I was watching CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange, when I heard for the umpteenth time that the Harper government was going to shift their focus of their diplomacy. Now shifting the efforts of one’s diplomacy is not usually a big deal and this has happened many times before. Trudeau, for example, deepened our relationships with China, Russia and Cuba long before the Americans changed their stance. In many ways, that change allowed for the Americans and other Western Allies to have a backdoor that allowed for conversations about more openness and freedom.
Or one could think about Mulroney’s shifts. He sought free trade agreements through the FTA and NAFTA Treaties. He also joined the Organization of American States. Chretien, by not following the US into Iraq, also changed the focus of our foreign policy. So change is not new.
What is new is the Canadian Government abandonment of General Diplomacy. What is even worse is the view of some policy commentators on this issue. For example, when Rudyard Griffiths, one of the Guest Hosts on the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, said this:
“Canadians often think that we have this big impact on the world stage; that our voice matters – you know -in the councils of power. The reality is that it doesn’t” (CBC Newsworld, Lang and O’Leary Exchange, November 27, 2013)
I was honestly shocked. Mr. Griffiths, as a founding member of the Dominion Institute, should know that soft power and our middle power status continues to define much of the world. Look at South Africa. Brian Mulroney was able to do something that most countries only wish they could do: promote regime change. With a microphone, moral swagger and sanctions, he stood up to a wrong in the world. Even though South Africa was close allies with the US and UK, Mr. Mulroney promoted a strong sanction against the regime. Even though South Africa had been developing a nuclear bomb programme, the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney was able to line up a set of countries – in Africa and the Commonwealth – who were willing to stand up against the Apartheid Regime. This coalition stood up until free elections were held and change was permanent.
Imagine today, if the US had the moral weight. Imagine if the US could line up a group of countries that would have crippled an economy. If that was the case, the US would never have gone into Iraq. Syria, Libya and Egypt would not have descended into the chaos that the “Arab Spring” has caused. In fact, there might have been a peaceful transition as had happened when the Apartheid Government gave up.
If one doubts this, let me describe the old South Africa. In 1960, 69 people were killed in a peaceful protest. Since that point there were a number of massacres, including the Soweto Uprising, and a lot of violence perpetrated against the Black Majority from the White Minority. While much of the peaceful transition can be attributed to Nelson Mandela, one cannot help but see that the pressure applied by the crippling sanctions forced F.W. De Klerk’s hand into talking with Mr. Mandela. Or put differently, Canada was essential in providing the environment under which a democratic and peaceful transition could happen. Powers like the US, Russia, China, Britain or France cannot claim such a success.
Or think of the Ottawa Treaty. For those who don’t remember, 161 States agreed in 1997 to stop using anti-personnel landmines. This happened under the Jean Chrétien Government. That’s right, Canadians were instrumental in getting the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and their Destruction passed. All of this happened because the Foreign Minister, the Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, took an interest in the idea proposed by a citizen’s initiative. While it is true that thirty-five countries have not signed the treaty and one more has signed but did not ratify, it is also true that one of those countries – the United States – has indicated that they will destroy many of their landmines to stay in compliance with the norm. In fact, the only thing that seems to be stopping them from ratifying the treaty is the on-going tension along the DMZ bordering North and South Korea. Given the lack of action on most foreign treaties and multilateral actions in recent years, one must acknowledge the strength of Canadian multilateral actions.
However, they do not end there. (Ret) General John de Chastelain, was Chairman of the Northern Ireland Decommissioning Team, known as the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. In February 2003, Canadian Philippe Kirsch was elected a Judge of the International Criminal Court. He was subsequently elected President of the Court. Judge Kirsch was re-elected on March 11, 2006 as the President of the Court. While former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Louise Arbour, has been the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
In fact, the only reason why Canada has fallen of the world stage as a leader is simple: the Harper Government has decided that it does not want to be a global leader. Instead of providing an alternative to the feared Kyoto Accord, for example, the Conservative Government brought in a lighter goal which they are still not following. Consequently, most independent governmental think tanks like the OECD have continuously downgraded our international rankings.
Or look at Canada’s approach to Iran. The Harper Government, if Mr. Baird is to be believed, expelled Iranian diplomats in 2012 and pulled back our own diplomatic team in Tehran because Iran could not be trusted. They were the ‘most significant threat to global peace and security’. (Canada closes embassy in Iran, expels Iranian diplomats, By Laura Payton, CBC News Posted: Sep 07, 2012 9:51 AM ET Last Updated: Sep 21, 2012 2:04 PM ET) As such, they had to be declared as national sponsors of terror and added to the list. Mr. Baird has argued since that this action alone could have compromised the safety and security of our embassy staff. Then he pointed to the 2011 breaching of the UK’s embassy.
Funny thing is, that while the Canadian Embassy remains closed; in 2013, the UK has sought to reopen their Iranian embassy. If you don’t believe me look at this quote taken from the Guardian:
“Britain’s newly appointed chargé d’affaires has travelled to Iran in the first diplomatic visit by a UK envoy since London severed all but nominal ties with the Islamic republic two years ago after the storming of its embassy in Tehran.
In a significant move towards upgrading bilateral relations and the eventual goal of reopening embassies in respective capitals, the UK’s foreign office last month named the head of its Iran department, Ajay Sharma, as its non-resident chargé d’affaires for Iran. Tehran also named Mohammad-Hassan Habibollahzadeh as Sharma’s counterpart.” (Britain makes first diplomatic visit to Iran for two years, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 December 2013 17.53 GMT
So instead of leading, the Harper Government has either decided to wrongly follow behind the US no matter how foolhardy, unclear, questionable or wrong-headed their goals have been or just abdicated the role of leadership. It is a real shame because Canada will lose out on all of the inevitable economic opportunities. If Trudeau had not gone to China before Nixon, it is likely that Canadian Financial Institutions would have had a hard time in getting licences and market share in China. Canadian and European companies also have the same head start in dealing with Cuba and other economies that the US Government has embargoed.
We can see this in so many ways. In 2010, Canada and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had a dispute. From Canada’s point of view it was a political one. In the UAE’s opinion, it was an economic one. For during the month of June, an agreement between the two expired. The agreement allowed Canada to operate a base in the UAE which was important to the functioning of our Afghanistan mission. Here is the problem, the United Arab Emirates would not extend the agreement unless Canada gave more landing slots to Emirati airliners. While, the dispute played out Canada lost out economically. Our citizens were forced to get visas to enter the country. Their airspace was closed to senior Canadian Officials. In fact, we lost our bid to get a Security Council Seat during this time. While, relations have now been restored, one can see that in the diplomatic arena political issues can have economic consequences. So, we need to be political leaders.
We need to have a strong diplomatic corps that can perform in many arenas. This is what we learned from Walter A. Riddell. For in the League of Nations, he was the first Canadian to stand up for idea that Canada can be a political force. Standing against France and Britain, his actions showed us what was possible. Over time, through the Bretton Wood Agreements, multilateral action and negotiation, we have been able to turn that political leadership into economic benefit. While, Walter Riddell’s spirit was re-interpreted by Pearson and by Martin – through the idea of “the Responsibility to Protect” – his notion has remained the same.
It is a shame that Harper does not see this. It is a shame that he does not choose to be multilateral, innovative or courageous. Harper’s choice, to take a back seat to the Americans or British or anyone else who says stop, means that we have reduced our political influence. Without it, our economic influence will falter. Over time, we will see that this change will not support our needs. In fact, it is not consist with the history or the traditions of Diefenbaker, Clark or Mulroney; nor those of Laurier, Mackenzie King, Pearson, Trudeau, Chrétien or Martin. For under those Prime Ministers, Canada won a Nobel Prize and honour in the world. Under those Prime Ministers, Canada became trade leaders. Our country also came to be known as the one who protects the weakest among us, provides individual freedom, and defends economic rights and personal independence. Our country was known as one that honoured all people and one that looks to solutions that benefit the most people. These are great values and values that business people, Conservatives and the present Harper Government forget much too easily.