Op-ed

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Can the Trudeau government restore Canadian diplomatic leadership?

by Daryl Copeland

The Hill Times
August 3, 2016

The Liberal government headed by PM Justin Trudeau has launched defence and development reviews, but little is known of its intentions regarding diplomacy, international policy, or grand strategy. This is the first of a series meant to fill in some of those gaps, and to offer thoughts on Canada’s role in a changing world.

Cold War comfort: the way we were

In the wake of a series of disturbing events that have left many fearing a generalized descent into chaos, it all seems so long ago and far away.

Yet surviving baby boomers and most Gen Xers will remember the elegant simplicity and terrifying symmetry of the Cold War years, 1947-91. Best understood as a binary construction, the Cold War featured a planet divided neatly between the free (First) and the communist (Second) worlds, each with their respective client states and spheres of influence (in the Third World).

Competing blocs were led by a metropolitan centre, the United States or Soviet Union, and the world atlas of the day was dominated by large swathes of red and blue.

With its purges, parades, and powerful, iconic imagery, the Cold War occupied vast tracts of the collective imagination. There were air-raid sirens, basement and backyard bomb shelters, “duck and cover” exercises in public schools and regular headlines warning us of the ubiquitous communist threat. Rabid finger-pointing reached a peak during the McCarthy hearings, and fear-mongering reached levels not to be seen again until after 9/11.

Beneath the gleaming surface of missiles, warheads, and intercontinental bombers on 24-hour standby, deterrence, containment and mutually assured destruction ensured that the “red menace” and the “capitalist imperialists” remained at bay, albeit with daggers drawn. Power was measured in the kilotons of warheads and influence calibrated in numbers of hardened silos and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Ironically, that heavily armed peace provided the basis for almost a half century of Cold War comfort. The apocalypse was averted. International relations, if dumbed down and punctuated by proxy wars and occasional near catastrophes such as the Berlin Blockade or Cuban Missile Crisis, were for the most part stable and orderly, patterned and predictable. Then, as now, military establishments thrived, demonstrating convincingly that they work best when not used.

Still, a hoard of treasure was squandered and plenty of blood was drawn. Death squads and rebel groups were armed and trained. Nasty regimes were propped up, elected ones subverted, and whole generations deprived of their most basic rights.

But many events seemed part of a script. Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between East and West Berlin, was made famous in popular spy novels and films. From time to time, sparks flew around the perimeter and conflicts—in Korea, Cuba, or Vietnam—threatened to escalate into something larger and more dangerous. In the end, however, most of the confrontations lessened and lids were screwed back on.

Subtle, it was not. Yet the bipolar world-order model set out the agreed strategic geography and rules came to be easily enough understood. As the Cold War ebbed and flowed, with periods of détente interspersed with moments of intense drama, there developed a certain degree of familiarity and continuity.

Canada’s role, then and now

That was the way we were. At minimum, the long superpower standoff did offer some scope for diplomacy. Canada rarely failed to step up to the plate.

As a helpful fixer, honest broker, and pioneering peacekeeper, Canada played an oversized international role in the second half of the 20th century. From the fashioning of post-war multilateral institutions to the Suez crisis, North-South relations, the Rio Earth Summit, and the land-mine ban, Canadian diplomatic activism was palpable.

That all changed, however, under the Harper Conservatives. During that period the revolving-door foreign ministry endured seven mainly indifferent, and sometimes antagonistic, ministers. Over the course of a decade of retrogression and retreat, Canada the boy scout morphed into a warrior-nation wannabe, and Canada’s once widely respected brand was spoiled.

And now? At Davos, the UN, and elsewhere, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau placed the international community on notice that “Canada is back.” Delivering substantially on that pledge will not be easy. While there have been changes in tone (the UN), approach (listening and lingering rather than lecturing and leaving) and direction (climate change), we have not yet seen much heavy lifting.

If this country is to resume the kind of diplomatic initiative for which it was once well known for, and succeed in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, full account will have to be taken of three fundamental features of the transformed operating environment. These attributes will condition, if not determine, the success or failure of future Canadian forays.

Those challenges, which include intensified globalization, shifting power, and the emergence of a heteropolar model of world order, will be examined in the next instalment.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst, and consultant; the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy; a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a policy fellow at the University of Montreal’s Centre for International Studies (CERIUM). Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

Photo: PMO - Adam Scotti

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