In The Media

Has Canada become a diplomatic scold?

by John Noble

November 15, 2013

In their enthusiasm to discredit Joe Clark’s criticisms of the Harper government’s foreign policy, Derek Burney and Fen Hampson have made some valid points about how the world has changed since what they rightly call the second golden age of Canadian diplomacy under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Foreign Minister Joe Clark (in which Burney had a major role both as chief of staff to Mulroney and as our ambassador in Washington).

They also point out some of the Harper government’s successes in foreign policy, including its U-turn on China and Libya (where Burney appears to have experienced his own U-turn about the wisdom of Canadian participation). They also rightly emphasize the key role of leadership in Canadian foreign policy and “the need for innovative diplomacy to address … pressing global challenges”, but don’t offer too many examples of where that has happened.

By accusing Joe Clark of “urging us to gaze through a rear view mirror to find direction for the future”, Burney and Hampson are conveniently forgetting Santayana’s adage that“those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”. Notwithstanding constant changes to the challenges Canada faces from outside, surely there are lessons to be learned from the second golden age.

The first is the importance of close personal relations with the president of the United States. That is not a recipe for resolving all of our differences with our American friends, but without it there will be even fewer differences bridged.

Had Brian Mulroney not developed close personal relations with Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., we would never have come to an agreement on acid rain. Furthermore, if Canada had not shown some leadership in addressing our own contributions to acid rain, our credibility in Washington would have been nil. We didn’t wait for the U.S to act — as Burney and Hampson suggest we should do on greenhouse gas emissions— just because our economies are so closely integrated. The Harper government’s inability to meet even its own reduced commitments on greenhouse gases has certainly reduced our credibility in Washington on Keystone XL, notwithstanding the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper views it as a“no-brainer”.

Prime Minister Harper has not sought to develop a close personal relationship with President Obama. Indeed, some insiders have told me Harper’s entourage “hates” Obama — and that was before Keystone XL. Sometimes Harper has gone out of his way to antagonize Obama — recall that G-8 summit in Germany where Harper took issue with language Obama wanted in the communique on the Middle East just after Obama had launched a major initiative. Most Canadian prime ministers have supported U.S. presidents on their Middle East initiatives. Louis St. Laurent, with Lester Pearson as his foreign minister, did it during the Suez crisis. There are many other examples.

Of course it’s not all one-way. Obama’s unilateral cancellation of participation in the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership was certainly a setback. Mulroney never would have allowed that to happen without considerable cajoling of his American counterparts. Obama’s dithering on Keystone is another genuine disappointment for Harper. The state of the relationship between Harper and Obama is one of the most overlooked aspects of Harper’s foreign policy.

A second lesson relates to the role Canada can and must play in multilateral institutions to achieve many of its foreign policy objectives. Burney and Hampson correctly point to the many failures of the multilateral system — but they offer no alternative. Canada played a major role in the Uruguay Round which led to the creation of the World Trade Organization and was a member of the “quad” along with the U.S., EU, and Japan. In the Doha Round the quad is dead; Canada is on the sidelines, with our only major objective being to defend our supply management policies (not something Harper invented and something supported by all parties in Parliament).

Prime Minister Harper has not sought to develop a close personal relationship with President Obama. Indeed, some insiders have told me Harper’s entourage ‘hates’ Obama — and that was before Keystone XL.

But there hasn’t been any Canadian leadership in the Doha Round from successive Canadian governments. Press releases by Minister of International Development Christian Paradis and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on the Foreign Affairs website paradoxically show contrasting evaluations of the value of la Francophonie to Canada and the boycott of the Commonwealth summit.

Losing out on the Security Council seat was a reflection of many countries’ assessments of Canada’s changed position on many issues (climate change, the Middle East and Africa being key, even if the shift on Africa was not as great as Harper suggested). But it was not the end of the world and should have been used for a re-evaluation of how best to achieve multilateral objectives — much as the new China policy came from the obvious failure of the policy initially adopted by the Harper government. Instead, we wore the defeat as a badge of honour.

Canada has had a seat on the Security Council for only two years out of every ten since the UN’s inception. Not being on the Council is the norm, not the exception, and Canada has had to work hard to achieve its diplomatic objectives in that context for many years. Canada was not on the Security Council when Pearson won his Nobel Peace Prize — but Pearson certainly didn’t use the podium at the UN to antagonize and hector other members, to gloat over snubbing the UN. When the time came for Canada to play a role in the Suez crisis, St. Laurent and Pearson had established their credibility within the UN, with the U.S. and with most NATO and Commonwealth countries, and worked with them to carry the day. Mulroney and Chretien won their bids for a seat on the Security Council by following similar tactics. What you do or don’t say at the UN and other multilateral fora matters.

A third lesson is the need for some sort of balance in our policy in the Middle East, where successive Canadian governments from St. Laurent to Harper have supported Israel. Harper and Baird have done it in an “in your face” fashion that raises serious questions about whether their support actually helps Israel.

You don’t have to support everything Benjamin Netanyahu says to be a true friend of Israel. Sometimes real friends can be more effective by privately telling truth to power. Israel needs friends like that — and friends who also have bridges to the Palestinian and Arab world.

I have no problem supporting Israel. I remember a debate at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in the early 1980s; I had to wake up our then-ambassador in the middle of the night to deliver a speech in support of Israel that I had written on the basis of long-standing Canadian policy. We didn’t win that debate but we stood up and were counted. Boycotting UN conferences where Israel is going to be criticized, withdrawing our embassy from Tehran — these sorts of moves put us on the sidelines, without any say outside of press releases saying we are waiting for change. And who speaks up to defend Israel then?

Joe Clark has said that Canada has become a country that lectures and leaves. That is a serious criticism that Burney and Harper do not address. Clark and Mulroney have made it clear they would not be boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Sri Lanka. They would be going and telling those present, including the world press, what they think of Sri Lanka’s human rights violations. That would earn them more credibility with other Commonwealth leaders than sitting on the sidelines halfway round the world. It would also earn them credit to be cashed in on other issues in other fora. It’s unfortunate that all three political federal parties have become hostages to the influence of Tamil Canadians on this issue.

The fact that Canada has not enjoyed a third golden age in its diplomacy under Stephen Harper cannot be blamed entirely on external factors. Joe Clark has given us his explanation. Perhaps Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson need to reflect more on that score.

John Noble is a Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute fellow and a retired Canadian ambassador who worked with Joe Clark and Derek Burney on Canada/U.S. relations and with Clark on NATO/NORAD and international security issues before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1990 Ottawa Open Skies Conference.

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