Commentary from Colin Robertson

Canada, we need to talk about our place in the world

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
November 24, 2015

When the members of Canada’s new Parliament convene next week for the Speech from the Throne they do so against an international backdrop that is far from sunny: climate change, protracted conflicts, failed states, mass migration and rising powers that don’t respect the norms of the international order that Canada helped to create.

The new Trudeau government’s international agenda is already crowded: planning for the Paris climate talks, processing 25,000 Syrian refugees, shifting our Iraq commitment from CF-18s to trainers and humanitarian help. Then there is the promised defence review, revamp of security legislation and examination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There’s a lot on the plate.

A review of Canada’s international policies is no easy assignment. Lester Pearson, our greatest diplomat, thought it was better to do foreign policy than review it because events beyond our control make grand plans irrelevant.

Foreign policy reviews come in three broad types.

Most are internal affairs, conducted by the civil service for cabinet consideration. Pierre Trudeau’s Foreign Policy for Canadians (1970) and the subsequent Canada-U.S. Relations: Options for the Future (1972) took this approach. So did Paul Martin’s much rewritten A Role of Pride and Influence (2005).

Then there are the more focused reviews, again conducted internally, as with Stephen Harper’s Global Commerce Strategy (2008) and Canada First Defence Strategy (2008).

There were other efforts by other governments that came to naught – dying from either bureaucratic nibbling, political indecision or the sense that events had passed them by.

Given the mixed record of reviews, Mr. Pearson’s skepticism may be right. But Mr. Pearson also recognized the dangers of complacency and acknowledged that foreign policy is too often reactive, rather than creative.

In terms of efficiency of process, broad public outreach and ultimate implementation, the most successful review was Jean Chrétien’s Canada in the World (1995).

The Chrétien exercise owed much to the work of two special joint parliamentary committees, looking at defence and foreign policy. They conducted national hearings and commissioned studies, including a still valuable essay by John Ralston Saul on culture and foreign policy.

The new Trudeau government could look to the Chrétien model with its emphasis on parliamentary involvement. Cross-Canada parliamentary hearings can be complemented through public dialogue, applying the Trudeau government’s apt facility with social media like Google Hangout.

It would benefit both parliamentarians and the public service if departmental staff were assigned to help the committee. Give the committee a sufficient budget to commission studies and for international travel. And have the committee report before the end of 2016 so that its recommendations can be acted on during this Parliament.

Deepening parliamentarians’ knowledge of international relations will help them and enhance the various interparliamentary committees and country friendship associations.

As our diplomat-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the midst of a whirlwind tour of summits. These well-tweeted travels inform but do not give depth or context. Mr. Trudeau should revive the practice of prime ministers, from Louis St. Laurent through Pierre Trudeau, of reporting to Parliament on major travels abroad.

A global policy review should focus on three questions:

  • Where do we want to play a role in the world and why?
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • How much will we spend?

Our international interests are vital. Trade generates 60 per cent of our GDP. Immigration and refugee resettlement provides us with new talent and new ideas.

Our sovereignty and well-being depends on the international rules-based system – the UN, the World Bank, IMF and WTO – and our NATO collective security alliance. Their value endures, but reforms are necessary.

Relations with China and Russia deserve particular focus. China wants and deserves more clout. Russia wants more respect. Both have the capacity to cause disruption, as we witness in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

It is in everyone’s interest to have rising powers integrate into the international system. Accommodations must be made. But with accommodation must go recognition by China and Russia of their responsibilities to established norms and the rule of law.

A review of Canada’s global policies is no easy assignment. Where can we find our niche and lead? Can we be deliberate and focused?

With growing public apprehension that times are out of joint and concern about the future, we need a national dialogue on Canada’s place and priorities in the world. Achieving greater understanding, if not consensus, on our global objectives will also help define the Canadian brand in the 21st century.

 

 


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