Monday, January 30, 2006

Sooner or later we'll need to talk...

Foreign policy is, in the context of political discourse, a strange animal indeed. On one hand, it conjures up rather sexy and intriguing images of black limousines, exotic locations, and the great issues of war and peace. On the other hand, it really doesn't get play in the general public unless you can tie it neatly to a "bread and butter" issue at home.

Globalization, from the growth of the global economy to the myriad of international agreements and treaties we sign, is becoming very important to our lives - often in ways that we do not yet appreciate. Nevertheless, foreign policy always gets dovetailed into a couple of neat paragraphs in policy platforms.

Foreign aid? Yes. International trade? Sure. Human rights? You bet. But does any of this truly amount to a foreign policy? After all, no one would call a bunch of ad hoc cuts here and there constitutes a fiscal policy.

The last time we had a foreign policy in this country was when Lester B. Pearson lived in 24 Sussex. That is not a fact that gives me much pleasure. The fact is that Pearson was the last Prime Minister of Canada who articulated a theme to Canadian foreign policy to which you could connect every individual initiative. The 0.7% foreign aid target, the emphasis on multilateralism, and the groundbreaking work on peacekeeping - love it or hate it, they fit like pieces of a puzzle to make a more compelling picture of Canada in the world.

Trudeau never walked the talk. He was committed to NATO, but allowed the Canadian Forces to atrophy. He was keen on North-South issues, but never did Canada's financial pledges rise to the level of P.E.T's rhetoric.

Mulroney came closer, simply because he was prepared to put some money where his mouth was. Unfortunately, military spending was still below par, and despite the obvious benefits of the relationship with the US, closer cooperation with one country does not a global policy make.

The problem is that we just don't think big anymore. Canada has nothing akin to a Pearsonian strategy, and God only knows that this is the time when we could really use one.

Pearson, Trudeau and Mulroney all had the advantage of living in a bipolar world - either you were with the Yanks, or you were with the Soviets. Today, you can be with the US, or you can be with the Europeans, or you can try to hook up with the Chinese, or India, or the Russians, or Brazil, and let's not forget Japan is still a player.

Most international commentators suggest that the world of 2050 will be radically different than today's. The changes we see today are a harbinger of this new regime.

The purpose of foreign policy, when you strip off all of the diplomatic verbosity and "brotherhood of man" talk, is simply this - to preserve one's status, or improve it, regardless of what way the world unfolds. That is, to make sure Canada is a player regardless of what nations rise or fall in the pecking order.

Big challenge, to be sure. So big that a couple of treaties and foreign aid gifts simply won't do the trick.

The new Prime Minister, luckily enough, is a policy wonk and a logical thinker by reputation. One would expect that if there would be an opportunity to make a statement of great import, it may be now.

While the temptation of a minority parliament is to play it safe, I suspect that Canadians are eager for a vision that extends beyond the vagaries of the latest opinion polls. A new foreign policy philosophy for Canada may very well be just what gives the Harper government a chance to establish a legacy that sets the tone for the next 4 decades, just as the man for whom the department's headquarters is named.


Blogger Younghusband said...

Living in Beijing, I can tell you how much I respect and admire Harper's foreign policy vis a vis China.

1:15 AM  

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