Published in the Toronto Star, April 22, 2013
Rarely do questions of metaphysics, epistemology and foreign policy intersect. The past seven years of foreign policy under Prime Minister Harper and his various foreign ministers, however, suggest that the government has trouble grappling with objective reality when it comes to the world outside Canada’s borders.
In their response to the Boston bombings over the past week, the Conservatives have shown themselves resistant to the notion that policy-making should be linked to a realm of facts existing independently of swagger and spin. Justin Trudeau was rash to diagnose “root causes” of social alienation behind the bombings just hours after they occurred. Yet that rashness wasn’t what the prime minister seized on the next day: “When you see this type of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes….You condemn it categorically, and … you deal with [the perpetrators] as harshly as possible.” Cynically, he chose to cast Trudeau’s comments as a justification for violence (which they patently were not). But more significantly, the prime minister rejected the very notion that seeking to understand motivating ideas and conditions might be a useful response to violence. What the government itself does by way of condemnation and punishment, he effectively declared, is all that matters to Canadians’ safety.
Metaphysical frolics aside, we need a government with more respect for facts, for the attempt to discover them, and for their bearing on Canadians’ well-being.
It’s a stance consistent with the government’s prevailing attitude that decisive action in the face of events is wholly superior to efforts at understanding the forces behind them. On Friday, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan justified the accelerated start of debate on a new counter-terrorism bill by saying “We don’t need further study. We need action.” Behind the political swagger is a tacit metaphysics: “our government’s action shapes the realities Canadians are dealing with; the world is however we say it is.”
The Harper government’s tendency toward dismissing the salience of worldly conditions is particularly marked when complex realities outside Canada’s borders are at issue. Globalization means that most policy choices facing us fall into this category of complex international realities. And for that reason, you’d think the government would pin its foreign policy-making to shared facts and knowledge wherever possible.
But that wasn’t the principle that informed the government’s decision last month to make Canada the only country in the world to be a non-member of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The prime minister said that funding direct action against drought was preferable to remaining part of a bureaucratic “talkfest” – another instance in which Canada sees no need for action to be informed by investigation into facts.
This willful obliviousness to realities beyond Ottawa spin extends even to the government’s own assessment of its performance abroad. Just last week, foreign minister John Baird declared that “[o]ur foreign relations record under the principled leadership of Prime Minister Harper has restored respect for Canadian principles and positions, and given us a stronger role on the world stage.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. For years, our diplomats have been encountering incredulity from their foreign counterparts at the steps our policy is taking away from moderation and multilateralism. As former Canadian diplomat Dan Livermore writes, the rest of the world finds us baffling: “A befuddled diplomatic community, both in Canada and abroad, is asking when the real Canada will return.” So it’s quite the mystery which realm of fact Baird’s assertion is drawn from.
Maybe the Conservatives’ disengagement from objectivity isn’t entirely a metaphysical or epistemological problem; maybe it’s also a matter of will. After all, if you shut your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and chant the party line loudly enough, it’s true that the outside world doesn’t make much of an impression. You might even start forgetting its separate reality is out there.
But then the external world reasserts itself. Sometimes it’s just as a mild embarrassment – as when a journalist such as Paul Wells reminds the prime minister that millions of federal dollars are being well spent on academic research into terrorism and its causes. Sometimes the intrusion is more jarring: bombs continue exploding despite the Conservatives’ most severe condemnations and legislative measures, and extremist groups abroad exploit social upheavals caused by desertification to take control of new regions.
In the end, the government’s curious attitude to facts – and the stubborn resistance of reality to partisan spin – is more than just fodder for punditry. There are real consequences at stake for Canada’s capacity to respond to threats posed by a globalized, interdependent world. And the consequences are equally real for our capacity to influence other countries and international organizations to act in ways that serve our particular and collective interests. Metaphysical frolics aside, we need a government with more respect for facts, for the attempt to discover them, and for their bearing on Canadians’ well-being.