Feature

Immature Design

Canadian foreign policy has become a mishmash of conflicting priorities and half-baked initiatives. Can it be fixed?

Illustration by Doug Panton

The first half of 2010 has offered Canada two enviable opportunities to showcase its internationalism: the Winter Olympics in British Columbia in February, and the G8 and G-20 summits in Ontario in June. These chances couldn’t have come at a better time, given that Canada’s last foray into international diplomacy, the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in December 2009, generated some of the worst press coverage the country has ever received. The commentator and environmental activist George Monbiot wrote in the pages of Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Canada’s duplicitous approach to climate change negotiations overshadowed all the good it had done during a century of peacekeeping. Our “campaign against multilateralism,” he argued, was as “savage as any waged by George Bush.”

While grenades like these have been infrequent for the past few years, and do not yet form part of a sustained anti-Canada campaign, they nonetheless raise questions about the robustness of our global brand. Prior to Stephen Harper’s tenure as prime minister, much of the analysis of Canada’s role in the world emphasized our decline as an indispensable “middle power,” which came about through a combination of budget cuts and mediocre diplomatic performance. Since the election of the Conservative government, the commentary has evolved from hand-wringing to head-scratching. Aside from maintaining a heavy Canadian presence in Afghanistan and asserting our territorial integrity in the Arctic, the government’s foreign policy initiatives have been quite literally all over the map: championing a free trade agreement with Colombia while imposing new visa restrictions on nationals from our nafta partner, Mexico; promoting a “new” relationship with India while holding off on a prime ministerial visit to China for four years; shifting foreign aid from Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean; and “leading the world” on Israeli-Palestinian relations by refusing to attend the 2009 World Conference against Racism, as temporarily halting funding to the Palestinian Authority in 2006, and stepping up Canada’s commitment to defend Israel against attack.

A charitable reading of these policies might see them as bound together by an ideological commitment to democracy and human rights—a paler, Canadian version of the Bush “freedom agenda.” That logic tends to unravel under scrutiny, however. Colombia isn’t exactly a bastion of democracy, and the Conservatives have lately been backpedalling on China. The early period of Chinese-Canadian relations under Harper may have been heavily influenced by the rather undiplomatic Jason Kenney, a strong critic of China, but recent talk has focused on its indispensability as a market (for instance in the Conservatives’ 2009 global commerce strategy).

And if we’re really so concerned about human rights, why haven’t we sustained our commitment to the rights of those who live in the world’s poorest countries, in Africa? Not to mention the rights of Palestinian refugees. This government has pursued its new policy directions in the Middle East in a particularly undemocratic way, interfering with Montreal-based Rights and Democracy by appointing new board members who subsequently fought to block funding for human rights groups critical of Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. (Three staffers have also been fired, and two other board members have resigned in protest.) The great irony here is that the Tories reaffirmed last year their intention to establish their own Canadian organization aimed at strengthening pluralistic democratic institutions around the world—primarily by building up strong party systems.

To be sure, coherence is a challenge for parties in all countries, given that most international policy is contingent by its very nature. One stream of thought in policy circles, stretching back through many prime ministers and presidents, contends that attempts to create international strategies are doomed to failure, no matter the country. Asked once about his biggest challenge as a leader, Harold Macmillan, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1957 to 1963, is said to have replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” Under this view, foreign policy can never truly be strategic but must primarily react to whatever winds happen to be blowing. I encountered this sentiment in 2005 when I was asked to assist the Martin government in crafting an update to the strategic review of foreign policy conducted under Jean Chrétien a decade earlier. Many critics of this exercise contended that the Canadian government should avoid articulating broad objectives that would inevitably be implemented inconsistently and imperfectly. Instead, they argued, the goal should be much more modest: good policy on a case-by-case basis.

I felt then, and still believe now, that this isn’t good enough. While certain unpredictable events, such as tsunamis or earthquakes, demand rapid, flexible response, the federal government can and should identify, analyze, and adjust to broader power shifts, political developments, and changes in technology. In the wake of 9/11, both the United States and the European Union embarked on a process of analysis and priority setting that resulted in a wholly new strategic vision. Even critics who disagreed with the substance of those strategies (notably George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy) could grudgingly admire the discipline and wisdom involved in identifying challenges and opportunities, assessing strengths and weaknesses, and elevating a particular set of objectives for public servants to focus on. This exercise can extend beyond “big” powers as well, with such advanced democracies as Norway, Spain, and Australia all setting out strategic foreign policy frameworks in recent years. If they can do it, so can we.

Whether we can do it well, of course, is another question entirely. Democratic states play the foreign policy game with a considerable handicap, given the pressures of public opinion and special interest groups. One of the shrewdest observers of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, famously wrote, “Foreign policy does not require the use of any of the good qualities peculiar to democracy, but does demand the cultivation of almost all those which it lacks.” Non-democratic countries such as China have the luxury of continuity in foreign policy objectives such as securing raw materials or maintaining territorial claims. Moreover, their strategists are isolated from the inconvenience of democratic accountability. Democratic systems, by contrast, tend to have much more decentralized decision-making structures, and must consider what costs their electorates are willing to bear. As a consequence, de Tocqueville lamented, they are likely to “abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary caprice.”

Canada, it seems, has become emblematic of de Tocqueville’s critique. It’s not only that our government regularly indulges the cries of various domestic constituencies. Lots of governments do that. We have the added challenges of a political structure designed to further the interests of provinces over a clearly defined national interest, and of a multicultural population that has many and sometimes conflicting interests. Under these constraints, what exactly is Canada trying to do beyond its borders? And, more important, what should it be trying to do?

During a 2007 visit to Barbados, Chile, Colombia, and Haiti, Stephen Harper launched one of the Tories’ few concrete foreign policy initiatives during their time in government: their much-touted strategy for the Americas. The central ideas behind the plan were to strengthen bilateral relationships with key states in the region; to become more involved in regional bodies like the Organization of American States and the Summit of the Americas; to increase development assistance to the Caribbean; to expand the number of Canadian diplomats in the hemisphere; and to form new partnerships with corporations and educational institutions across the Americas. The strategy arose partly in response to some very real opportunities to increase regional prosperity through trade and foreign investment; enhance democratic government; and bolster individual security by focusing on crime, natural disasters, and pandemics, all of which also affect Canadian travellers.

In the days since Harper announced the strategy, however, its most visible products have been the appointment of a Minister of State for Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for the Americas (currently Peter Kent), and the signing of a free trade deal with Colombia. The former is largely symbolic at this point, and has yet to be beefed up with significant policy-making authority, while the latter is unlikely to improve democracy or security in Colombia, or to reap huge economic dividends here. The Tories did demand the inclusion of annual human rights reports, but only after being forced to do so by opposition parties.

Two factors help to explain why the shift toward the Americas has yet to bear fruit. The first is resources—or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The government seems to have believed it could make a strategic turn without providing fuel to drive the car in the new direction. The prime minister’s recent insistence that all initiatives be spending neutral hollowed out any real possibilities for stronger bilateral ties or new partnerships. His government is thereby breaking one of the cardinal rules of strategy: when emphasizing a priority, be prepared to transfer significant resources to the new area of focus.

But the more problematic feature of Harper’s agenda for the hemisphere is its design, and specifically what it leaves out. To be worthy of its name, any Americas policy must include a well-crafted engagement strategy for Brazil, the region’s rising power. This is doubly true given Canada’s long-standing interest in Haiti, where Brazil currently leads the United Nations stabilization mission, and the significant levels of Brazilian foreign investment in Canada. But here, de Tocqueville’s warnings about democracy play out vividly. In the long term, Canada would clearly benefit from stronger trade, investment, and energy ties with Brazil. But several powerful domestic constituencies—in particular ethanol and agriculture—are wary of such a partnership. And some of these constituencies, such as farmers in Ontario, loom rather large in the electoral calculations of the Harper government. Annette Hester, an expert on Brazil and the Americas based in Calgary, sums it up well: “Harper is just counting votes, like anybody else. Until there are more powerful constituencies in favour of engagement, those groups who fear Brazil as a competitor will hamper any hope of an Americas strategy.”

Again, we might be prepared to cut Harper some slack, given that most democratic governments have to contend with powerful economic interests that can scupper more principled foreign policy goals (just think of the damage done to the Canada-US relationship as a result of softwood lumber). But underlying the problems with the Americas strategy is a failure to understand what matters to our potential partners in the region. The Tories have been spectacularly tone deaf on this front, doggedly pursuing trade at the expense of the priorities of most countries in the region, including the United States.

When Harper attended the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009, he had little to contribute to discussions on regional development or energy partnership—subjects on which Canada, by virtue of its wealth and resources, should in theory have a lot to say. Instead, the prime minister spent much of his time railing against protectionism—an unpopular topic in most of the region, given past failures to reach a hemispheric free trade agreement, and Canada’s own record of subsidizing and protecting its homegrown industries. Hester describes Harper’s approach at the summit as a “solo turn,” and suggests that he was out of tune with the zeitgeist. As a result, she believes, Mexico and Chile overshadowed Canada, wooing the Obama administration with interesting ideas such as a hemisphere-wide electrical grid, a regional biofuel transportation network, and a research institute on renewable energy.

The challenges posed by our democratic structure are formidable, but they do not necessarily condemn our government to the whims of public opinion and lobby groups. To see the possibilities, consider a country such as Norway, which has staked out a clear identity for itself as a mediator and peacemaker, and which dedicates substantial resources to that identity, whether through the direct activities of its diplomats or the indirect backing of ngos. The usual retort here is “But Canada isn’t Norway.” We are a G8 country, with wider-ranging interests and responsibilities. Furthermore, we have two other features that, while crucial to our identity, make it more difficult to craft a focused foreign policy: our federal structure and our multicultural population.

Scholars have long noted the problematic nature of foreign policy–making in federal systems, where there is a tension between divided internal sovereignty and undivided external sovereignty. Internally, the responsibilities of different levels of government tend to expand over time until they begin to overlap. At the sub-state level, foreign policy tends to become a lever, used to achieve the maximum degree of autonomy possible. Officials at the top level, meanwhile, have a natural tendency to resist these attempts, since the management of relations with other countries constitutes a defining characteristic of sovereign statehood.

Canada’s version of federalism has made it especially difficult to articulate a “national interest.” The provinces share power with the federal government in a host of areas with international implications, including immigration and the environment, which means their interests and expertise must be incorporated into national foreign policy. And, of course, one province’s international objectives can sometimes conflict with others’, or with the federal government’s. Recall, for instance, Alberta’s clash with Ottawa concerning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and Quebec’s fights with Ottawa over international cultural policy. Quebec in particular raises a unique set of issues, since it has its own Minister of International Relations, who can establish and maintain relations with foreign states and international organizations.

The second defining feature of Canada, its multiculturalism, may be contributing to one of the most frequently criticized aspects of our foreign policy: our fragmented approach to development assistance. Influenced in part by the need to placate various diaspora and interest groups, Canada has developed one of the world’s most dispersed aid budgets. To illustrate, compare Canada and the Netherlands, each of which gave about 2 percent of the world’s direct aid in 2008. While the Netherlands donated to sixty-five countries, Canada spread its contribution among more than a hundred recipients. Such a spread makes it difficult to develop local knowledge and contacts, and so to use aid dollars effectively. Small-scale programming also places a heavy coordination and cost burden on the very countries we are trying to help, and increases the costs and management requirements for Canada. And the contribution we make is often so tiny that it cannot make a difference in even the poorest countries. Take Angola, which received 0.1 percent of its aid from Canada in 2008, essentially little more than a rounding error from both countries’ perspectives. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd) has estimated that during that year, sixty-seven of Canada’s 109 aid relationships were similarly futile—a greater number and higher ratio of “non-significant” relationships than for any other member.

Governments have been trying to remedy this problem for some time now. In its 2005 International Policy Statement, the Martin government stated its intention to focus on twenty-five so-called core development partners, fourteen of which were in Africa. The criteria for selection seemed sensible enough: the recipient’s level of need, its capacity to use the aid effectively, and a Canadian presence sufficient to manage the disbursement. But even given these intentions, only about a quarter of Canada’s net official development assistance budget was earmarked for the twenty-five recipients. The rest went through multilateral channels like the United Nations, and to a category of “other” bilateral partners defined largely by security concerns. The top five recipients of Canadian bilateral aid in the wake of the Martin initiative included Afghanistan and Sudan, neither of which was on the 2005 list of core partners. What intervened? Events, dear boy, events.

Attempts by the Tories to focus Canada’s development assistance budget have been no more successful. During the first years of the Harper government, concentration actually got worse rather than better. In 2004–05, the top thirty countries received 65 percent of bilateral aid, and the top twenty received 54 percent; by 2006–07, the top thirty were receiving a total of 59 percent and the top twenty 51 percent. The government’s own commentary on the numbers insists that there has been concentration, but the oecd’s independent study, which goes up to 2008, confirms that this is not the case.

The Harper government quietly incorporated the Martin list of twenty-five core partners into cida’s official plan for 2007, but during the 2007–08 fiscal year those countries received just over a third of bilateral aid dispersed via cida. In 2009, the government adjusted course again, announcing as part of its Aid Effectiveness Agenda a new list of twenty “countries of focus” that seemed to direct Canada’s aid policy toward areas where our national interests—particularly those related to trade and investment—were more obviously at stake. Significantly, the Americas are better represented on the new list, while Africa, where the need for development assistance is greatest, has been downgraded as a Liberal idea, leaving a number of unfinished Chrétien and Martin initiatives to languish. Among these are pledges to simplify the export of low-cost drugs to Africa, and to support an investment fund for the continent.

The final problem with the promise to shift aid toward the Americas is that it has been accompanied by the passage of Bill C-293, the Development Assistance Accountability Act. This legislation, a private member’s bill tabled by a Liberal MP and originally opposed by the Conservatives, commits Canada to pursuing the goal of poverty reduction in its aid disbursements. With its passage in March 2008, we are left with the awkward situation of a Parliament committed to reducing absolute levels of poverty around the world, but a government that believes other objectives, such as investment and private sector development, should be driving the aid agenda. None of this bodes well for aspirations to make our aid policy more focused, or more effective.

The story of Bill C-293 brings us to a final complicating factor in Canadian foreign policy: our minority government. If, as de Tocqueville warned, democratic governments are lousy at foreign policy–making, how much lousier are minority governments, which understand all too well that international policy is rarely, if ever, a vote-getter? The precarious position of the Tory government has led it to avoid foreign or defence policies that might lock Harper in to long-term commitments, particularly if they involve substantial expenditures. Given the backdrop of the global recession, the government has calculated that it will be judged on how well it manages the economic recovery, not on how much money it spends on saving the world.

According to this line of thinking, we should put all hopes of an international strategy on the back burner and wait for the next majority. But minority Parliaments can rise above day-to-day jockeying, avoid votes of non-confidence, and bring forth substantive legislation. While presiding over two minority Parliaments, Lester Pearson managed to lay the cornerstones of Canada’s welfare state, including the Canada Pension Plan, the student loan scheme, and universal health care. So maybe we don’t have to settle for policy on a case-by-case basis.

Derek Burney, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, would seem to agree. Commenting in an essay on the difference between the American presidential system, with its constraining checks and balances, and the Canadian parliamentary system, he writes, “A Canadian prime minister has real power, day in and day out, even with a minority government and without much military prowess. He can make decisions and set directions for domestic or foreign policy if and as he chooses to exercise this power. The prime minister can also lead and set the tone for managing our most vital foreign relationship[s].” Above all, the prime minister can also help create the culture of choice that lies at the heart of any good strategy.

Such a culture has been lacking in Canadian foreign policy–making circles since the end of the Cold War. For much of that time, it wasn’t clear that we needed to make hard choices. Our proximity to a superpower offered a degree of security most countries do not enjoy, and a level of prosperity envied the world over. Even our most recent foreign policy reviews, in 1995 and 2005, have been more laundry list than clear vision and focused strategy.

But the luxury of being everything to everyone, everywhere, is no longer possible, let alone affordable. The superpower’s relative power is declining, particularly with its economy in crisis. Our failure to invest heavily in new bilateral relationships, both within our hemisphere and beyond, has put us behind in the race to engage with the world’s rising powers. Canada’s poor productivity performance is becoming harder to disguise, and our need to diversify to new markets is now almost universally acknowledged. Many of the institutions where we have played a relatively prominent role in the past—such as the G8 or nato—are facing identity crises and could be overshadowed by new and more relevant governance structures. Even our hard-earned place at the policy-making table for Afghanistan may be lost if and when we withdraw in 2011.

The well-respected American foreign policy intellectual Fareed Zakaria recently argued that while Canada has all the raw materials to thrive in the twenty-first century, it doesn’t have an assertive enough strategic culture: “It’s unfortunate that Canada does not have a more vigorous desire to have a greater global influence,” he writes. “Perhaps it will change; perhaps it can be persuaded to become more of a stakeholder in the system and less of a free rider.”

Perhaps. But cultures are sticky and difficult to change. Is the proper approach an influx of the “right” people, or a change in the structures that surround them? The British Conservative Party pushed the latter solution during the run-up to the UK general election in May. In one of its 2010 green papers, it called for the creation of a US-style national security council, which would ensure that relevant government departments pooled their expertise. The goal was not just better coordination, but the development of a collective capacity to think strategically—to debate the merits of different options and make the difficult choices a real strategy requires. One of the first tasks of this council would be to draft a national security strategy, which it would then report on annually to the British public.

Should Canada create its own nsc? My experience in dealing with multiple departments in the drafting of the 2005 International Policy Statement suggests that the country needs something at the centre that takes foreign policy seriously, especially as more and more sectors of government take on issues with an international dimension. But I’m left wondering whether this would be enough to establish a culture of choice in Canadian foreign policy. Maybe we are a nation hard wired to keep our options open. Or maybe we just need to wait for a new generation and hope it will have the courage to choose. The Canadian International Council seems to be betting on the latter, as it has tasked a group of young information age Canadians to draft a new foreign policy strategy for the country, to be released during the G8 and G-20 meetings.

What is clear is that the existing cadre of policy-makers passing the torch to the next generation has been irrevocably shaped by Canada’s participation in the nato effort in Afghanistan. For better or worse, the campaign to stabilize that country and rebuild its infrastructure has been the closest thing we have had to a coherent foreign policy over the past decade. Unlike some of our other nato partners, particularly the US and the UK, we haven’t had the capacity to do anything else.

Much of the commentary of late wonders whether Afghanistan has been worth all the blood and treasure. That debate will no doubt continue. But it’s also worth asking whether the war has been worth the lost opportunities to think strategically about the future shape of our world, and the place of Canada—and Canadians—within it.

Thank you to Anouk Dey for her assistance with this article.

This appeared in the June 2010 issue.

Doug Panton, an award-winning designer and illustrator, co-founded Daigneault & Panton and teaches at OCAD University in Toronto.