In The Media

Canada falls flat on the world stage

by Daryl Copeland

Toronto Star
September 25, 2015

The Harper Shift is a month-long look at how Canada has changed over a decade of Conservative government — and at what kind of country we want to become. Here Daryl Copeland considers the withering of Canadian diplomacy.

Saturation coverage and shocking images of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe have focused attention on Canadian foreign policy and on this country’s decade-long record of diplomatic and multilateral underperformance.

While unusual for an electoral campaign, such scrutiny is long overdue.

The inventor of peacekeeping, long-standing proponent of North-South relations, and determined promoter of sustainable development — once universally welcomed as an honest broker, helpful fixer and provider of good offices and innovative ideas — is today regarded as an obstruction to progress, a country with little to bring to the table.

Canada’s vaunted foreign service has languished, marginalized and under-employed by a government uninterested in professional diplomatic advice or enlightened international initiative.

Unrecognizable to its former partners and friends, Canada has become something of an international pariah — a serial unachiever, the fossil of the year, the country that others don’t want in the room. The one-time boy scout has become a distant outlier in the international system, sometimes ostracized but more often simply ignored

In a world in which nothing can be achieved by acting alone, Canadian influence has become spectral, and the orchestration of action in concert, through the United Nations and most other international organizations, next to impossible.

The Conservative government has shot Canada in the foot when we are in a race.

From the end of the Second World War through the mid 1990s, Canada put its shoulder to the wheel and tried to advance global order issues — eliminating poverty, feeding the hungry, preventing war, reforming international organizations. Progressive Conservative governments led the world in resettling Indochinese refugees, combating apartheid in Southern Africa, and addressing environmental challenges ranging from acid rain and ozone layer depletion to the organization of the Earth Summit.

Later, after it became clear that Canada could no longer engage in the really heavy international lifting, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy excavated a useful diplomatic niche with his Human Security Agenda. In under five years this country brought in a treaty banning landmines, helped establish the International Criminal Court, launched the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and moved forward initiatives on small arms, blood diamonds, and child soldiers and children in conflict.

That was activism.

And today?

All fight, no talk. Dialogue, negation, compromise and knowledge-based problem-solving have given way to hectoring rhetoric and debilitating retrogression. Diplomacy and multilateralism have been written off.

Over the past decade the warrior nation wannabes in Ottawa preferred to preside over disastrous years of war in Afghanistan, to help open a Pandora’s Box of multiple misfortunes by participating in an illegal regime change exercise in Libya, and unthinkingly to join in the anti-ISIL bombing of Iraq and Syria, thus worsening the refugee crisis and exposing Canadians to a heightened risk of retaliation at home and abroad.

Other hallmarks of the past decade?

  • Spurning progressive diplomatic or developmental initiatives of any description
  • Sidelining the public service and imposing drastic reductions to international capacity through cuts to DFATD, CIC, science-based departments and agencies, and international NGOs
  • Centralizing, controlling and censoring all international communications, while concentrating decision-making in the PMO
  • Failing to win election to the UN Security Council, while opting for a photo-op at Tim Horton’s over attending the UN General Assembly
  • Refusing to attend multilateral meetings, and rejecting or withdrawing from a variety of international agreements
  • Bungling Canada’s relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, the rising centre of the world political economy
  • Adopting a highly skewed set of policy positions on issues involving, variously, Iran, Israel, the Palestinians, and issues of Middle East peace
  • Shuttering the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, the Canadian Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, and North-South Institute
  • Withdrawing Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, while promoting the tarsands, pipelines, resource and extractive industries
  • Pursuing free trade and promoting commercial and corporate interests at public expense

The Harper government’s record of contempt for Parliament, due process (Afghan detainee hearings) and civil liberties (Bill C-51) is exceeded only by its contempt for diplomacy and multilateralism.

Delivery of the government’s ideologically driven, evidence-dismissing agenda has cost Canada’s reputation and influence dearly. Through its adulation of the military and attacks on science, democracy, and internationalism, the Conservatives have eroded Canadian values and interests, diminished Canada’s prosperity and security, run down our formerly admirable soft power, and spoiled the Canadian brand.

Canada’s hard-won standing as a generous, open, engaged and compassionate actor has been squandered.

Declarations to the contrary notwithstanding, religious extremism, political violence and terrorism are not among the foremost threats faced by Canadians, which consist instead of a complex and sprawling range of issues rooted in science and driven by technology — climate change, reduced biodiversity, ecological collapse and destruction of the global commons.

In face of the greatest problems now imperiling the planet, Canadians have been left vulnerable and exposed.

Unprepared, ill-equipped and stumbling blind, our defences have been degraded, our capacity diminished and our resilience undermined.

Canadians deserve better.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant; the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy; a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a policy fellow at the University of Montreal’s CERIUM. Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

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