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True North

What does Canada stand for now? Have we lost our international reputation as a nature-loving, peacekeeping haven for newcomers?

Lawrence Cannon’s face said it all. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs looked glum, his eyes fixed on the dark green marble dais at the front of the United Nations General Assembly hall. The second-round votes for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council had been tallied and the news wasn’t good. Tiny, sun-kissed Portugal had secured 113 votes to Canada’s 78.

With defeat inevitable, Cannon pulled Canada out of the running, sparing the nation further embarrassment and the UN another round of voting. A bespectacled diplomat was given the chore of officially announcing Canada’s withdrawal. With that, Cannon left the hall, trailed by a few equally forlorn-looking aides.

Cannon could escape the UN, but not the pointed questions and recriminations that quickly followed. Why had Canada badly lost a campaign for a temporary seat on the Security Council for the first time in more than 50 years? Did the loss represent a repudiation of Canada’s foreign policy? What did the defeat mean for Canada and its international reputation?

At first, Cannon downplayed the lopsided loss, insisting that while disappointing, the rout wasn’t so much a rebuke of Canada’s foreign policy as it was simply a result of the quixotic nature of secret ballots. Later, the federal government blamed others for the failure, namely Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (after he publicly questioned whether Canada deserved the seat). Finally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesperson effectively dismissed the diplomatic drubbing as inconsequential since Canada wasn’t going to barter away its foreign policy for a seat in a body that no longer carried much weight anyway. All this belied the fact that the prime minister and several cabinet ministers had waged a long and determined campaign to secure the seat.

Whatever the reasons for it, Canada’s defeat raised important questions: What does Canada stand for in the world today? Is the country’s international reputation changing? A poll conducted shortly after the loss revealed that Canadians were not only “underwhelmed with Canada’s actions on the world stage,” but 45 per cent of those surveyed said the Conservative government’s foreign policy had hurt Canada’s reputation (only 22 per cent said it had helped the country’s image).

The poll also reflected, in broad strokes, the sharp divide in thinking among U of T academics, whose job is, in part, to analyze and make sense of how Canada navigates its way in the ever-shifting world of international politics.

The dramatic protests roiling Tunisia, Egypt and Libya demonstrate why it’s important for Canada to be engaged with the world. When unrest flares in oil-rich Libya, the price of gas spikes in Toronto. When civil war rages in Sri Lanka, refugees inevitably turn to Canada for help and safe haven. When China keeps secret that it’s battling a virulent infectious disease such as SARS, Canadians pay the price in lost lives and lost business. Yet, as a relatively small country in terms of population, military power and economic clout, Canada must work harder than some other nations to be heard. A middling international reputation makes this task even more challenging.

For some observers, the UN vote was further proof that, under Harper, Canada has alienated much of the world by fashioning a more strident, hard-power foreign policy at the expense of our longstanding reputation as a so-called honest broker of peace and security. Canada’s global role is being defined, these critics say, not by a statesman, but by an ideologue who prefers to listen to the foreign-policy advice of like-minded acolytes over career diplomats, who favours tough talk over bridge-building, fighting over peacekeeping, secret trade deals over foreign aid, and the oil sands ahead of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But there is strong praise too for what some perceive to be a bold and “principled” foreign policy that is transforming Canada’s place in the world. The prime minister, the thinking goes, has instead: unabashedly promoted freedom and free trade; beefed up the military; adopted a rightfully unapologetic pro-Israel stance; asserted Canada’s sovereignty over more territory in the Arctic; and recognized that our rich store of uranium, fresh water and oil makes Canada an emerging energy superpower. If feathers are ruffled in the pursuit of these core ideals at home and abroad, then so be it. The traditional Canadian way of doing things under the auspices of old and irrelevant institutions such as the UN is over.

Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science, does not subscribe to this redesigned vision of what Canada stands for. Indeed, the political economist is deeply critical of the current government’s record on the world stage. “[Stephen Harper] has turned foreign policy into a partisan gutter fight,” Clarkson says. As evidence of this, Clarkson points to the prime minister’s habit of vilifying opponents of the government’s foreign-policy agenda. Clarkson notes, for example, that Harper has slammed opponents who have questioned his government’s unqualified support of Israel as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. The prime minister’s penchant for “American-style,” no-holds-barred rhetoric, Clarkson says, is a new and disagreeable phenomenon in the pursuit of this nation’s foreign policy.

“It’s a mindset that’s very compatible with the Calgary school of thinking,” Clarkson says. “There is a group of political scientists there who are very much rooted in the conservative side of the Republican Party. They are much more on the hard-power side of foreign policy than soft, which means they are much more interested in playing with soldiers than they are in promoting human rights.” He says the cost to our reputation is clear: “Canada is not a peacemaker anymore, it’s a war-maker.”

Canada played a significant role in both world wars and the Korean War, and only established a reputation as a peacekeeper in the late 1950s. Partly to avoid a possible war between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, the Canadian government had set out to strengthen multilateral institutions such as the UN to give small and middle powers a stronger voice in international affairs. On the assumption that global stability would benefit all nations, Canada also advocated creating a legal framework that would trump national interests when universal rights and freedoms were at stake. Although these ideas took hold during the Liberal governments of Louis St. Laurent and Lester B. Pearson, former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney also shared this vision of how Canada could try to shape the world. His government applied economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa – something that Pierre Trudeau didn’t do while he was in power – and against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. During the 1990s, Canada pursued a foreign policy based on “human security,” in which the defence of universal values could be an impetus to global action.

Harper has, in large measure, rejected this postwar diplomatic tradition and instead focused on rebuilding the military while devoting fewer resources to multilateral institutions. His critics say he has also made domestic politics an overarching calculus of Canada’s foreign policy, pursued a “one-sided” Middle East policy, championed foreign investment over foreign aid and repeatedly rebuffed international protocols regulating carbon emissions. (Clarkson points out, however, that the shift from diplomacy to trade promotion began with Trudeau and the failure to act on carbon emissions began with Jean Chrétien. But both trends, he says, have become more pronounced under Harper.)

As a result, Clarkson says, many parts of the world have come to hold a negative view of Canada. A recent poll of citizens across the globe offers a slightly more nuanced picture. The survey found that while people living in emerging economic powers such as Brazil, Russia and China view Canada as having influence in world affairs, this nation is seen as a lightweight by its traditional allies, including Britain and the United States. The same poll showed that despite their favourable ratings of Canada, many people living in these budding industrial giants believe that Canada does whatever the United States wants it to do overseas. Another striking finding was the consistently negative view of Canada expressed by respondents in Europe and Japan. This somewhat schizophrenic snapshot of world opinion about Canada may be a reflection of the current government’s position on the marquee issue of our times: climate change.

“More and more, Canada is seen as an environmental dinosaur,” says Emily Gilbert, a professor of geography and the director of the Canadian Studies program at University College. (This sentiment is particularly true in Europe, where there is strong support for international regimes on carbon emissions.) Gilbert notes that the Conservative-controlled Senate recently killed, without debate, a climate-change bill passed by a majority of MPs that called for the reduction of greenhouse gases to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. “That’s typical of some of our domestic policies that I think is getting Canada maligned on the international stage,” Gilbert says. “The defeat of the bill will only encourage the perception of Canada as the colossal fossil.”

At a UN conference in Cancún, Mexico, late last year, Canada joined other nations in adopting a modest package of measures to tackle climate change. But the agreement did little to mask the Conservative government’s recalcitrant position vis-à-vis carbon emissions, and its combative style on the world stage. Taken together, Canada’s performance at Cancún seemed to confirm the view that this nation was indeed a “colossal fossil.” (A survey of 190 climate experts, which was released during the summit, found that Canada ranked 54th out of 57 nations in taking steps to address climate change.)

At Cancún, Canada was one of only three signatories to the Kyoto agreement (Japan and Russia are the others) that remained unwilling to commit to new obligations on carbon emissions under the treaty unless developing countries make legally binding commitments to do the same. Environment Minister John Baird loudly and publicly rejected China’s position that poorer countries must be permitted more time for emissions to grow so they can ease poverty at home through economic growth.

While Baird’s pointed comments may have earned the government brickbats from reporters and diplomats, this vision of Canada playing a refreshingly robust and forceful role in world affairs may have no bigger proponent at U of T than John Kirton, a professor of international relations.

Kirton heaps praise on Harper’s global blueprint for Canada. “I think what we’ve seen is a rather ambitious conception and execution of a principled foreign policy, which includes promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

Gilbert takes issue with Kirton on this score, pointing out that the government’s principles appear to be malleable, particularly when it comes to Ottawa’s trade dealings with China, a nation with a woeful human-rights record. “It seems that there are exceptions when it suits us,” Gilbert says. “Well, that’s not very principled if that’s the way you go about it.” Critics have also questioned what they see as a hesitant response from Ottawa to the seismic events reshaping North Africa and the Middle East. Why hasn’t Canada been doing more to support the protesters’ demands for greater freedom and democracy?

Nonetheless, Kirton believes that Canada’s ability to marry principle and the projection of power is no more evident than in Afghanistan, where it has fought a resurgent Taliban for nearly five years. Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan, now extended to 2014 in a non-combat role with the support of the Liberal opposition, has also given us significant influence in Washington and NATO, says Kirton. He concedes, though, that Canada has paid a steep price in casualties and money for a still-uncertain outcome. “Whether or not we can nation-build Afghanistan into the country we want is still an open question and a hard slog,” he says.

Kirton, a self-described foreign-policy realist, is certain, however, that Harper’s critics are wrong to hold up the lost Security Council seat as a testament to how much of the world has turned against Canada. Kirton brushes aside Canada’s failure to win the “second-class seat” as an unimportant issue since, he says, the body exerts little, if any, power over international security.

The prime minister’s critics are perturbed by the loss, Kirton says, because they cling to an outdated view of Canada as a relatively minor player in world affairs that once sought out other so-called middle powers at the UN to shape events or influence the great powers.

Their hero, Kirton says, is the sober, soft-spoken Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for creating the UN’s first designated peacekeeping mission and helping to avert war over the then-disputed Suez Canal.

Clearly, Kirton doesn’t pine for Pearson – and thankfully, he says, neither does Harper. According to Kirton, Harper is an ambitious prime minister who has not only led this nation admirably, but, in another refreshing break with Pearsonian tradition, has rightly anointed Canada as an energy superpower. “Never before have we had a prime minister who has declared that Canada is a superpower of any sort.”

And rather than waste any more diplomatic capital at the UN, the prime minister has chosen to wield Canada’s newfound superpower status at forums such as the G8 and G20, where real power lies, Kirton says. “The big thing in Canada’s leadership in 2010 was hosting the G8 and G20 summits. They are far more important for international trade, and peace and security issues.”

Despite his enthusiasm for Harper’s foreign-policy agenda, Kirton doesn’t completely spare the prime minister the rod. He chastises the Conservatives for reducing Canada’s diplomatic footprint by closing consulate generals in Russia, Japan and in several African countries. And, like Gilbert, he scolds Ottawa on climate change. “Harper’s policy on global environmental protection has been a deep disappointment,” he says.

But Harper isn’t the first prime minister to have chosen fossil fuels over public opinion, Kirton insists, noting that it was principally for domestic political reasons – particularly in parts of Western Canada. Nevertheless, Kirton credits the Conservatives for taking useful steps on phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies and continuing to support biodiversity at recent G20 meetings in Pittsburgh and Toronto. “There is more to Harper’s climate change record than meets the critic’s eye,” he says.

As for the Middle East, Kirton acknowledges that there has been an unquestionable tilt in Canada’s policy towards Israel. But he says this shift is not only understandable but flows directly from the prime minister’s principled approach to foreign affairs: “Israel is Canada’s democratic soulmate in the region.” These same principles, Kirton says, motivated the prime minister to launch a humanitarian mission in earthquake-ravaged Haiti and to mount the largest rescue operation in Canadian history in 2006 when nearly 15,000 Lebanese-Canadians were evacuated during a month-long war between Lebanon and Israel. “It was an extraordinary accomplishment and it was the right thing to do,” he says.

Robert Bothwell, a professor of international relations, disagrees with Kirton’s suggestion that Harper has engineered an extraordinary foreign policy as the leader of a newly minted energy superpower. “There are a whole bunch of people who think that what diplomacy requires is to be tough and muscular, but diplomacy is actually about talking a lot and trying to find common ground.”

Bothwell, who is also an historian, believes the prime minister wasn’t interested in talking when he assumed office, but in pursuing an ideologically driven, top-down approach to carving out a role for Canada internationally. “Harper’s not a diplomat,” Bothwell says. “Pearson was a diplomat and a damn good one. He paid attention to what other people had to say and that served Canada’s national interest well.”

Harper was also eager, Bothwell says, to play the part of “loyal, junior follower” to the Bush Administration on the world stage. As a result, Canada was in sync with the United States on a range of issues until Barack Obama took office in 2009. “I don’t think Obama would turn to Harper first for advice on any foreign-policy issue whatsoever.” And, Bothwell adds, neither does the rest of world.

“Clearly, the UN Security Council vote shows that,” he says. “If you’re a superpower, people pay attention to you, they ask your point of view, but that is obviously not true. Superpowers don’t get defeated on the UN Security Council.”

Andrew Mitrovica (BA 1983 VIC) is a former Globe and Mail investigative reporter. He teaches journalism at Sheridan College and is working on his second book.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ True North ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    U of T Magazine is usually a welcome diversion, but the Spring 2011 issue broke the mold with "True North," a junky, offensive political propaganda attack piece that I would normally expect to see come through my door as “soft” party literature in the heat of an election campaign. Under the veneer of reporting the academic opinions of others, the author venerates a particular vision as “the” True North and then engages in an anti-Harper attack. He seeks to characterize recent changes in political direction as “un-Canadian” betrayals, and belittles many Canadians along the way.

    The author should understand that his Liberal-red, maple-leaf vision of Canada, with its centrist monarchical socialist brew, flavoured by a dash of peacekeeping and national medicare, is not, and has not really ever been, the core identity of most Canadians. There have always been many different and evolving visions of Canada, all of which deserve a measure of respect.

    Along with many millions of other Canadians, I don't much care for the narrow set of beliefs that Lester Pearson, Jack Pickersgill, Paul Martin Sr., Pierre Trudeau and their ilk and their descendants tried to push down the throats of Canadians. Among other failings, this centralized socialism
    violated the spirit of a Canadian Constitution that respected regional differences and provincial powers. The vision they presented to the world was that of a meek American or British colony -- not that of an independent nation.

    Based on what I've heard from my European and Asian colleagues, I could not possibly agree that "Canada has alienated much of the world by fashioning a more strident hard power foreign policy..." -- if strident it is. Nor could I agree that, "Canada is seen as an environmental dinosaur" -- especially when one considers the rate of China's CO2 emissions. What I've heard suggests that Canada has started to earn respect as an independent nation with a broader and more significant international role.

    And I utterly reject the notion of a "Calgary school of thinking" that is somehow derisively traced to the Republican party in the U.S. That assessment is insulting academic poppycock, implying that western Canadians, and specifically Albertans, are incapable of independent political thought. It is the claim of ossified, tenured and irrelevant political scientists still clinging to the mythology of an Ontario-dominated Canada.

    While John Kirton's views give the article some balance, they do not hide what is clearly an opinionated attack. I am dismayed that U of T Magazine would include a piece so lacking in true insight and so partisan. It is reminiscent of the National Geographic and Reader's Digest of the 1960s and early 1970s, quietly extolling the virtue of the American military presence in Vietnam as benevolent. What's next, reruns of Popeye cartoons?

    Garry M. Stamm
    MA 1971

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I am sure Mr. Harper wants dearly for Canada to be an energy powerhouse. Just look at how the major oil-producing states treat their citizens. Our sons and daughters are dying in the Middle East right now as we try to redress their situation. With almost all our natural resource industries foreign-owned, and the door wide open for more foreign investment, Mr. Harper must aspire to have Canada attain the prosperity of Haiti, another country once rich in natural resources but bled dry by unfettered development by foreign nationals.

    Martin Gagné
    BASc 1984