Resetting our foreign policy

It is no secret, I think, to anyone who follows this blog that I regard Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s white paper on foreign policy, ‘A Foreign Policy for Canadians,’ as having been 1302664079168_ORIGINALan act of policy vandalism. I continue to believe that Pierre Trudeau was driven by an intense need to find a way to atone for having put himself on the wrong side of history in the 1940s, and he made anti-nationalism his cause célèbre and that led him to a sort of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, something that seems to be never too far from any socialist’s heart, and to being isolationist, something that suited many French Canadians, and anti-military, too

david-mulroneyBut now, David Mulroney, a distinguished diplomat, public servant and commentator, whose views I respect and whose opinions you must take more seriously than mine, gives us a somewhat different perspective in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. “This year,” he writes, “marks a half-century since the publication of Foreign Policy for Canadians – the first and, really, only serious effort by a Canadian government to conduct a public and comprehensive rethinking of Canada’s role in the world.” I would quibble with that. I believe that Prime Minister Louis St Laurent consulted widely, and publicly, and explained, carefully and persuasively, his views on the need for a Canadian grand strategy. But, that aside, Mr Mulroney says that “By the late 1960s, as the new Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau was getting down to business, the need for a review was obvious. The outsize influence we enjoyed in the years after the Second World War had largely diminished as allies and enemies recovered, and as a host of newly independent nations claimed their own stakes in world affairs … [and] … In addition to understanding and adapting to our diminished status in a far more competitive international community … [I wholeheartedly agree that was the case, but I suggest that in the 1950s and ’60s all of Louis St Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson were already adapting to it] … we also needed to reclaim our independence in the face of what appeared to be almost overwhelming U.S. economic influence … [but] … Looking back on it now, Foreign Policy for Canadians had mixed results. It anticipated a new role for Canada – a more realistic, if also more modest, vision of a well-intentioned middle power, navigating by the pole star of the United Nations. It is a role we continue to play.

But,” David Mulroney writes, and I agree fully, “the review, and the policy initiatives that followed it, significantly underestimated the breadth and depth of our relationship with the United States … [in fact, it barely mentioned the USA at all, which is one of the reasons I regard it as a massively silly policy failure] … Efforts at diversifying trade – what was known as the Third Option, favouring Europe and Japan – went nowhere. What is perhaps worse is that we never really acknowledged that failure. Instead, we became comfortable with a two-track foreign policy, one that allowed us to play the gratifying role of helper-fixer in the world, secure in the knowledge that our actual security and prosperity would be worked out through our relationship with Washington.” In other words, we, Canadians, of all political stripes, were, by and large, happy hypocrites.

Mr Mulroney sees two major problems that confront Canada fifty years after A Foreign Policy for Canadians was published:

  • First, he says, “Canada is again dealing with a threat to our autonomy from a major power, but this time, it comes not from the United States, but from the new world that was coming into being 50 years ago. The threat is now China, which is using its economic power to influence and silence us, is undermining our national security, and is challenging the rules-based international system that the review itself championed;” and
  • Second, “we again need to face up to the consequences of our diminished status, but this time much closer to home. Fifty years on, the problem isn’t that the United States wants to dominate us, but that it has largely forgotten us. While it is tempting to blame this on the chaos of the Trump era, the painful reality is that the relationship has been in decline for some time, something that was manifestly evident in the cool detachment that marked Barack Obama’s management of relations with Canada.

I think that second is, actually, more serious than the first. I believe we can wrap our collective mind around the fact that China doesn’t like us, that it regards us as an irritant and that it is using us as a whipping boy to send a message to its other, more important, trading partners. What has been harder to grasp is that Ameria no longer cares. It isn’t just Donald Trump, it was even just Barack Obama. George W Bush didn’t care either. Despite the great debates in Canada, it seems clear that President Bush never even asked for our help in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the “pressure” to do something to stand with the USA was entirely self-generated within Canada’s own foreign affairs and defence establishments. Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld and Myers (the latter was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005) were, possibly, grateful for the help on the ground, when they noticed it at all, but quite uninterested in Canada’s views on any of the issues concerned. Nor did Bill Clinton care about our views on or our actions in e.g. the Balkans. We, as a country, and our leaders, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, did not and do not count Screen Shot 2019-04-24 at 12.30.09fScreen Shot 2020-01-07 at 08.19.45or anything in Washington. Neither Chrystia Freeland nor Erin O’Toole nor any other Canadian prime minister, Conservative or Liberal, will fare any better. The last time Canada mattered was when Brian Mulroney and George H W Bush renegotiated the Canad-US Free Trade deal, making it into NAFTA, over a quarter-century ago. And the end of the halcyon days of Canada-US relations came a full decade before that, in the Mulroney-Reagan years. That can only change if Canada makes itself matter.

David Mulroney says that “Fifty years is a long time to wait between reviews, but actually conducting one would require our current government to face [some] hard truths:

  • The first, acknowledged in the 1970 review but largely ignored in its implementation, is that good foreign policy flows from sound domestic policy. International influence is enabled by a strong economy, robust national infrastructure and institutions, and the willingness to invest in national defence and security; and
  • The second challenge, also acknowledged in 1970 but never adequately addressed, is that successful foreign policy requires the confident elaboration of national identity. Half a century ago, we were still enjoying – perhaps naively – a sense of national accomplishment and purpose, and a belief in our future that was linked to a quiet pride in our past. It would have been inconceivable to the authors of the 1970 review that a future prime minister could muse, as Justin Trudeau did in 2015, that Canada has “no core identity” – an assertion that is as confusing to other countries as it is to Canadians.

I agree with both those points.

President Trump makes it very easy for Canadians to want to ignore America and to be happy to be “off America’s radar,” so to speak. That’s exactly the wrong approach. A sensible, successful Canadian foreign policy MUST see America as Canada’s primary partner in the world. For Canada, America equals the rest of the world, squared. We can wish that was no so but the “third option” failed when the estimable Mitchell Sharp proposed it almost 50 years ago. It didn’t fail because it was a bad idea; it failed because trade with the USA, free or not, is easier, simpler and in almost every way better than free(er) trade with anyone else. Canada should, always, be working hard to expand our trade with (almost) anyone and everyone, even China, but nothing is likely, not in my lifetime nor in my (preschool) grandsons’ lifetimes, to change the fact that America is our biggest and best trading partner, the guarantor of our sovereignty and security, a good neighbour, and, again, like it or not, our best friend in the world.

We, Canadians, must accept ~ and millions will not want to accept this ~ that, as Mr Mulroney says, “International influence  … [and that includes influence where it counts most, with the USA] … is enabled by a strong economy, robust national infrastructure and institutions, and the willingness to invest in national defence and security.” One of the impacts of Pierre Trudeau’s policies was to divert spending from National Defence to social spending. That was immensely popular with many, actually with most Canadians … something for (a perceived) nothing always is. None of Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin or Stephen Harper, all of whom, it seemed to me, wanted to reverse course and act responsibly were able to change what Pierre Trudeau had put in place. The political price was suicide. But it has been fifty years and Canada is at risk of being totally irrelevant in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.

David Mulroney’s second challenge ~ recovering “the confident elaboration of national identity,” is, I suspect, much more difficult, especially given the ‘post-national state‘ quasi-intellectual rubbish that Justin Trudeau says was part of “his father’s vision.” It’s lunacy, of course, but it’s the sort of lunacy that appealed to many in the 1960s and appeals, again, a half-century later.

Anecdote (and a bit of a sidetrack): I remember, in the early 1960s, sitting at an officers’ mess dinner table listening to one of the Army’s ‘best and brightest,’ then a young major, just selected for one of the top jobs for officers of his rank, who would go one to command the Army in later years. He was talking about the just-announced plans to both integrate and unify (the two words have different meanings) the Canadian Armed Forces. He was cautiously optimistic about some of the plans; we were, he told us, in need of reform, it had been almost 20 years since the last big change. He commented on the single, common uniform ~ the “jolly green e05c82b1f0ae14acf19af8aeaaf6d774jumper” as it was already being called. He said something like, ‘It’s a pity that a bit more thought wasn’t given to all this, because we,’ he added, pointing to his own Queens Own Rifles regimental tie, ‘have a long, proud history with green unforms that is shared by English and French Canadians and with our Indian (he would have said First Nations or indigenous fifty years later) confreres.‘ He talked about the histories of Butler’s and Rogers’ Rangers, founded, right here in North America, during the Seven Years War, and how they had shaped the British and Canadian armies. ‘It’s a pity,’ he said, ‘that whoever is leading this u form thing is intent on simply making us ‘not British‘ rather than making us distinctively Canadian.’ That story sticks with me because it seemed to sum up what was happening in Canada. In an effort to counter a very serious, sometimes violent threat to our always fragile unity someone decided that our British ties were expendable, and so they were, but they didn’t bother to try to anchor their changes in our own, Canadian, history.

downloadThe notion that we could become more Canadian by segmentlogo_enbeing less British had some merit. Changing the Royal Mail to Canada Post/Postes Canada and renaming Trans Canada Airlines to Air Canada made sense on too many levels. So did a new flag. But some, arguably too much change was seen, by too many, as being merely replacing something traditional and even, in some cases, cherished, with something new that was tossed out by a Liberal advertising agency with the sole aim of being new and ‘not British.’ Very often, it seeled to me, the goal in the 1970s, especially, was simply to paint everything Liberal red and throw money at almost anyone, especially at anyone in Québec. It always seemed, to me, that Pierre Trudeau could not make a good argument for Canada to Québec; he appeared to not really believe in Canada, only in what Canada could do for Québec. He ended up, it seemed to many of us, trying to pay Québec, to bribe Québec to stay in Canada … and some of my French Canadian colleagues saw the same thing and were insulted. But, in the 1970s and ’80s national unity was at the top of the political agenda and foreign policy was near the bottom.

5f2fe91e49d7ba314e3f894d8ef4_GalleryBrian Mulroney, unintentionally, gave us some sense of ourselves during the bruising free trade debates. He and his allies reminded us that we are a tough, brave, talented and high-achieving people who can compete with the best, anywhere and at any time. But that got submerged in the even more painful debates over the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords when, yet again, one version of national unity took centre stage. Perhaps, today, when national unity is under threat from someplace other than the Québec, a sense of pan-Canadianism might help, not detract from discussions of foreign and defence policy.

I believe that David Mulroney is right about the need for a thorough review and revision to our foreign policy. Paul Martin wanted one, and he began it with his 2005 policy paper on ‘A Role of Pride and Influence in the World,’ but he didn’t go far enough, and Stephen Harper, who hated big, bold ideas, was not inclined to make anything but barely perceptible incremental changes.

Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s rambling speech in Montreal on Friday night, which almost totally ignored China’s bullying of Canada and its trampling on human rights, gives ample proof of the need for a serious review of our foreign policy. Canada needs a realistic and coherent policy.

Mr Mulroney is also right that we need to be prepared to invest ~ all the way up and even past to 2% of GDP ~ in our own defence and security. We know that the Americans measure power by counting ships, tanks, guns and aircraft … so do the Russians and the Chinese and almost everyone else that we might want to impress and influence including the Australians, Dutch and Norwegians. Despite what the media might say, no one gives a damn if we meet our greenhouse gas emission targets or if we are gender-balanced, but our ability to use force does matter. That may be sad, but it is a sad reality.

I suspect we will need to wait for a new government, one led by a grownup, which, in the 2020s, likely means a Conservative government, to get anything done. But it’s time to start talking.

2 thoughts on “Resetting our foreign policy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s