Canada’s Decade of Diplomatic Darkness

Published in the Globe and Mail, Sept. 24, 2014

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, observers should not expect a warming in Canada’s attitude toward the world body.

Since Mr. Harper failed to win Canada a Security Council seat in 2010, he and his ministers have derided the UN for its “moral relativism.” He has twice taken the unusual step of travelling to New York during the fall gathering of world leaders but pointedly declining to address the General Assembly – a clear, even petulant snub.

Returning to the UN this week, Mr. Harper could send a different message. He could say that Canada will work constructively with other countries to make the organization more effective and representative; that Canada will participate in the major review of peace operations expected this fall; that Canada will contribute badly needed “enablers,” such as helicopters and mobile medical facilities, to current peace missions; that Canada will recommit to arms control, including by working toward new rules governing the use of drones and robotic weapons; and that Canada will once again champion the International Criminal Court.

Rather than maintaining a virtuous circle of effective bilateral and multilateral diplomacy abroad, Canada has been marginalizing itself.

More fundamentally, he could signal that Canada values the UN, which, for all its many flaws, remains the only global political body we have. Given the intense challenges now facing the world, Ottawa has an interest in supporting and improving the institution.

There’s another reason to reinvigorate Canada’s multilateral diplomacy. As a medium-sized country, our influence has mostly come from leveraging relationships. Working in multilateral institutions has historically given us a voice in international affairs that we would have otherwise lacked.

This “liberal internationalism” has been the non-partisan foundation of Canada’s foreign policy at least since the Second World War. Its most effective practitioner in recent years was a (Progressive) Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who invested in diplomacy and the military while championing Canada’s role in the UN, among other things.

Contrary to Mr. Harper’s caricature of liberal internationalism as “weak and wrong,” this approach to foreign affairs never prevented Ottawa from taking strong stands on important issues, from nuclear arms control to South African apartheid. Nor did it preclude participation in close military alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Effective multilateral diplomacy strengthened Canada’s relationship with its most important partner, the United States – a relationship that Ottawa, completing the circle, parlayed into influence with other countries and multilateral institutions.

Today, however, our relations are weaker. Tactless attempts to pressure the White House into approving the Keystone XL pipeline have placed new strains on the relationship. Without high-level political support from Barack Obama’s administration, progress on reducing impediments to the flow of people and goods across the Canada-U.S. border – the most vital of Canada’s foreign-policy interests – has flagged.

Canada’s standing in multilateral bodies has also diminished. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO officials publicly wondered why Canada seemed to be disengaging from the alliance. Now, in response to the Ukraine crisis, Ottawa is making a modest contribution to NATO’s reinforcement in Eastern Europe, while Mr. Harper talks as though Canada were preparing to march on Kiev.

Canada used to be a leader in multilateral arms control, spearheading the campaign against anti-personnel land mines. Now, we are laggards, the only NATO member that still hasn’t signed the Arms Trade Treaty on conventional weapons.

Canada became the only country in the world to withdraw from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification – just before Germany held a major meeting on the issue, undoubtedly irritating Berlin.

Ottawa cut off funding to the Commonwealth secretariat and boycotted its last meeting in protest against the host, Sri Lanka. Britain was equally critical of Sri Lanka, but decided to attend. “This is what diplomacy involves,” Britain’s foreign secretary explained. “… We will have more impact [at the meeting] than we could by leaving our chair empty.”

This summer, the Harper government belatedly recognized the need for greater involvement in Asian multilateral institutions, naming its first dedicated ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was a welcome but overdue decision. We lag far behind the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other Western countries in the region.

At the UN, Canada has been active on a few issues, such as maternal and child health, but otherwise has developed a reputation for being disengaged on many issues and obstreperous on others. Some observers suggest that Canadian representatives are not being invited to the informal meetings where states devise strategies on international issues.

Rather than maintaining the virtuous circle of effective bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, Canada has been marginalizing itself. Tub-thumping on a handful of issues is presented as “strong, principled leadership,” but the results speak for themselves. Trade deals with the European Union and South Korea are bright lights in almost a decade of diplomatic darkness.

It’s not too late for Mr. Harper to change course – and voters might reward him for doing so. My own research, published in this month’s International Journal, suggests that Canadians still strongly support both the UN and liberal internationalism.

But such change is unlikely from a Prime Minister who seems set in his ways. In the end, the public will decide whether to judge his foreign policy by its rhetoric or its results.

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