The Retreat From Internationalism – Part I

From the late 1940s  through to early in this century, Canada enjoyed a reputation as a determined, capable and effective internationalist. Regardless of which party formed the government, this country actively engaged with other peoples and states in the in the pursuit of collaborative solutions to the world’s major problems and challenges. From the founding of the UN, post-war reconstruction and the Suez crisis to non-proliferation issues, protection of the global commons and working to address the plight of children in conflict, Canada was always present, and, when appropriate, ready to lead.

As Canada’s relative power and influence inevitably declined with the recovery of Europe and Asia and the emergence of China, India, Brazil and others, the scale of Canadian activism was down-sized.  Grand, long-term goals such as eradicating poverty and bringing peace to the world gradually gave way to to smaller, “niche”  projects such as the land mine ban, conflict diamonds and the construction of innovative new doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect.  The nature of Canadian internationalism changed with the times, and public diplomacy was mobilized to advance the likes of Human Security Agenda, but a core commitment to internationalism endured.

Today, little remains of that tradition, and international policy decision-making seems related mainly to the quest for future electoral advantage.

What happened?

Changes in the nature and direction of domestic politics have certainly played a part. The Harper Conservatives have tended to conflate internationalism with the foreign policy of the Liberal party, which they have condemned, and not without some justification,  as soft, airy and empty – all talk, no action. The Conservatives  have repudiated the past and embraced a more hard power oriented and militarized approach to international affairs which features a demonstrated preference for fighting over talking. Adulation for the armed forces, and the celebration of all things martial have reached unprecedented heights.

While prepared to join – with minimal public discussion or debate – in aggressive counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan or the NATO bombing of Libya, it seems unlikely that this country will ever again undertake anything as ambitious as orchestrating the 1981 Cancun Summit on North-South issues or the 1992 Rio Conference on environment and development, not to mention the exercise of leadership within the Commonwealth to defeat apartheid in southern Africa. Instead, we negotiate trade agreements, promote asbestos exports and boycott major multilateral conferences on racism and disarmament. Canada has walked away from peacekeeping,  dispensed with a balanced approach towards conflict resolution in the Middle East, and received the Fossil of the Year award for our performance on climate change.

In other words, the once familiar helpful fixer, honest broker, provider of “good offices” and boy scout to the world is no more. Canada’s image, reputation and brand are being radically reconstructed. As underscored so painfully by last year’s failure to win an elected seat on the UN Security Council, the rest ot the world has finally taken notice.

Political and ideological changes, exacerbated by a revolving door pattern of ministerial appointments over the past decade,  provide part of the explanation.  Though often overlooked, the running down of this country’s diplomatic apparatus has also hurt. The Department of Foreign Affairs has had great difficulty adapting to the challenges of globalization and has not done well in competition with other departments – especially defence – when it comes to the annual resource auction.  Today the foreign ministry is sidelined, marginalized, and facing yet another round of deep cuts. Deprived of the financial support required and with its representatives effectively gagged, DFAIT’s capacity and influence have been deliberately reduced.

Unlike DFAIT, ministries such as Human Resources and Skills Development, Transport, Infrastructure, Heritage, Industry and many others have large domestic programs, send cheques to their clients, and create jobs. As a result, all enjoy supportive, and sometimes vocal national constituencies. Moreover, while the expansion – or encroachment – of other government departments into areas previously believed to be the exclusive preserve of the foreign ministry has been going on for years, there has been little compensatory effort to insert foreign ministry perspectives into domestic debates, or to underline the Department’s relevance to the national security and domestic prosperity.

Consigned now to the edges of government with few natural or permanent allies, the failure to invest in a  sustained and strategic effort to develop a durable base  has been costly for DFAIT.

The active nurturing of a supportive domestic environment for the formulation of international policy is critical – if messages are to be carried abroad, they must resonate at home. Yet at a time of maximum need, the foreign ministry’s outreach activities have been ratcheted back dramatically. Significant domestic interest in, and support for diplomacy, the foreign ministry and international policy is nowhere now in evidence.

Domestic politics and diminished bureaucratic capacity have both played a part in orchestrating Canada’s departure from its diplomatic past. None of this could have happened, however, if Canadians themselves had strenuously objected. Instead, both during and between elections, there has been barely a peep from the populace.

Those matters warrant further investigation, and will be the subject of a future post.