In The Media

A time of remembrance, and forgetting

What elements previously associated with Canadian global engagement might have been lost or forgotten? 

by Daryl Copeland

November 19, 2014 

For those with an interest in foreign policy, military history and geopolitics, this month has been rich.

Canadians marked a pair of significant commemorations: Nov. 9, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Nov. 11, Remembrance (or Armistice) Day, which this year fell during the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. 

The festivities in Berlin punctuated a quarter century of European transformation. A few days later at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, an unusually large crowd gathered to honour all those who have served in the Canadian military, and in particular those whose names alone “liveth for evermore.” 

October’s tragic killings in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. and Ottawa heightened Canadians’ shared sense of both empathy and loss. 

What larger implications might be drawn? 

The Great War reminds us of what can happen when citizens and politicians “sleepwalk” over the precipice, defer critical decision-making to generals and admirals, or otherwise invite the sort of conflagration that ensues when old-fashioned doctrines fail and industrial processes are harnessed in the service of mass violence. Less appreciated, but at least as debilitating, was the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed many times the number of the war’s 8.5 million dead. 

Inattention to the management of non-traditional security threats, from climate change to resource scarcity, remains an acute problem. 

Berlin’s re-emergence as the dynamic capital of Europe’s most powerful country is in some respects even more important, signifying the end of the Cold War, German reunification, and the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union. If the “end of history” has not quite delivered a knock-out punch in favour of markets and neoliberalism, Berlin’s ascent nonetheless stands as a powerful symbol of peace and prosperity. 

Despite its annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine, today Russia threatens few beyond its “near abroad.” And while the financial crisis and colossal strategic miscalculation in Iraq resulted in the premature eclipse of the United States’ unipolar moment, broader Western prospects are still reasonably bright, even in the face of a rising Asia-Pacific. At minimum, the Doomsday Clock, though still ticking, no longer hangs over a world mere moments away from the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.

The international system, in other words, though in flux and not functioning especially well, faces few basic challenges to its survival. The religious extremism and political violence of the Islamic State, however horrifying, do not compare to the hazards of world war.


Fallen by the wayside

Still, this November, on the occasion of two particularly poignant anniversaries, Canadians have reason to reflect. From these many acts of remembrance, what, if anything, has been learned? What elements previously associated with this country’s global engagement might have been lost or forgotten? 

What follows is a short list of some once-prominent, but now largely abandoned features: 

Peacekeeping has given way to war fighting—in Afghanistan, Libya and now Iraq—as the cornerstone of Canadian defence policy. The Pearson Centre in Nova Scotia, which trained many thousands of Canadian and foreign peacekeepers, was closed in 2013, and Canada today is a marginal contributor to staffing United Nations-mandated peacekeeping operations

Development assistance, savaged by years of budgetary compression and bureaucratic upheaval, has fallen sharply to .27 per cent of gross national income in 2013, leaving Canada near the bottom of the OECD barrel. Once admired as a generous and an enlightened aid donor, Canada's support for several leading development non-governmental organizations, including KAIROS and the now-shuttered North-South Institute, has been reduced or eliminated. 

Environmental activism was for decades a hallmark of Canadian internationalism. Achievements included the Acid Rain Treaty, the Montreal Protocol on ozone layer depletion and the raft of agreements that flowed from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. More recently, Canada has been the recipient of five Fossil of the Year awards and is best known as an advocate of heavy oil production and pipeline construction. 

Human security initiatives defined Canadian foreign policy for about a decade beginning in 1995. Remember the landmine ban, International Criminal Court, conflict diamonds, child soldiers, Responsibility to Protect, and efforts to control the trade in small arms? Canada could never impose its agenda, but through adept public diplomacy, partnerships with civil society and the media and capable leadership we were able to make a difference. 

Multilateralism, and support for the UN in particular, allowed Canada to play an oversize global role during the second half of the 20th century. More recently, several snubs of the UN General Assembly were topped off by the astonishing failure to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 2010. Today little remains of our reputation as an honest broker and helpful fixer, ready to provide innovative policy advice in support of progressive programs and enlightened governance.



This November, with diplomacy and development displaced by the overwhelming tilt toward defence, Canadians would do well to remember what has been lost. 

This country’s martial makeover has been widely noticed elsewhere, leaving our image blurred and influence eroded. 

Canadians are less secure at home and at greater risk abroad. 

The red maple leaf is a soft-power brand no more. 

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy and a research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. Find him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

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