Policy
May 7, 2012

Raising Canada’s diplomatic game

The West has spent so much money and treasure on military interventions over the past decade that diplomacy is sure to come back into favour. This is good news for Canada because we have all the ingredients to be a creative and successful actor in this field. As a country we have both the ability and the freedom of action to contribute disproportionately to resolving international issues that larger, more powerful, but less nimble countries haven’t been able to resolve. With political leadership and consistency of purpose we can make a difference.

But are we meeting our potential? It was Germany, not Canada, that was invited by the five permanent members of the Security Council to join the group that has attempted to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis for the last several years. Canada wasn’t at the table for the key leaders’ meeting in Copenhagen on climate change even though our leader was there and our vital interests were at stake. In Afghanistan, Canada has been fighting its most significant war since Korea and yet we have had too many different foreign ministers and defense ministers over the past eight years, and some have had little vocation for their job. It takes time for a new minister, regardless of how brilliant, to master the briefing books and become known and trusted by peers in the international community.

We seem to be losing our desire to lead despite a change in the environment of international relations. We are leaving a period when our friend and ally, the United States, believed and acted as if it was dominant in international relations and used military force as its key tool for power projection. In such a world Canada’s views didn’t count for much. Now we are moving into a period where there are several centres of power and military force will be less important. Leaders also have a better understanding of the fact that global issues need a firmer consensus among key countries if they are going to be addressed successfully. In this world Canada’s views count for more and we have the track record, assets and connections to take a much more active role.

Canada has an excellent track record in international relations – one that is better than most Canadians realize. Past Liberal and Conservative governments have had many successes and their achievements have been remarkably diverse. Canada helped conceive NATO; we pioneered peacekeeping, which gave Lester Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize; we were among the first Western countries to open commercial and diplomatic relations with China; Canada provided the impetus for the free trade agreements in North America; we played an important role in German reunification; we led the multilateral effort to reform international financial regulation after the Asian financial crises of the 1990s which paved the way for the formation of the G20; Canada was instrumental in banning landmines; we led the global effort to control emissions of persistent organic compounds that accumulate in the food chain and to phase out CFCs that deplete the planet’s ozone layer. Today, we are providing leadership on Haitian relief. This track record should command respect.

Canada also has great assets for successful diplomacy. We are in the small group of countries that defeated fascism and yet we do not carry the colonial baggage of larger powers. We own a great deal of the world’s real estate but have no sphere of influence beyond our borders that we seek to dominate or control. We run a stable, sophisticated, continental federation that has managed its internal conflicts peacefully and almost without bloodshed for 150 years – a record only Australia can match. In our constitution, we have pioneered a balance between individual and collective rights that offers hope for minority groups in many other countries.

Canada has an open, diverse, technologically sophisticated and prudently managed economy that even the United States envies. We are one of only a handful of countries that actively seeks mass immigration and we have a good record of integrating new Canadians into our society as full citizens. Obviously, Canada is far from being perfect and there are many ways in which we can improve, but we don’t have to be perfect to be influential. The point is that the way we manage ourselves compares well to our peers and prepares us to contribute constructively.

Canada is also very well connected. We have operated a world-wide diplomatic network for decades and we are members of most of the world’s key groupings: the G8, the G20, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Organization of American States, the Arctic Council and others. Canadian representatives sit on the boards of key international and financial institutions and we have been elected to a seat in the UN Security Council in each decade since the UN’s founding. Canada’s universities have international reputations and diverse linkages through their international alumni. Our Aboriginal nations have relations with Aboriginal communities in many other countries. Our aid agency and NGOs are active throughout the world. Many of the immigrant communities in Canada remain well connected to elites in their mother countries. These connections put us near the centre of the action.

Canada has another very important but subtle advantage compared with our peers – our freedom of action. We have not pooled our sovereignty within a larger group of other countries. While there are many countries in Europe with attributes and capabilities similar to our own, they are preoccupied with European integration and constrained internationally by conformity to European positions that tend to bottom out to the lowest common denominator of conflicting national interests within the European Union. It is not a coincidence that Norway, which is not part of the EU, has been so creative in foreign policy and conflict resolution. Canada has the ability to be as creative in proposing solutions to international problems. We can be more nimble than many of our peers. If our ideas do not gain traction then there are fewer consequences compared to a failed American, Russian, Chinese or European initiative.

Despite our many strengths we seem to lack the type of sustained political leadership and consistency of purpose that produced many of our past successes in international affairs. The negotiation of the landmines treaty is a case in point. When our Foreign Minister of the day, Lloyd Axworthy, first became convinced that Canada could lead an international initiative to ban landmines he met a lot of skepticism and not only from outside Canada. Much of the foreign policy establishment in Canada to which I have just thrown bouquets thought it was a quixotic initiative that would soon peter out, hopefully before seriously irritating our closest allies. They were wrong. Axworthy provided strong and sustained political leadership, backed up by Prime Minister Chrétien, on an issue that resonated with the Canadian public. The Foreign Minister, who by this time was well known internationally, challenged his officials and the international community to come up with a binding treaty to outlaw landmines and he kept at it despite tremendous resistance. Slowly but with increasing momentum the Canadian view took hold. He was able to deploy all of our diplomatic assets to achieve the goal, including nontraditional ones like Canadian NGOs who were a key part of the international campaign. Under his leadership Canada was the state actor that turned an international movement into a binding treaty.

This type of diplomatic success has great benefits. It commands international respect, which is a type of coinage that cannot be accurately measured but which all diplomatic representatives draw upon when they sit down at the world’s great councils. Closer to home, proac

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