not, the protesters will be back in Tahrir Square. On May 26 and 27, the G8 will be meeting in Deauville, France. The new governments of Tunisia and Egypt have been invited. What decisions should the group be making? Canada has advocated the retention of the G8 (in a world where the G20 is the world’s “premier economic forum”) to deal with political and security issues. What do we feel it should be doing?

Our ability to follow what is going on in the region is unprecedented. Cellphones, which can take and upload video, are having an enormous impact. The availability of the result on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook is extraordinary. Networks are formed among those organizing for political change, both domestically and internationally. Indeed, statements by Colonel Gadhafi and his son, and the video and images that proved they would do what they said, made it impossible for Canada and others not to act.

Nowhere is more uncertain now than Syria. Do your own Twitter search on #Syria and you’ll see. I’m @GordonSmithG20 – see you online.

Canada now has a new foreign minister – congratulations to John Baird. He has the reputation of a brawler, but it’s said that he was playing a role and that he is really a “charmer.” Now that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has his majority and it will be a while before our next election, let us all, government and governed, reconnect to the outside world.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

A former Canadian deputy foreign minister, NATO ambassador and G7/G8 Sherpa, Gordon Smith is a leading expert on the evolution of the G20 and global summitry.