A Response to Derek Burney on Canada’s Foreign Policy

A January 2nd op-ed in the Globe and Mail (republished in the CIPS Blog) on the current foreign policy of the Conservatives generated a lot of responses. Many were supportive, and others were quite critical. That is fine; debate is what the opinion pages of a newspaper is supposed to generate. One response struck me as particularly requiring my own reply. In a letter, published in the Globe on January 3rd, Derek Burney, former Canadian Ambassador to the US and long-time Tory supporter wrote this:

Peter Jones castigates the government for ranting on foreign policy, then delivers little more than a rant of his own. He seems to favour an opaque form of multilateralism, as if that were an end in itself. He suggests Canada should support U.S. tactical diplomacy on the Mideast, as if that would constitute a relevant approach.

Mr. Jones ignores the economic dimension of foreign policy on which, through the successful negotiation with the EU of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Canada’s most important trade deal since NAFTA), and steady fiscal management, the government has enhanced our interests in an area where we have actual – not notional – scope for relevance and influence on the global stage.

In response, I would note, as does Mr. Burney, that the economic and trade dimensions of foreign policy are very important. I never said they weren’t. But Mr. Burney fails to mention that the present Tory government is hardly the first to discover this, though it tries to make this out to be the case. Free trade agreements have been sought (and opposed) by governments of both political stripes over the years. Ottawa’s books were first balanced, after many years, by a Liberal administration. We went back into debt under the current government. The promotion of Canadian products and services abroad also has a long tradition under both parties, something of which Mr. Burney was a part. These things are hardly unique to the present government.

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What is new under the current government, however, is the elevation of trade promotion to a status whereby all other priorities (save a few ideological priorities of the present Conservative political base) take second place, or are simply not present at all.

Trade does not take place in a vacuum, and trade promotion is not a substitute for a foreign policy. The Conservative government’s failure to take an active role in shaping the world and its institutions weakens Canada’s voice and its interests. Such active, broad, multilateral engagement was the policy of the Mulroney Conservative government in which Mr. Burney himself played such an important role.

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