In The Media

Book Excerpt: Hugh Segal calls for focused foreign policy

(feat. Hugh Segal)

Ottawa Citizen
April 8, 2016

Hugh Segal is a former senator, a former chief of staff to Ontario premier William Davis and to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is a senior fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future.

The concept of a national strategy often strikes those who report on events as a terrible conceit, causing oth­erwise rational governments to think that a set of goals, like desired outcomes in domestic or international affairs, can withstand the uncertainty and even randomness of events. What strategy could the countries of the West have adopted to prevent Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in January 1933? What strategy, or plan of action based on that strategy would have prevented Pearl Harbor in December 1941? How can a government anchor a strategy in basic precepts so that they will be able to provide a compass reading when a disaster strikes?

Practitioners in diplomacy, especially those with field experience, are often deeply suspicious of governments with foreign policy goals that are too strategic or even, God for­bid, idealistic. We frequently hear from the professional, “striped-pants” set that values and ideas are secondary to events and interests. “Countries do not have allies or friends — sim­ply interests” is the repeated refrain around negotiating tables or in international fora. But if informed ad hoc commenting is the stuff of much foreign policy, surely history tells us time and time again that “ersatz,” “make do,” or “go with the flow” foreign policy is fraught with weakness.

However, being unable to choose the freedoms that matter most, the ones we desperately need to defend at home and to help others defend abroad, makes foreign, defence, and domestic choices more difficult for democracies. Having no central conclusion about what really matters throughout his­tory and to human survival today leaves both domestic and foreign policy adrift.

Such a situation is not necessary, however. We can aspire to a more clear and coherent understanding. And middle powers like Canada absolutely have to aspire to a specific purpose.

Throughout world history, anger, desperation, and violence are rarely separated from each other. While, depending on the family, city, country, or culture, the connection may not be the same, or even have the same results, they do inevitably connect across the flow of history, and this is one of the sad, repetitious failings of humanity.

Most wars, most violent insurgencies, most terrorist attacks do not come from some spontaneous, inhumane combustion. Such events are the product of a myriad of complex factors — a lust for power may underlie the situation; the tension and confusion that accompany a failed or failing state might be the source of the struggle; conflict between competing elites could be a cause; or the violence could signal the simple outbreak of inter-ethnic animosities.

Canadians, and those global partners who believe in an ordered society or a balance between responsibility and free­dom as well as the promise of competent private and public enterprise and well-managed risk, often dismiss the challenge of poverty and violence with hollow shibboleths that take the form of either moral injunctions or fatalist clichés. “The poor are (or will) always be with us” is typical of one category of dismissive rejoinders to any genuine efforts at smart poverty reduction. If the poverty target is in Africa or South Asia, many often cite entrenched corruption to make the case for not being too idealistic or hopeful. If responses to poverty and its pathologies involve government, the inherent complexity and inefficiencies of large bureaucracies are deemed sufficient reason to stand down from serious investment.

Gaps that grow between the wealthiest and poorest in soci­ety are dismissed by some, but thankfully not all, through orthodox deference to the role of the marketplace, how hard some at the very top of the income ladder really work, their education, skills, will to take risks, et cetera. And as for the very poor, some conservatives, and even some liberals, speak solemnly of a lack of drive, an aversion to hard work, and the intergenerational nature of poverty in some parts of society. Usually this sombre analysis uses references to substance abuse, the end of the traditional two-parent families, and all sorts of other pretexts for not engaging. If religion was once unfairly dismissed as the opiate of the masses, “inevitability” is surely the great anesthetic for the self-satisfied.

The purpose of this book is to confront the cult of for­eign policy inevitability. There is a historic and a very North American precedent for not letting inevitability sap our col­lective will to engage.

On January 6, 1941, delivering his State of the Union Address to a largely isolationist United States Congress that was seeking to avoid international entanglements for the nation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt summed up the chal­lenge in these immortal and still deeply relevant words eleven months before the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor: “Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world; assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda.”

There were, however, many in Congress who felt that the Atlantic Ocean afforded America liberation from international threat or duty. Confronting this idea, Roosevelt continued, “Therefore as your President, performing my constitutional duty to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, I find it unhappily necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are over­whelmingly involved in events beyond our borders.”

When he spoke of the scourge of poverty and the threat it posed, he did so in this way, focusing on the third of his four freedoms: “The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.”

Poverty and its pathologies, at home and around the world, constitute the largest and most real threat to any aspiration for balance and stability. Balance and stability are the key building stones for peace and security. Failure to tackle this issue head-on, so that the battle against poverty is not simply viewed as a narrow, aspirational “socialist cause célèbre” but, rather, as a global business and security problem needing the minds and experience of those who favour economic growth, enterprise, and productivity, means the problem will continue to exist, broaden, and target the lives and economies of countries worldwide. Those targeted include the rich, the middle class, and the poor who live there — and, ominously, who also live here.

Socialism, which, as Sir Keith Joseph once observed, “seeks to institutionalize envy,” involves a damping down of both economic disparity and genuine opportunity. It more often results in state control of outcome than economic liberation. Under socialism, the slices of the economic pie become ever smaller, as the pie is evenly divided in a government-mandated process time and again. Rarely does the pie become larger or the recipe for it more fulfilling; instead, the focus is much more on who wields the pie cutter. And as Michael Frayn pointed out in the script of his 2003 play Democracy, paraphrasing an anonymous quotation: “Communism is about man oppressing man. Socialism is the opposite.” The early days of a more totalitarian socialism, while now in retreat, remain instructive.

Conservatives do not obsess about the precise measurements of each pie slice; instead, they concern themselves with the ingredients of freedom, creativity, opportunity, stability, and order, trying to determine the perfect ratio likely to produce a truly great and larger pie at home and abroad. And if freedom is a serious and compelling part of the recipe for societies that grow and prosper, it is clear that not all freedoms share an equal rank. While the recipe for a larger South American pie may differ from those for Malaysia, Lebanon, or West Africa, because of the influence of local history, identities, and cultures, some critical ingredients are key.

Societies that are dysfunctional — where order is shattered by violence; where communal and national trust is in deep deficit; where the rule of law is weak; and where human rights are sparse and under capricious threat — are usually characterized by two dominant realities: abiding fear and debilitating want.

Lack of stability, order, and rule of law either generates fear or is generated by it. The violence used by local vigilantes becomes acceptable to some populations because of their fear of the raw and unregulated force of others, because of their fear of persecution for ethnic or religious reasons, fear of government, fear of the local criminal or insurgent gang, and fear for their family, property, and safety and security. Societies driven by these kinds of fears are rarely well-functioning. And grinding poverty that makes life very hard and very cheap is usually the fellow traveller of societies where fear is all too present.

For Mr. Roosevelt, freedom from fear and freedom from want were numbers four and three on his list of the most important freedoms, behind freedom of speech and expression and freedom of religion. Those may well have been the inescapable conclusions that Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan evoked. But today, after countless small wars, terrorist incursions, and outbreaks of civil strife, the evidence of the unavoidable overlap between violence and poverty as mutually supportive cancers in troubled places from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, from the Balkans to north of Africa, from the Caucasus to Afghanistan is clear. Likewise, the evidence of the foundational role of freedom from fear and want as the basis for all others is simply too pervasive and conclusive to allow any other freedom a higher status. There is a hierarchy of freedoms. Not all spaces between the lines of the concentric circle of freedom have equal width and depth.

This is why the freedoms that matter most and whose protection should be central to Canadian foreign policy are the freedom from fear and freedom from want. How these two freedoms are built, strengthened, attained, and defended should form the true nucleus of a modern foreign policy mission worldwide. The tools we use, the principles we embrace, the design and rights we employ, will be at once universal and timeless. It is only with these freedoms as a base that other freedoms, like those of expression, of assembly, of worship, of property ownership, of the press, can be built and sustained.

In the end, a rational world view is about preserving what matters most and what is best in one’s history and society and avoiding those changes and “innovations” that are hollow, destructive, or wasteful.

Excerpted from Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, by Hugh Segal

All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press (

In Town: The author will launch his book on April 14 as part of the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. The event takes place at 5:30 p.m. at Social, 537 Sussex Dr.

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