Re-Branding Canada: From the Siege of Sarajevo to Rio Plus 20

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of two international events of signal importance in the history of Canadian international policy – the start of the 44 month siege of Sarajevo (April 06) and the UN’s Rio Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit (June 03-14).

I was reflecting on the significance of this pair of occasions a few weeks ago while participating in the Meseuro Foundation Workshop and the Dubrovnik Diplomatic Forum, two conferences sponsored by the EU, UN, and several universities. The geographic context was Euro-Mediterranean, and both events are part of a larger effort to avert a clash of civilizations and to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the region. Of special interest are the southern and eastern tiers, whose populations might otherwise be tempted to relocate north and west, en masse.

Following five days of discussions on “Diplomacy and the Intercultural Dialogue” in Dubrovnik, I used the opportunity to do some travelling in the Western Balkans, visiting the Adriatic island of Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo, as well as ancient Kotor, in Montenegro, and finally the still-troubled cities of Mostar, Trebinje, Stolac and Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina.




The Balkans.

Spending some time in this culturally rich, ethnically diverse, religiously divided and politically volatile region caused me to reflect further on some of my assumptions and conclusions about the role and use of digital communications and social media platforms – e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, blogs, chat rooms, YouTube, Flickr and the like – by foreign ministries. I was invited to Dubrovnik to speak that subject, and I came away with a suite of specific reservations, and some more broadly-based concerns, which I did not possess going in.

I suppose that’s what is meant by “lifelong learning”.

But all of that – and a more detailed exploration of just how, and why Canada’s role and place in the world has changed so fundamentally since the exercise of leadership in UNPROFOR , the opening of the Sarajevo airport, and the action in the Medac Pocket – is for another day.

So, too, with commentary on how 9/11, by providing an opening for the introduction of the the politics of fear, has proven a game changer. At minimum, it provided the cover necessary for  governments to unlearn whatever might have been gleaned from their  involvement in ten years of tragedy and international political mismanagement in the former Yugoslavia.

I propose instead to review the legacy of the Rio Summit, and to offer some observations on the larger issue of what a difference two decades can make when it comes to matters of international policy and nation branding.

Twenty years ago, Canada was the main organizer of that groundbreaking event in Brazil. Though largely forgotten, the conference  produced a host of major achievements, including Agenda 21, the Statement of Forest Principles, the Biodiversity Convention, andyes! – the original  UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Canadians, including members of the NGO community, who for the first time were invited to join the official delegation, provided the main animus for the organization and delivery of the conference. Canadian money and human resources, elements most notable these days for their scarcity in the public sector, helped made it happen. Maurice Strong was conference Chair; Art Campeau was the PM’s Special Rep and PM Mulroney gave a major address; Jean Charest was fully engaged as Environment Minister. DFAIT had the better part of an entire bureau devoted to the cause.

Fast forward to the present, with the twentieth  anniversary meeting starting next week in Brazil.

This time around Canada’s cast of would-be participants include Peter Kent, Bev Oda, John Baird and Stephen Harper, none of whom are well-known for their enlightened views on environment and development.

In the wake of the last budget, DFAIT and CIDA are on the ropes. Federal government performance on global warming has been dismal. Kyoto is in the ditch and inside sources confirm that the entire Climate Change division has been axed at Foreign Affairs. The Budget Authorization Act has gutted what was left of Canada’s environmental regulatory and planning capacity. Development NGOs, and especially those that won’t tow the Conservative party line, are under siege.

Over the past year I have been participating in an OECD/Norwegian/German project (STIG), which by highlighting global  science and technology challenges is in a modest way is playing into the forthcoming conference. The Green Party organized a symposium last month, but that passed almost without notice. Unlike the case two decades ago, however, Rio Plus 20 has received little attention in the Canadian press. I am not aware of any major event being planned to mark this very significant anniversary in Canada.

Oil sands projects and pipelines, on the other hand, not unlike asbestos exports, are enjoying unprecedented levels of government support.

How times have changed. After a flurry of activity in the second half of the 1990s – the land mine ban, International Criminal Court, children in conflict, blood diamonds, the Responsibility to Protect – it has been over a decade since Canada attempted any significant diplomatic initiative. The progressive Canadian state is being dismantled. Even mainstream commentators are coming to the realization that Canada’s image and reputation, credibility and influence in the world are not what they once were.

After coasting for years, our free ride is over. The one-time champion of North-South relations and sustainable development has been recast as the fossil of the year, and the international community is taking note.

From international innovator, creative problem solver, generous aid donor and multilateral peacekeeper to free-trading, war-adulating, cowboy Canada.

To the extent that the situation in Canada reflects broader trends, it is little wonder that Rio Plus 20 seems destined to go down in history as a pale reflection of its progenitor.

That was then and this is now.

Nice, eh?