Keeping the Hard Questions Hard: Reflections on Policy Critique

Punditry, like bread, is best consumed fresh—but occasionally, some quickly-skimmed pundit’s lines will lodge in the brain and take on profound depth as they age over the next days or weeks.

That’s what happened when I read a recent article by Macleans writer Paul Wells, who was commenting on what my colleague Roland Paris referred to as the Harper government’s ‘not so new’ foreign policy plan. A highlight of this plan is its emphasis on China’s importance as a trade partner for Canada in light of the declining economic might of the United States. Though by no means a novel approach in the government’s dealings with China in recent years, the messaging does contrast starkly with the early years of Harper’s rule, in which China was mostly treated as a human rights pariah by the Prime Minister and his foreign ministers.

‘When it comes to getting Canada’s relations right with not-so-likeminded countries that offend our principles and whose favour enriches our coffers (or offers other important benefits), it’s hard questions all around.’

What lodged in my mind about Wells’s comments was his salutary refusal to echo conventional wisdom in casting this development as a matter of finally steering the ship of state away from benighted principle to sane economic realism:

 [T]hese are hard questions and it was never as obvious to me as it was to, say, Jean Chrétien that Harper was getting the balance wrong on China in 2006-08. Chrétien’s own government struggled with similar debates over rights vs. prosperity. Nuclear tests in India in 1998 led Lloyd Axworthy to put Canada-India relations in a deep freeze. His successor John Manley reversed the policy in 2001. If it’s obvious to you which of the two men was right, maybe you should take over this blog.

Harper didn’t change his China policy in a vacuum. After the 2008-09 economic crisis, you have to find your economic growth where you can get it.

These words are a rebuke to the legions of other opinionizers and policy wonks who write as though policy-making were a matter of finding a position that’s spat out algorithmically from a right-minded consideration of principles and facts. When it comes to getting Canada’s relations right with not-so-likeminded countries that offend our principles and whose favour enriches our coffers (or offers other important benefits), it’s hard questions all around.

The various principles of values, security and prosperity will always be non-fungibly relevant to foreign policy-making. In some situations one of these will be so overwhelmingly salient as to make the best course easy to identify. But usually they’ll stand in active tension, with shifting circumstances sometimes warranting policy shifts in one direction or another (e.g. an economic crisis turns a new superpower trading partner into a more influential consideration). Even so, an exactly right intersection of vectors is impossible to identify. The question of whether a nuclear-testing India is best met with a cold shoulder or open arms might just come down to intuitions about the relative efficacy of denunciation versus engagement in affecting another state’s conduct, or about the relative weighting of nuclear versus economic security in Canada’s overall interests.

It’s probably too much to expect these subtle nuances of policy-making to be reflected at the lowest levels of political commentary—Question Period, for instance. It’s not asking too much, though, to expect it to be more visible in punditry, whose practitioners presumably have some time and incentive to be reflective. (Though probably greater incentive to gain profile by colourfully denouncing the government’s failure to ‘get it right’ on various complex files.) And yet it’s so rare as to make Wells’s throwing-up-the-hands gesture downright startling.

The same is true for some of Canada’s think-tanks, which tend to conclude surveys of complex policy terrain with the injunction that “a balance must be struck” between multiple policy goals or stakeholders. It’s misleading to suggest that a balance point is out there to be found. Forging policy will always require judgments about which particular circumstances justify reshaping current practice toward one direction or another; and even so there’s not going to be an indisputably right settling point.

It doesn’t make for attention-grabbing editorials or snappy report titles to take this tack of keeping the hard questions hard—but it’s a useful step in being constructively honest about the gray areas inherent in policy-making and policy assessment.

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