In The Media

Hugh Segal: A muddled foreign policy

by Laura Ryckewaert (feat. Hugh Segal)

The Hill Times
April 20, 2016

With a new Liberal government in power, Canada is said to be “back” internationally—but Hugh Segal, a former Conservative Senator now master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, says while he’s seen a change in tone, there’s not much change in substance so far.

The “real question,” he said, will be the government’s ability to set priorities and “commit the resources necessary to achieve” them. His new book, Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, might help provide “a constructive path” forward.

“Under-spending, under-commitment and lack of clarity—those are the three things I’m worried about the most [when it comes to Canada’s foreign policy approach],” said Mr. Segal in an interview with P&I in March.

Having a values-based foreign policy is about engaging constructively and with purpose, he said, and history has proven that unless a country is prepared to stand up for values, “the forces of darkness just get stronger and stronger.”

With a forward by Tom Axworthy, Mr. Segal’s book, published by Dundurn Press, includes a chapter on defence procurement as part of the foreign policy picture, and also examines Canadian foreign policy in Russia and China. Two Freedoms was informed by Mr. Segal’s experience in Parliament and as a special envoy for Canada.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted the idea for this book?

“My view has always been that there are two real dangers in Canadian foreign policy: one is the attitude that says our job is just to muddle through, not achieve any significant goals, not have any real purposes, just kind of get from crisis to crisis and hope that no damage is done. And the other real risk is that we lurch back-and-forth from a right wing view to a left wing view and every time a government changes we end up with that kind of back-and-forth in a way that is actually not helpful to Canadian foreign policy and the way in which Canada is viewed in the world.

“Whether you’re a right wing government or a left wing government or a centrist government, what really matters are the two freedoms which define how people get to live their lives, both at home and around the world—freedom from fear and freedom from want.

“Putting those two freedoms at the centre of our foreign policy would make our foreign policy more coherent and would make the change of government from left to right not that important quite frankly because what we stood for as Canadians would be clearly understood and actually nonpartisan in its appeal.”

Why do you describe Canada’s current foreign policy approach as more about muddling through? How has this impacted Canada internationally?

“I think in many respects both in terms of foreign aid and international development, and also in terms of doing our fair share militarily, we really haven’t done what a country our size, with our capacity, our geography, our population should be doing. We’re not doing enough. We spend too little in those areas, and even Great Britain, which went through a very difficult economic time, still kept its foreign aid expenditures at the 0.7 per cent level, which is what we’re supposed to be devoted to but in fact our numbers have been much lower.

“I think it’s because rather than have a serious discussion about what our purposes should be and how best to achieve them in different countries in different ways, we’ll instead have a debate about whether government A was too much on the right or government B was too much on the left—which was an interesting domestic debate, but really doesn’t interest the world very much and the world will not wait for Canada to sort things out. Canada has to have a clear and focused approach which is consistent, well understood and broadly perceived and well executed, and that’s what this book is really about.

“Despite some very hard-working, great foreign service officers and ambassadors and policy people and all the rest, you have this kind of layered birthday cake approach where the priorities of one government get replaced by the priorities of another government, and they pile on each other to the point where there’s 40 or 50 different priorities, all of which are underfunded, which means we can’t really make the kind of contribution we need to make.”

Why isn’t a values-based foreign policy already Canada’s approach?

“I think we have gone through different segments of our history where we have had a values-based approach. When Mr. [Louis] St. Laurent was the prime minister in the late 1940s, early 1950s, we had a very values-based approach in terms of deployment in NATO, in terms of doing our fair share around the world, in terms of engaging fully. I think it’s also true for example when Pierre Trudeau was prepared to test the cruise missile in Canada, in Alberta, because it was part of our duty to NATO to ensure that we had the technical capacity to defend various NATO countries around the world as may be necessary during that period of the Cold War. I think when we deployed under Mr. Pearson in terms of peace between the Arabs and the Israelis in Sinai in the mid-1950s that was clearly reflecting a Canadian value: that if there’s a peaceful way to sort something out, Canadians want to be part of that and we want to help.”

What caused us to move away from that approach?

“I would say in the Chrétien era … the Team Canada approach—sending groups of Canadian business people and politicians around the world to build trade—became the dominant thematic.

“When you’re doing that then of course you don’t want to offend anybody, you don’t want to take any unpleasant stands, you don’t want to in any way shape or form come apart from someone like China or Russia or the Middle East, for example, because you’re looking to advance trade relations.”

The new Liberal government is faced with the pressing need for defence procurement—what do you think the government should do?

“Canada should probably have an Armed Forces of 150,000, of which 100,000 are regular force and 50,000 are reserves, rather than our present number which is in the 50,000-60,000 range. We need, in my judgment, a 60-ship fighting navy. Not one that has 15 or 20 or 30 ships, but one that can deploy on a bunch of humanitarian, diplomatic and other missions around the world to send a clear message about Canadian values.

“I think it’s important that we do not confuse procurement of what our armed forces need with generating jobs in the regions, because when you do that, for example, you end up spending more money to help shipyards that aren’t really up-and-running build their ship yards before you’ll actually get ships. Whereas if you look at what the Australians and others are doing: the Australians are ordering ships and submarines from other countries because they can produce them more quickly, more effectively and more efficiently.

“When you confuse defence procurement in support of our core values and our diplomatic stance with generating jobs in the regions, then what happens is you begin to rob Peter to pay Paul and the procurement process is slowed down, made more expensive and the Canadian Forces don’t get what they need to do the job properly.”

Did the former Conservative government do that?

“I think that the Conservative government made a mistake in the way in which it went about its naval procurement by making regional economic development in B.C. and in Nova Scotia and elsewhere more important than actually getting the ships we needed at the most reasonable price and as quickly as possible and that is why the projects are very much delayed.

“The truth of the matter is, the concept of launching a 20- or 30-year program to get supply ships doesn’t make any sense at all in the world in which we live.”

What do you think overall is the biggest foreign policy issue currently facing Canada?

“I think our greatest foreign policy issue is how to maintain peace and security in a way that is in our economic and social interest and will preserve life and opportunity for a vast majority for people worldwide. That challenge to peace and security is real: it’s real in Crimea, it’s real in terms of the borders of Ukraine, it’s real in the Middle East and it’s real in the South China Sea, and Canada should be prepared to work with our allies to produce stability in those areas and to make it perfectly clear there are rules, there are principles, there are freedoms to be protected and Canada will be a willing partner in that process.”

Who do you want to read this book?

“To the credit of the present government (by the way, who I think are doing many things that are righ) they have initiated a defence review and a foreign policy review, all which is supposed to be finished sometime in the coming fall. So the notion that this book might contribute to that debate or discussion in some constructive way would be my fondest hope.” 

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