Canadian Foreign Policy for Dummies

Published in the Toronto Star, November 11, 2013

So it’s come to this: not only are Canadian citizens being dumbed-down by political parties who treat them as narrow-minded consumerist taxpayers, but now the leading lights of Canada’s journalism establishment are joining in the effort. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from a review by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson of Joe Clark’s How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change.

According to Ibbitson, the book is essentially pointless because Clark is most concerned with “issues of relatively marginal interest or importance”—a realm of foreign policy that “concerns most others least.” And with that flourish, Ibbitson sets know-nothing populism as the new critical standard for assessing Canada’s global activity. Welcome to Canadian Foreign Policy for Dummies.

Foreign policy—in the form of diplomacy, multilateralism, development and the UN—exists to respond to and shape the ways in which the world will change around us in coming years, quite likely in ways not so congenial to Canadian interests.

In Ibbitson’s view, the book would have been fine had Clark stopped with praising the international files that the Harper government has gotten right (economic and military strength, trade initiatives and sound immigration policy) and noting its one glaring failure on the environmental front. However, the bulk of Clark’s book dwells on areas where the Harper approach has notably diverged from that of preceding Canadian governments: diplomacy, multilateralism, international development, cooperation with civil society and a balanced Mid East policy. In all those respects, Ibbitson charges, Clark nitpicks at issues that make no real difference to Canadian or global outcomes.

Three examples are given by Ibbitson to demonstrate the insignificance of Clark’s foreign policy preoccupations. First, he says, the largest decrease in global poverty is coming from economic growth in developing countries such as India and China, not from the efforts of Western development agencies. Second, Canada’s success at immigrant attraction and settlement do more for our global standing than our Israel policy ever could. And lastly, no amount of Canadian government cooperation with NGOs will change China’s resource-hungry engagement in Africa “for good or for ill.” Clark thinks otherwise on all these scores, Ibbitson suggests, only because he’s “obsessing over how Canadians are viewed in the corridors of the UN.”

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It is hard to know how to begin responding to such blithe assertions, and to their claim to show the irrelevance of all that Clark wants to rescue from the Harper foreign policy chopping-block. They manifest a colossal obliviousness to the fact that current global trends have various potential outcomes, many of which would be deeply harmful to Canadian and global well-being.

For instance, along with rising average income levels in some third-world countries might come class or ethnic conflicts that tear countries apart; or new forms of civil repression; or the spread of infectious diseases, organized crime and cyber-crime; or terrorist networks. Whether China’s engagement with Africa turns out for good or for ill brings all those same variables into play—and on a huge scale, considering that many of those countries are projected to have the world’s fastest-growing populations in decades ahead. How growing third-world economies develop, what follows from their rising levels of internal inequality and what becomes of the still desperately poor and conflict-torn countries of the world: all of this will affect Canada deeply in years ahead, and none of it is subject to the Harper government’s control. We’d better hope, therefore, that the international community exerts itself to shaping those outcomes through diplomacy and development, rather than adopting the cheerful economic laissez-faire Ibbitson tacitly endorses.

In the ostrich-like view of Canada’s interests advanced by Ibbitson, Canadians should sit comfortably knowing that the Harper government has arranged our economy, trade relations, military and immigration policy to suit today’s needs. But it takes a mind-boggling insularity to think that the world will continue holding steady in the same happy set of circumstances that support our current prosperity. Foreign policy—in the form of diplomacy, multilateralism, development and the UN—exists to respond to and shape the ways in which the world will change around us in coming years, quite likely in ways not so congenial to Canadian interests.

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And why should Canada get involved in such matters, instead of leaving them to others? Because the results will affect us; because our contributions may help to shape outcomes of special interest to our country; and because we have long claimed to value peace, justice and prosperity for others, not only ourselves.

That such an eminent columnist as Ibbitson can ignore these facts in belittling Clark’s concerns is baffling enough. But that he also claims to have his finger on the pulse of ordinary Canadians’ concerns, aligning them with his own contempt for Clark-style foreign policy, compounds the problem. Most Canadians, he believes, are unconcerned by international issues beyond the limited set they consider the Harper government to be getting right.

In short, Ibbitson’s review doesn’t just present a Canadian Foreign Policy for Dummies view of the world. It also casts his fellow Canadians as the dummies in question: insular, focused narrowly on their own prosperity and security, scornful of complexity and given to bluster. It fits seamlessly with the way in which the Harper government wants our citizens—no, “taxpayers”—to view the world.

If Canadians don’t like the image of their concerns thus depicted, they’d better set the record straight.

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