Libya and Canada’s Political Influence: A Different Perspective

by Philippe Lagassé

Did Canada play a critical political role in relation to the Libya intervention? My colleague Roland Paris is skeptical. In an earlier post on this blog, he points out that Canada’s political influence was secondary at best, since the Canadian government lost a bid to have a seat on the United Nations Security Council, which authorized and (ostensibly) set the parameters of the NATO intervention.

While I agree with Roland that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was probably embellishing when he stated that Canada had ‘critical’ political influence, I think there is another way of looking at the question. Specifically, there is a possibility that Canada was an influential voice on the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political decision-making body. It is not unlikely, for instance, that Canada made its voice heard regarding how the Alliance would assist rebel forces in Libya, what kind of targets Alliance aircraft should strike, and so forth. And while these type of decisions concerned NATO’s military operations, they were necessarily political. After all, as all good students of Clausewitz know, the use of armed force is but an instrument of politics. Seen from this perspective, the prime minister’s statement might not be as exaggerated as it first appears.

There are other reasons to think that Mr. Harper was referring to Canada’s influence within NATO. Under the Conservative government’s vision of Canada’s role in the world, earning the respect of larger allies and a high standing within entities such as NATO are what count as good diplomacy and statecraft. Getting the attention of those states that ‘matter’ is what counts, and being a player within the Alliance that actually gets things done is a worthwhile objective. According to this worldview, the political influence Canada garnered on the North Atlantic Council, however ephemeral, was noteworthy. While losing a seat on the UN Security Council necessarily reduced Canada’s potential clout, from the Conservatives’ point of view, it should not detract from the say Canada had among NATO members.

When evaluating Mr Harper’s claim that Canada had ‘critical’ political influence over the Libya intervention, then, we should first look to the actors and international organizations that the Conservative government considers most important: larger allies and NATO.

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