Why should Canada pursue a policy of "pragmatic diplomacy"? How does re-hashing failed policies from the '70s serve us?
I think the root of a lot of the mythology that's warped Canadian foreign policy can be traced back to Pearson winning a Nobel Prize after the Suez Crisis. That's the origin of Canada as "an honest broker", "a middle power", and a fixation with the idea of peacekeeping. In reality, Canada's role was brokered by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as a means of putting an end to a final imperial dead cat bounce on the part of the UK and France that was threatening to create a wider crisis by drawing the Soviet Union to intervene in a critical part of America's sphere of influence. Canada had relationships with both Canada, France, and the US. It had a serious military with significant capability that could act relatively independently of bigger powers like the US. More importantly, the US trusted Canada to act in a way that aligned with US interests.
Unfortunately, the Canadian external affairs people let that bit of glory go to their heads and misunderstood what happened. Canada's utility as an "honest broker" was limited to a situation where the other parties had an existing relationship with Canada *and* bigger powers didn't want to get directly involved. Canada's value was related to having a serious and credible military capability that would let them smash heads if need be. Somehow that got warped into "Everybody likes and trusts us because we're Canadian" and "soft power is just as effective as hard power, and a lot less icky."
Finally, peacekeeping is an idea that should be consigned to the ash heap of history. It's been a failure: peacekeepers have been able to keep the peace so long as the belligerents allow them to. There hasn't yet been a situation where peacekeepers have been deployed that has finally been resolved in a lasting settlement between the warring parties - at best it just freezes the conflict in amber, like the situation in Cyprus. The UN has run almost all peacekeeping operations, and has proven dangerously incompetent at it. The cases where something like peacekeeping has worked have involved NATO in the Balkans, and have been less traditional peacekeeping than a serious military force putting an end to the conflict. Peacekeeping is the foreign policy equivalent of the harm reduction approach to drug addiction: stop the immediate harm without actually fixing the root problem, which eventually harms and kills the victims anyway.
Wow. That was a great read on so many levels. Thank you
Brilliant column Jen. There’s nothing with which I disagree. And frankly I was desperate for someone to connect the dots on our current foreign policy which is mind-boggling and embarrassing.
I understand Melanie Joly is an extremely loyal Liberal and successful retail politician. To be successful in her current position requires so much more.
When I first read pragmatic diplomacy with non- aligned countries my mind went straight to loser countries. You covered the whole mess, the context and summed it up perfectly. Why does this government continue to sell our great nation short? The alternative CPC better get smarter and straighter with Canadians. For the first time in my life I’m fearful for our future. The unintended consequences of bad policy decisions are littering the political landscape at the federal and provincial levels like never before. And I’ve been watching for a long time.
I remember being totally enthusiastic about the Third Option back then, specifically because of its core idea that we needed to have options beyond the States. In context, I was early twenties and it was the era of Vietnam. Keeping out of that quagmire had been hard. (When PM Pearson spoke against the war while in the States, LBJ lifted him up by his lapels and shook him, yelling, "You pissed on my carpet!") Also, the US swamped us culturally, and we'd been given to self-disdain: Our libraries segregated our novelists on a small shelf labelled "Canadiana"; when you phoned CBC the receptionists all had English accents. (Earlier Diefenbaker had had a "Buy Canadian" campaign when most of us thought that "Canadian" meant second-rate.)
So pushing away from the US made real sense. Not to mention that Canadian nationalism was coming on strong among Liberals and the NDP after our Expo '67 Centennial celebrations. (What a difference to today when Trudeau apologizes runs down our history and the very notion of Canadian values at every opportunity.)
Incidentally, I loved "ginger stepchild" and "thick lacquer on darker arts." And while your editor may have been right, I'd have loved to read your sixteen paragraphs on the statue.
Using self-interest as a lodestar in foreign relations is a helpful clarifying tool. It may be in our interest to pursue certain relationships that seemingly have little benefit beyond proving that we are good global citizens, but we need to minimise these little efforts and concentrate on the ones that matter. The ones that matter include our alliances with culturally similar democracies so that collectively we can face pretty unsavory regimes from a position of strength and unity. The countries we need to impress and work with to get things done are our allies and trading partners. The rest we can be polite to but to whom we need not devote diplomatic capital. When a Canadian government announces 'we're back' we need to announce it to our allies, and we then need to put our money where our mouth is. The reward will be relief that the fever of sanctimony and self-righteousness has broken and we can again be relied on to pull our weight.
It might mean postponing dental plans and pharmacare. Choices have to be made because quite clearly we can't do everything. The option of not sorting ourselves out in alignment with allies and like-minded nations is irrelevancy and isolation from the grownups table. Which, alas, is where we presently sit. We can do better. Our friends want us to do better. We're half-way there. But we do have to take action. It's in our interest.
'Non-alignment' in a world of competing superpowers is a losing strategy, unless you too are a superpower...and Canada is not. At one time we had a degree of respect in the world, but it has been thrown away and now we are irrelevant. We are just one of the little countries nobody thinks about any more...except to point and chuckle. Perhaps it could be turned around, but it will be an uphill job that could take a generation, or more.
When Justin Trudeau was elected, I remember my mom telling me that he would repeat the same decisions as his father, and that he had no choice. I thought this was perhaps being stuck in the past - but now reading your article, I see why. If the party itself is still stuck in the same beliefs and policies that led to the actions of PET, then of course Trudeau JR is going to repeat the same problems.
Sometimes I feel like there are "adult" problems going on in the world, and there aren't many (any?) adults in the ruling Canadian government. Thank you for this article - it is odd that Macedonia is the place that Joly felt should inspire people to feel great about Canada's current decisions..
Love your podcast. Love the the Gen X snark and ennui. Love the centrism and sanity. You get my money now. Liked, subscribed. Jen Gerson is a very nice person.
Thanks Jen for this really incisive examination of the state of the government’s thinking on foreign policy. Your observation that they (and ergo we) are trapped in the ‘70s is spot-on. And I’m good with you subjecting us to all that history to make your point. But it is time to move on and rejoin the real world as it exists today.
During the time of Pearson and St Laurent, the Liberal Party of Canada was set on cementing our place in the world. We had a capable military (did you know we operated 3 Aircraft Carriers during the 50's and 60's) and a top notch foreign service that had some heft in the world. Since PET, the LPC, when in power seem to be much more comfortable acting as the Premier of Ontario or Quebec then they have of taking care of the foreign affairs files, which is their god damn job!!! If they are so hell bent on being in the shorts of provinces, then run as a MLA or MNA. Leave the duty of Foreign Affairs and Military Responsibilities to people who actually know the files and give a shit.
As Metternich said about the restoration of the Bourbons “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
It seems like while our Western allies saw the expansion of economic reach into non-aligned countries as a leveling opportunity, thinking that integrating them into our economic sphere would naturally lead to stability as they adapt to our rules, we simply treated them as if they were already on the same level.
I don't know how else to read "the world cannot be reduced to democracies versus autocracies".
In hindsight, neither the leveling nor the on-the-level approach really worked. But at least our allies are starting to re-evaluate their approach to relations with countries like these, instead of doubling down.
I am grateful that Jen has the intellect and the ability to paint such insightful picture.
And then to top it off with the willingness to distribute it. Glad I clicked on this one.
"Now more than ever, soft and hard power are important"... WE ARE AND HAVE NEITHER! Its embarrassing how self important we talk about ourselves on the global stage. PLEASE PLEASE, lets just be honest about the size and place our country and culture is in the world. I feel like we are griping for international participation trophies at this point :(
The curse of PET lives on not only in his progeny but in the dimly lit bureaucratic underworld of Ottawa. How long must Canada wallow in this middling stench? How much longer will the western allies suffer us?
A solid piece - worth reading and sharing. In addition to “practical diplomacy” for “domestic salesmanship,” I would add the well-worn phrase from the Chretien years: “constructive engagement.” That was the mid-90s version of the Third Option - used to justify all kinds of efforts with Fidel Castro and Cuba. How well did that go in terms of bringing Cuba into the realm of market democracies or improving the lives and human rights of the Cuban people?