Friday, March 16, 2007

Setting Limits on Canada's Afghan Commitment

This article is no doubt correct that perhaps there is too much focus on Canadian involvement in Afghanistan but there is also too little focus in that the role of Canada as handmaiden to imperial US policy is completely missing. Kinsman speaks of the Canadian (ISAF) role being sanctioned by the UN. That is true but after the fact and there is no mention that this is in effect a case where the US used NATO as an agent of its policy rather than the UN since it could not get the UN originally to sanction an invasion led by the US--and in which Canada participated. There is no mention in this article that Afghanistan represents a watershed in which the traditional peacekeeping role of Canada is replaced by a junior military role that takes some of the burden off the US.

Jeremy Kinsman: Diplomatically Speaking
Setting limits on our Afghan commitment
March 15, 2007
"The old order changeth, yielding to the new …"

So it goes. Power is again shifting in the world today, making the managing of change the enduring challenge of foreign policy.

Some argue that under the strains of big tectonic shifts — America bogged down, the rise of China — the golden age of multilateralism is winding down. Others maintain that the period ahead represents its best chance for recovery.

Whichever the case, Canada has interests at stake and values to uphold, such as human rights, and an international trade and payments system that is reliable.

But the danger for us that we may be losing our ability to focus on enough of our real priorities and that we are becoming increasingly consumed by one overriding concern — our escalating commitment to Afghanistan.

From a foreign policy standpoint, the project has important merit — provided it can strengthen our broader international capacity and not reduce it.

But we have to be able to chase several goals simultaneously. And this probably means we should set limits on our Afghan engagement.

Planning for change
In governments, the avatars of change are policy planners. Internationally, they inhabit a special zone, talking to each other under the convention of "planners' rules," which permits them to speculate independently of the positions of their political masters.

Often, their trial balloons become reality when the timing is right, such as Washington's steps at the moment to engage such George W. Bush pariahs as Iran and Syria, a policy shift presaged by the Iraq Study Group report, among others.

In Ottawa, the notion of trying to talk with moderate Taliban is on the planners' table.

Whether this will come to pass of course remains to be seen. The main role of ever-fretful planners is to serve as a "get-ready corps" to prepare governments at least intellectually for change.

Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr. (John Kennedy's favourite historian), set the tone in 1948 when he described "Western man in the middle of the 20th century," as "tense, uncertain, adrift."

Under this scenario, surprise would always be the norm. But who could have foreseen so many of the shocking events that followed, Kennedy's assassination among them.

Predictable or not, though, nations must be able to adapt to the great sea changes in world affairs like the Iranian revolution in 1979, which signalled a huge upheaval in the Muslim world; the advent of Soviet glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, which would end the bitter Cold War; or today's over-arching dynamic of globalization.

Globalization and its discontents
The rise of China and India, slated to be the world's number two and number four economies by 2025, greatly alters the global landscape. The so-called emerging economies now account for over 50 per cent of world industrial production, though in general their per capita incomes have not increased much, outside of China.

Planners hoped that the globalization of financial, trade and information would be matched by a corresponding convergence of political and cultural values. Instead, identity-based backlash is occurring.

What this means, in part, is that the rigid assumptions of international financial institutions and the World Trade Organization are consequently in for changes, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Doha Round of trade negotiations, which turned out to be about very little of consequence to anybody.

In partial reaction, regional blocs are emerging.

Irrespective of their testy political relations, the economies of Japan and China are becoming increasingly joined at the hip.

Asian economies are consolidating according to what some commentators call "Asian values." So, too, are some of the larger Latin American countries through the trade agreement known as Mercosur.

The U.S. is now vigorously courting these trade blocs, witness Bush's recent five-day trip through the heart of Latin America, and corporate America's unrelenting pitch to sell clean-coal technology to China. It's also talking about more economic and regulatory convergence with the European Union, which raises the question: Why isn't Canada more active in these arenas as well?
A new New World Order?
The international political and security landscape is going through a similar shift in weights and opportunities.

With America's global influence on the wane because of the Iraq debacle, U.S. planners are now weighing the appeal of a more collective world leadership to co-manage key security issues, as briefly happened in 1990-92.

The question today: Will China participate as an important conservative stakeholder in stability? Will Russia join the team?

If so, the playbook is going to need adjustment to reflect the fact that, just as in economics, one size does not fit all.

Altogether, the strengthening of international institutions is very much in Canada's interests. Assuming we have the wherewithal to play our cards right.

Our (UN-sanctioned) role and experience in Afghanistan could enhance our influence, if we widen our diplomacy beyond the enclosure of the Afghan theatre itself.

No planner could have foreseen we would have been this engaged for so long with such an unlikely partner. Nor that it would be so costly.

When Gen. Rick Hillier sold then prime minister Paul Martin on Canada exchanging duty in Kabul for more ambitious tasks in the Kandahar region, Martin sought assurance that Canadian forces could still handle other peace-making duties abroad, having in mind a possible UN force in Sudan's Darfur.

Hillier said this could be the case but he had evidently not expected the Taliban would re-emerge in such force, with new equipment and tactics including suicide bombing.

Today, our military capacity is too absorbed by this intensified struggle to permit participation in another multinational military exercise. We've made our choice. But for how long can we keep it up?

Added priorities
Almost everyone acknowledges that military force alone won't help Afghanistan develop the economic, social and political stability it has never had, and the Harper government has really ramped up our development and other assistance.

In government, it is becoming an all-consuming and ever-widening cause. Public service managers have been told that if their foreign policy and aid activities aren't connected to Afghanistan they aren't on the agenda.

This may be a sound application of Stephen Harper's vaunted emphasis on focus.

But with a government agenda narrowed to a few goals, the effect is to deny political-level attention to international activity of probably greater relevance to direct Canadian interests, particularly in trade.

Prime Minister Harper has taken to referring to Canada as a "global leader." And from the foreshortened perspective of a minority government, it is hard not to see Afghanistan as the one essential statement of our international bona fides.

But we can't be a "global leader" without actively deploying our credit over a much wider agenda, especially in a time of great impending change.

Even though the modus operandi of his government is that not much from the past is of value, Harper could benefit from reflection on the perspectives of some of his predecessors.

Pierre Trudeau, for example, believed our important relationships all over the world were what made Canada a global power. We need to pursue them still.

For Brian Mulroney, these relationships and our multilateralist vocation allowed Canada to punch above her weight on several fronts.

This concentration on Afghanistan is welcome by many in the international community, but it does carry serious opportunity costs for us. Our planners need to get to work on keeping Canadian interests and values competitive across the board while at the same time making sure we succeed in Kandahar and get out when we said we would in 2009.


Jeremy Kinsman was Canada's ambassador to the European Union from 2002 until his retirement earlier this year. Before that he was high commissioner to London as well as ambassador to Russia and Italy. He joined Canada's foreign service in 1966 and currently resides on Vancouver Island.

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