Canadian Perspectives on Global Diplomacy, Part 2: Dealing with the USA

Canadian Perspectives on Global Diplomacy, Part 2: Dealing with the USA
CARICOM: Full members (dark green), associate members (bright green), and observers (avocado green) as of 2010.Carport

This 2-part CIPS blog is based on my guest presentation at a seminar for graduating trainee diplomats at the Institute of International Relations (IIR), University of West Indies, Trinidad, on 20 March 2019. The session was led jointly with Professor Winston Dookeran, a former Trinidadian Minister of Foreign Affairs. See Part 1 here.

Once again, Trump has emerged as the fly in the NATO ointment. Obsessed with the military — and his view of the US’s unequal burden, he is now pressing a more peace-loving Europe — and Canada — to match US-style targets for military hardware spending.

These priorities preceded Trump, starting with Bush-era US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are now sinking deeper into a world order built around the military and the ideological confrontations of a re-activated Cold War. Old style aggressive diplomacy is back. Even peace-loving Canada and its diplomats are now facing a re-emergence of the costly military confrontations and economic distortions of the 1970s.

One stark example is Canada’s new tension with China over the Huawei affair, with the top female manager of this Chinese global giant of 5G technology seized in transit through a Canadian airport to facilitate her extradition to face US lawsuits regarding sanctions against Iran. Two Canadians seized in retaliation are de facto hostages in Chinese jails, charged as spies; two more have been sentenced to death on drug charges.

Returning to diplomacy by “clubs,” we need to recognize that many of these are regional, often non-confrontational, with a focus on trade and economic co-operation. The biggest and most influential is probably the OECD where the “E” stands for “European” but is so popular that others around the world have squeezed in, such as Japan, Chile, Canada, the USA, and Australia.

As other examples, one might note two other regional bodies from Asia:

  • ASEAN — a somewhat passive organization for Southeast Asian countries, such as Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand. It is increasingly fashionable as a club for trade-hungry OECD country diplomats to “observe” through its economic twin, APEC.
  • SAARC — a club for South Asian countries, which almost from day one has been quite dysfunctional due to the political differences between India and Pakistan, leaving others such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal club-less or desperately hoping to join an enhanced ASEAN.

And where is the Caribbean’s “CARICOM”? Another ASEAN in the making or already a SAARC? Its members, like Canada, typically belong to the Commonwealth, an essentially powerless colonial residual. There is also the OAS, linking Central and South America with the Caribbean and with two Northern outliers, the US and Canada.

Does our world now have too many of these organizations, with often-competing overlapping mandates? Do they consume too much of our taxes and the time and attention of our Foreign Ministers and their diplomatic staff? How can smaller nations such as Trinidad and Canada most constructively engage in this busy world? Perhaps a stronger, more consensus-driven CARICOM can play a regional brokerage role. Problems are everywhere. Haiti is still in trouble. And now we urgently need a conciliatory, no-external-military answer to the humanitarian/political crisis in Venezuela.

It is not clear how future diplomats and politicians will work together in setting policy in Trinidad. Will most Trinidadian diplomatic effort be focused globally rather than on re-energizing CARICOM and turning it into a Caribbean-scaled EU clone? For better or worse most of Canada’s diplomatic policy challenges are in fact set by global circumstances. The fundamental challenges of climate change, those “blue economy” goals, cannot be dealt with through domestic action alone. We seem to be shifting into a world where what we once comfortably called “progress” is decided by forces outside our control. One need only look to 2018 when Canada and Mexico struggled to save NAFTA from trade policies shaped by the whims of the US president.

Foreign policy today has no single dimension. A development-focused diplomat in a now merged Canadian bureaucracy needs to find a balance between competing and conflicting development goals, such as the SDGs or the feminist development policy. Foreign policy experts will increasingly live and work in a US/NATO defined universe with trade promotion officials seeking commercial benefits, often at the expense of the much less developed private sectors and farming communities of fragile states in Africa or the Caribbean.

As national diplomats, I would like to think that we can focus on protecting our societal values within major international institutions layered with officials, each with their own networks. Obvious examples are the multilateral mega-institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, or the OECD/DAC, which substantially set the ground rules for development aid. Do these bureaucrats form a new international order? Do they speak for ordinary Canadians or Trinidadians? Whose needs do they promote or protect? Can an enhanced G20 become more inclusive in terms of both its membership and its policy agenda? Will the voices of the poorest fragile nations ever be allowed to help shape our economic and investment regulatory regimes?

John Sinclair is a Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa, and a retired Canadian diplomat and development advocate with an extensive career as a senior official with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank.

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