Canadians take pride in our historic role as a constructive and influential nation on the world stage, but the sad reality is that Canada’s reputation as a foreign policy leader is in decline.
Under Paul Martin, the Liberals tried to modernize their approach to deal with today’s challenges, but they failed to create a coherent role for Canada in the world. It was a little of everything and not enough of anything.
Following his election, Stephen Harper rightly identified that Canada’s foreign policy lacked coherence, but his response to that problem was even worse. The so- called “muscular” approach he championed led to necessary reversals from poorly considered initial positions. Whether it was human rights in China or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Harper government demonstrated how poorly they understood international law and diplomatic relations and they embarrassed Canada by being caught wrong-footed at every turn.
Perhaps most notably, the continuing decision to oppose serious action on climate change has earned Canada a new global reputation as a dinosaur among nations. Representatives from other countries have openly wondered what happened to a Canada that once had been relied upon for leadership on issues of global importance.
The ultimate proof of Canada’s fall from relevance was, of course, our failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council, a clear rebuke to what was once an expectation of an automatic place at the table.
This loss of reputation might be a small thing were the practical consequences not so severe.
The Harper government’s approach to foreign policy has diminished Canada’s voice on the biggest questions of our time. His pursuit of a “Canada-first” strategy, has ensured that Canada’s interests are no longer given due consideration when important decisions are made at the international level. And our chances of contributing to real solutions are weakened.
I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the skills and dedication of our diplomatic service, our women and men in uniform, or any Canadians abroad carrying out the difficult tasks they have been given by their government to the best of their abilities. I am, however, very troubled by the incredibly poor direction they have been given by their government, our government.
Canada needs a coherent and effective foreign policy, designed by people who understand how the process works – people who actually care about the process – and are willing to implement it.
We need to invert the way we look at global issues. Turn it on its head.
Instead of reacting to each new crisis, each new conflict, each new problem as though it were an isolated and unique event, we must establish a way of approaching issues and an underlying philosophy that will provide a platform from which we can see our way to solutions clearly and consistently.
We need a long-term vision of our shared global future. Looking at each event or issue in isolation is short-sighted and leads to chaotic, ineffective and very expensive efforts to reduce the impact of the latest crisis and prevents us from actively preventing the next one.
If I can use a loose metaphor, instead of treating foreign policy like a trip to the emergency room – an unpleasant, expensive and often traumatic experience – a little planning, a healthy lifestyle and regular check-ups can avoid trouble.
In my more than twenty years of international diplomacy, I have stressed the need to treat people with respect, to listen carefully to their points of view and to then find common ground on which practical solutions can be built. Foreign relations are no different from relationships with your neighbours, friends and family. That is the approach toward solutions.
As much as we may feel disgust or fear or incomprehension when we see the heinous acts of some so-called leaders, we cannot fall into the trap of demonizing them, shutting our ears and shutting off any hope for progress. The killing of the next Hussein, Bin Laden or Gadhafi will not prevent the next despot from arising.
Distinct from defence of a nation and its territory or citizens, belligerence without the legal and moral authority of a United Nations resolution can only divide peoples and inflame passions against the aggressors.
Like its cousin colonialism, aggression will never lead to a better result. As a fundamentally destabilizing force, it cannot contribute to greater peace in the world over the longer term. We must rise above knee-jerk reactionary emotion and understand the longer-term objectives that will serve us all.
And we can only do that if we are clear about our values.
We cannot claim to stand for peace and so easily opt for war.
We cannot claim to care for our children’s future and ignore the legacy of the environmental and the economic choices we make today.
We cannot claim to deplore racism and fall so easily into xenophobia.
We cannot claim to prize humanity and allow so much suffering.
We cannot claim to value the truth and preach from ignorance.
Stephen Harper and his government have violated each of these values.
We must understand our connection to others on this planet in a more direct and personal way. Their future is our future. Their failure is our failure.
Terrorism, civil war, and war between nations have the same roots in a failure to respect international law, human rights and a more basic failure to respect the humanity of others who are not like us.
We cannot violate those rules when it suits us, as the Conservative’s have done, and then expect that others will obey them. It is time for us to lead.
Climate change, endangered species and water and food insecurity have common roots in a failure to respect the planet and the delicate eco-system that sustains it.
We cannot despoil nature and expect it to sustain us. It is time for us to lead.
Economists the world over – Stephen Harper being a notable exception – recognize that poverty, privation and economic instability must be reversed if we are to avoid disaster.
The growing gap between the rich and the rest of us – the hollowing out of the middle class – will bring the entire system down if it is not stopped. It is time for us to lead.
Canada cannot continue to ignore the relationship between climate change, civil unrest, economic instability and inequality at home and around the world. That will take us straight into the emergency room once again. These are not disparate issues that can be segmented from one another.
If we are to prevent crises rather than haphazardly reacting to them, we must understand how to reconcile our goals with our own values and to reconcile those with the goals and values of others. It is time for us to lead.
We must build our foreign policy from this foundation, with clear objectives, perseverance and integrity.
We cannot waiver in indecision as Paul Martin’s Liberal government did; nor can we strike off in a misconception of our own self-interest, as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives continue to do.
New Democrats have a vision and it is time for us to lead.