Jen Gerson: How paltry the return
Why should Canada pursue a policy of "pragmatic diplomacy"? How does re-hashing failed policies from the '70s serve us?
By: Jen Gerson
At the beginning of November, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly gave a hallmark speech at the Economic Club of Canada. It was the kind of keynote address that must be parsed to grasp our government's thinking about the state of the world and our nation's role in it. Yet the line that jarred me most in that speech was also the most seemingly trivial. It was nothing more than an anecdote, really.
From the written text:
"I am inspired by the pragmatic diplomacy of our past. While in North Macedonia, I was struck by a statue of former prime minister Pierre Elliot [sic] Trudeau in the halls of the Foreign Ministry – marking the time he invested, as a Western leader, to engage with non-aligned countries."
Of course, many immediately cottoned onto the term "pragmatic diplomacy," a pithy summary of our current thinking foreign affairs. But I came away from this comment thinking: "Where is Macedonia, again?" This burning question led me down a rabbit hole (and strap in, Line readers, because you're walking with me through the abyss whether you like it or not.)
First, I sent an email to Global Affairs Canada (GAC) about it and asked about the statue: Bless the communications staff at GAC, for I know we at The Line are not exactly their favourite people, but they responded:
"In the period from 2010 to 2014, North Macedonia’s then-government invested in beautification projects around Skopje, with new buildings and monuments.
"Among these, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ new building included a good number of statues on the roof, among which is the statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot [sic] Trudeau. There are more than 30 statues, not only of world leaders but poets, diplomats, economists, and others."
(Two Ts. C’mon, guys!)
Of course, that led me to more questions about Skopje's beautification project. As it turns out, it was an attempt to abolish the modernist legacy of Soviet architecture in favour of a faux-antique neo-classical aesthetic that evokes a Disneyfied version of Old Europe. An essay examining the role of architecture in expressing radical shifts in a population's psychic outlook is wildly beyond the scope of a column on Canadian foreign affairs, but to put it succinctly, the renovation was weird. The vibes are straight Eurotrash.
If I saw a statue of P.E.T. on the roof of a foreign affairs building that looked like it were competing for a 10th place spot in the Eurovision tourney, I don't know how I'd feel: embarrassed, touched, certainly too polite to say anything honest. I probably wouldn't be so struck with awe by the sight that I'd be keen to shoehorn the anecdote into a major policy speech in front of the Economic Club.
Joly's speech was striking in that it could be divided into two distinct parts: The first half was a cogent and clear-eyed examination of the state of play of the world, one that acknowledged a fundamental shift in the assumptions that underpin the global order. Nothing one couldn’t glean from the Economist, but grounded nonetheless. The global order is shifting, the stakes have increased, and the world is going to be marked by growing unpredictability.
“Now more than ever, soft and hard power are important,” Joly noted, correctly, ignoring the fact that Canada increasingly has neither, and doesn’t seem to be doing much about that.
And this brings us to the second half of the speech, which was an attempt to spell out the way Canada will navigate this shift, by situating itself as both a Western ally and an honest broker: we are to defend our national interests and our values, while also engaging with entities and countries whose values and interests radically diverge from our own. "We cannot afford to close ourselves off from those with whom we do not agree," Joly said. "I am a door opener, not a door closer."
This was clearly intended to be analogous to the elder Trudeau's historic policy of seeking cooperation with non-aligned countries — countries that declined to join either the Communist or the Western blocs throughout the Cold War.
Hence the Macedonian statue reference.
Yet, paradoxically, while citing Trudeau’s example, Joly refused to acknowledge that a parallel splintering of the modern world order between the Western democratic countries, and the autocratic ones, was even occurring.
"We must resist the temptation to divide the world into rigid ideological camps. For the world cannot be reduced to democracies versus autocracies. East versus West. North versus South. Forcing the majority of the world to fit into any one category would be naive, short-sighted, and counterproductive," she said. "Short-sighted because the challenges we face will require all states, despite their differences, to cooperate and respect fundamental rules."
This is where Joly's speech left me baffled and despondent.
Trudeau Sr. was not oblivious to the fact that a divide between the Communists and the West existed, he was simply ambivalent about his own side, and therefore willing to colour outside the lines of Canada’s historic partners and allies.
We can’t be geopolitically neutral and a staunch values-driven member of the Western alliance at the same time. We can't serve as a "convener" in an increasingly polarized world while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge those poles exist.
By all means meet with whomever, but we can't claim to be defending a rules-based global order by positioning ourselves as middle man to an alliance of autocracies that fundamentally refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of that very order — and even to deride it as hypocritical and existing solely to further Western interests. These circles do not square.
It's not “naive” to observe that the world is dividing into ideological camps: it's crucial to understand that that is exactly what is happening — and has already happened.
If our foreign affairs establishment can't or won't acknowledge this reality, they're going to make incredible mistakes. For example, like calling for a détente between Hamas and Israel so the two teams could hammer out a deal with Qatar as moderator. We’re seeing a limited deal unfold now, with Hamas releasing some hostages, but they also keep trying to sabotage the deal — as anyone would have expected. Hamas is not a legitimate state actor, it’s a genocidal death cult bent on the literal annihilation of Israel, held back from accomplishing their goal only by their inability to carry it out. Our foreign affairs minister really ought to know that. Is this the sort of nonsense that Joly seems to imagine is "pragmatic diplomacy”?
It is neither. It's folly.
If we can't see that, we're also going to struggle to understand why our own allies are icing us out of trade and intelligence pacts, why we can't secure a security council seat at the UN; why, in short, why everyone seems less and less interested in our smarmy self-regard and hypocritical moral services, thank you no thank you.
If our closest allies treat us like ginger step-children as a result of our own obliviousness and uselessness, our platitude-spewing ruling class is going to seek closer relationships in darker places: in economic ties with China, and in finding international prestige via small and middling regional powers or blocs whose values and interests are, by necessity or choice, far more malleable than our own.
These cute turns of phrase are a matter of domestic salesmanship only. "Pragmatic diplomacy" is a thick lacquer on darker arts.
Which brings us back to Macedonia, again. Or North Macedonia, if you're a stickler.
Before it declared independence in 1991, Macedonia was a republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. During much of Trudeau Sr.'s time, Yugoslavia was led by Josip Tito, a Communist revolutionary who broke with Stalin and spearheaded a movement of non-aligned countries, along with the leaders of India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia. Tito was one of several despotic and authoritarian leaders with whom Trudeau Sr. sought to ingratiate himself to navigate the global order.
P.E.T.'s most ardent supporters maintain a benevolent amnesia about just how radical Trudeau Sr. was relative not only to modern standards, but to world leaders at the time.
During the 1968 election, Trudeau promised to undertake a sweeping review of Canada's foreign affairs, including taking “a hard look” at NATO, and addressing China's exclusion from the international community.
In 1969, America inaugurated Richard Nixon a bombastic, controversial, and corrupt president who forced Canada examine the depth of its special relationship with its southern neighbour. At the time, this was termed “Nixon shock.” And it could only have furthered Trudeau Sr.'s skepticism of American hegemony.
It was in this environment of extraordinary uncertainty, and shifting global assumptions and alliances, that Trudeau Sr. called for a new approach to Canadian foreign policy. He wanted a Canada that saw itself as a Pacific power, more aligned to Asia (and China). Trudeau also wanted stronger relationships with Western Europe and Latin America, to serve as countervailing forces to American influence.
Many of these goals were published after the election in 1970, in a white paper titled Foreign Affairs for Canadians, which is a seminal bit of deep policy apocrypha in Canadian history.
The re-evaluation called for a more skeptical and self-interested approach to organizations like the UN; it challenged Canada's self-appointed role as the world's “helpful fixer,” and it sought to re-direct Canadian wealth toward aid and foreign development.
Like many other Western nations, then a generation removed from the Second World War, Canada was building out a welfare state — resources that were going to come at the expense of other government spending. To that end, Trudeau and his party were highly ambivalent about Canada's decaying military and its attendant alliances.
As noted in The white paper impulse; Reviewing foreign policy under Trudeau and Clark by Halloran et al., and published in 2015, there was a notable fissure among Canadian senior officials; on one side were those who believed that our best interests were served by continuing and full participation in the Western alliance and NATO. Members of Trudeau's cabinet, including Trudeau himself, wanted a partial or even complete withdrawal.
This acrimonious dispute resulted in typically Canadian compromise. We cut our force strength in Europe by 50 per cent. This was the beginning of the end of Canada as a major military power. I can’t even fault this decision, really. Why spend our cash on a military when we can lean on the U.S. to pay the full price of blood and treasure securing the Pax Americana? Canada is surrounded on three sides by water: what, are the Americans really going to let Russia invade from the north? In practice, we had already put our bets on “no,” but Trudeau Sr. was the first to call the bluff openly. Our commitments to peacekeeping and Afghanistan notwithstanding, every Conservative and Liberal government has largely adhered to this logic.
Foreign Affairs for Canadians was startlingly more coherent than virtually anything coming out of any federal government department today, and in many ways, it was a prescient and thorough examination of the state of the world in the late '60s.
It wasn't anti-American, exactly, but it was highly fixated on the threat that such a large and powerful neighbour must inflict on Canadian culture, identity and sovereignty.
Its author, Mitchell Sharp, then secretary of state for external affairs, argued for Canada operating in its own interests, in enacting policies that cleaved Canada from American dominance, and in finding geopolitical niches in which Canada could maximize its strategic advantage.
After it was published, Sharp authored another analogous economic paper, which was colloquially known as the Third Option Strategy. This called on Canada to become less dependent on the U.S. economically, in part by fostering deeper economic ties with Asia and Europe. Herein lie the deep roots of our fitful and difficult relationship with China, which influences our domestic politics even today.
Forgive me for subjecting you to so much history, dear reader, but if you come away with nothing else from my screed, note this: despite a flurry of late-term international trips in the early 80s to secure his legacy abroad, Foreign Policy for Canadians and the Third Option were rapidly consigned to the hackneyed dustbin of history. Because it flopped.
As it turned out, Latin America wasn't particularly interested in us; we remain a limited Pacific “power” (if one can consider us that at all); our development budget didn't distinguish us abroad; Communism collapsed under the weight of its own dysfunction; and courting non-allied countries proved fruitless.
Oh, and as it turned out, Europe had little time for a potential trade partner unwilling to put out militarily (womp womp.)
As for charting our own quasi-autarkic path, free of American over-influence? It was an abject failure.
Not even Richard Nixon could cut the ties that bound the U.S. and Canada: private industry was not enthusiastic about re-aligning our economic partnerships and advantages to suit Pierre Trudeau's ideological proclivities.
By the '80s, we had the FTA, followed by NAFTA in the early ‘90, and that was the end of it. The Third Option is a Points-for-Trying footnote, the answer to a trivia question in an Ottawa bar on games night, remembered fondly by wonkiest Canadian policy nerds.
I don't mean to be too hard on it. If I were charged with re-evaluating Canada's external policy in 1969, I'm sure I could not have done half so well. These ideas were the natural products of a tumultuous era. The Canada of the late '60s and early '70s found itself in a world cleaved between two ideological blocs; reeling from the election of an isolationist president that challenged all our cozy assumptions about our relationship with our nearest neighbour. It was a Canada beset by high inflation and growing program spending, declining as a military power, at odds with our allies, and pursuing trade relations and influence with morally dubious nations and their leaders as a result.
And, Jesus, this is all starting to sound a little on the nose, yes?
I’ve often given our current Liberal government a ribbing for being trapped in the '90s. I think I've re-evaluated that position. I now think they're trapped in the '70s. There is an argument to be made that this is the last time the Liberals seriously examined the world, and that every assumption and policy goal they've pursued over the last 50 years has been iterative.
A political party — and especially one of the natural governing variety — is more than just a collection of people and a statement of beliefs. It's an institution that inherits habits of thought and ways of seeing and reacting to the world. Some of these serve a party well. They allow a government to default to tried and tested assumptions.
But sometimes these ideas cling to the hull of an institution like a barnacle in deep waters, a fixture indifferent to surroundings, the captain oblivious to its existence and origins. They're intellectual appendages that are taken so deeply for granted, accepted so totally if unconsciously that the assumptions on which they are based remain unchallenged and unquestioned.
I wonder if the Third Option is a Liberal barnacle. I wonder if, wittingly or otherwise, they're still trying to prove Mitchell Sharp right, hoping against hope that he was not wrong, but merely ahead of his time.
Ironically, any examination of the legacy of the Third Option and this era would provide ample lessons that could be applied to the current geopolitical landscape. Don't cut military spending, for example. Don't bet against America. Make peace with the reality that Canada is an inextricable member of the Western alliance, and act the part. Endeavour to be useful to our allies. Be thankful for our privileged position in the world, one that ensures we do not need to compromise any of our core values in order to serve our interests, nor to play footsie with the world's worst people and most despotic regimes.
We don't have to be "pragmatic.” We don’t have to engage everyone. Nor need we present ourselves as moral-but-neutral players on the diplomatic circuit. By virtue of our resources, wealth, geography, and human capital, we have the luxury of being of real value to Team West — the best team available. By far.
A real, hard look at history would have us looking up at some antiqued statue of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Macedonia, and rather than admiring the tribute, instead noting that for a country like Canada, with such resources and potential, how paltry a return.
*Correction. Nixon was elected in 1968 and inaugurated in ‘69. We’ve updated the post to correct this. Also, Foreign Affairs was published under the aegis of Sharp; as with most White Papers, it no doubt had many contributors. Whether or not Sharp ought to be considered its author, we leave it to the reader to decide.
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