Something Borrowed, Nothing Gained: John Baird’s Big Ideas in Foreign Policy

“Canada is what I like to call a ‘smart power’,” Foreign Minister John Baird declared in a major speech in Israel last week. That’s reassuring, although as a means of distinguishing our foreign policy it is likely to prove elusive. What country would proudly proclaim the opposite? Every state hopes to exercise power in smart ways—certainly smarter than those of its rivals and enemies.

The use of the term is hardly original, of course. Though not referenced in the speech, ‘smart power’ was coined in the U.S. to point out the errors of the most recent Bush Administration’s unrestrained reliance on military force. It was famously embraced by Hillary Clinton in her confirmation hearings as Secretary of State. The central idea is that successful foreign policy is not a choice between the hard and soft exercise of power, but the deployment of a whole range of diplomatic and coercive tools, each used cleverly as best suited to particular circumstances.

Confusingly, Baird’s speech says nothing about this, nor does it elucidate the nuance implicit in the crafting of such policy. ‘Smart’, for Baird, appears to mean the same thing as standing on principle, or just doing what we think is right—a very different approach to achieving foreign policy goals.

This assertion of the ‘big idea’ without any practical substance is typical of the Minister’s speeches. Grand principles are cited, buttressed with well-worn quotes from the Conservative pantheon (Churchill, Thatcher, even Diefenbaker), and both are then spruced up with inapposite references to someone else’s foreign policy idea.

The speech to the annual Herzliya conference was ostensibly on the subject of leadership. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find in the speech any concrete thoughts on what foreign policy leadership means, especially in the Middle East. We are treated to a quotation from Winston Churchill (on being wary of appeasing crocodiles) as if the insight were self-evidently applicable today. The only concrete and current example of leadership endorsed is that of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is portrayed as a wise and courageous leader—a view that a majority of Israelis, never mind the Obama administration, would find it difficult to accept.

As for a theory of Canadian leadership in foreign policy, we are told repeatedly in the speech that Canada will continue to “punch above our weight”. This was U.K. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd’s description of Britain’s foreign policy in the 1990’s, when its Security Council veto and close U.S. ties gave it influence far above that of similarly situated European countries such as Germany or Italy. Again, someone else’s big idea is glibly referenced as if it were self-evidently applicable to the Harper government’s foreign policy approach. The one example Baird cites, Canada’s participation in the NATO operation in Libya, is hardly demonstrative; though important and certainly not negligible, Canada’s combat role was not much greater than that of the Netherlands, Denmark or Norway, countries one-half or much less our size in population or GDP. Neither Canada’s declining aid budget nor its downsized DFAIT permit much in the way of leveraging the small influence we might have, certainly not in the Middle East.

Maybe it’s just that the Foreign Minister needs a new speech-writer. Baird says that “fascism and communism were the great struggles of previous generations, terrorism is the great struggle of ours”—and once again, he (or his speech-writer) has borrowed the idea. This was George W. Bush’s rallying cry as he took the U.S. to war in Iraq (with, by the way, a bust of Winston Churchill in his office—evidently teaching him the wrong lessons).

What of the tumultuous Arab Spring and the future of democracy in the region? Here at last we have a certifiably Canadian idea, articulated by none other than the Prime Minister himself. Quoting him, Baird declares that these recent events, and the manner in which they will develop, demonstrate “the paradox of freedom: that awesome power, that grave responsibility—to choose between good and evil.”

What is Baird (and the Prime Minister) saying? That with freedom comes responsibility? True, but hardly paradoxical (or insightful). That free societies may make evil choices? Also true, and perhaps a paradox—assuming that this ‘evil’ can be defined in something approaching objective terms.

But such terms are a very dangerous way to frame the democratization process now underway in North Africa and the Middle East. As observers of such processes elsewhere will readily testify, the choices ahead will require compromise, and will not fall neatly into Manichean terms. Suggesting that they do, and organizing our foreign policy in such absolutist terms, is neither smart nor likely to increase our influence with those within these countries who will face these hard choices.

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