Commentary from Colin Robertson

Note to Canada’s next government: Diplomacy is not a sign of weakness

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
September 29, 2015

Allies are usually friends but adversaries are not always enemies. Our next government needs to recognize this distinction to give Canada better leverage in the changing international order.

At the end of the Second World War, Canadians helped construct a new international order.

Idealism guided our efforts in designing the United Nations. Realpolitik drove the creation of NATO. The West’s collective security alliance contained Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, an erstwhile ally but no friend. NATO now constrains Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an erstwhile friend but no ally.

The United States is Canada’s enduring, if occasionally frustrating, friend and closest ally. Strengthened daily by deepening economic integration, this relationship now includes Mexico.

Geographic propinquity gives Canada a special place in Washington and our interpretive role leverages our standing. Canadians have roots in every corner of the globe. When we are on our diplomatic game, Washington welcomes our global perspective.

We are well placed to interpret the United States. Foreign nations, confused by the White House and Congress, look to us for explanation.

Our ability to arbitrage this interpretive capacity requires a global diplomatic service constantly gathering insights. Even when we don’t like the incumbent government we need to be there. Keeping our ambassador in Havana throughout the Castro era allowed us to be a useful fixer in the recent re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The University of Southern California’s Geoffrey Wiseman has edited the book Isolate or Engage which concludes that when it comes to dealing with adversarial states, engagement works better than isolation. Policy makers must distinguish between efforts at regime change (for example, Islamic State) and regime behavioural change (such as Russia in Ukraine, China in the South China Sea).

The U.S. withheld relations at various times with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Libya, Iran and North Korea. “More often than not,” writes Prof. Wiseman, “this policy has frustrated U.S. foreign policy goals.” With Vietnam, for example, it hampered U.S. efforts to recover the remains of fallen servicemen. Isolation of Cuba damaged U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America.

To isolate or to engage increasingly breaks down on party lines in the United States. In his first inaugural address, President Barack Obama pledged to foreign adversaries to “extend a hand if you unclench your fist.” It’s not easy. President Obama’s ambiguous Syrian red-line left him looking weak but his patience and perseverance with Iran achieved a nuclear agreement. By contrast, many of the Republican contenders for 2016 would isolate China and put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. Nor do they like the Iran deal or the Cuban accord.

Conservative foreign policy under Stephen Harper is too often binary. Mr. Harper has shunned the United Nations, telling a Montreal audience in May: “Gone are the days when Canadian foreign policy was about nothing more than trying to be liked by every dictator with a vote at the UN.” This attitude explains why Canada speaks 190th, ahead of only San Marino and Palau, at this week’s General Assembly.

In recent years, we broke relations with Iran, recalled our ambassador to Russia and circumscribed contact with North Korea, moves that created headlines and puffery about “toughness.” They also removed our ability to influence and provide insight.

Avoiding high-level contact with China for nearly five years earned a reprimand from the Chinese premier. It also reduced our economic opportunities with the second-largest global economy. Giving Russia’s Foreign Minister the cold shoulder in Iqaluit – so he didn’t attend – was an ungracious finale to our Arctic Council chairmanship.

Diplomatic relations are not an endorsement of good housekeeping. Rather they give us vital communications, in-country observation and consular protection for Canadians.

Why not engage China, as agreed, on closer economic collaboration and maritime energy corridors? Why not engage Russia in the Arctic? Why not work with China and Russia on containing jihad and managing climate change and cyberspace?

Trying to shape the behaviour of friends, adversaries and enemies is a constant effort requiring hard and soft power.

A recent study assessing Canadian international engagement concluded that our spending on defence and development assistance, key indicators of engagement, has fallen by half since 1990. We have become, argued authors Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan, international “free riders.”

International engagement requires a robust foreign service, Canadian Forces ready for action and generous development assistance. For the next government, this means political will and multiyear budgeting commitments.

“To jaw-jaw” said Winston Churchill, no appeaser, “is always better than to war-war.” In an era of protracted conflict and asymmetrical warfare, the international order needs constant attention and strategic patience. To engage is not a sign of weakness.


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