Monday, June 25, 2007

James Laxer: Toward a New Canadian Foreign Policy

Laxer was one of the key figures in the Waffle movement in the NDP years ago. The Waffle Manifesto was also quite nationalist but there was much more socialism than anything here in this article. Although Laxer's analysis and criticism of continentalism seems quite convincing his positive Canadian alternative seems quite undeveloped. Perhaps in his next article he will flesh it out more.

Afghanistan: Toward a new Canadian foreign policy

Nationalist conservatism has remained a significant sentiment in Canada, but as neo-conservatism grew, it lost its place in the Progressive Conservative Party. Today's Conservative Party of Canada is firmly locked within the logic of the Continentalist School of Canadian Foreign policy.

>by James Laxer
June 22, 2007

(Mission of Folly: Part ten — 1) For Canadians, the Afghanistan operation has been a mission of folly. Canada blindly followed the United States into a war that is not winnable, a war from which no positive results can be anticipated. Now that American public opinion has turned sharply against the war in Iraq, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will not long endure. Americans will move on to other engagements, other power struggles and new priorities. By the time the Bush administration is out of office, the chances are that the Afghanistan mission, if not finished, will be on its last legs.

As Americans pursue a modified foreign policy, the opportunity opens for Canada to chart its own course in the world. In recent years, it has become commonplace for critics on the political right to decry Canada's waning global influence. Those critics have called on Canada to rearm and to reassert itself alongside its military allies.

What these critics really wanted was for Canada to line up solidly with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to make a fourth in the “Anglo-Sphere.” In Afghanistan, these critics got their way. Canada took its place in the Anglo-Sphere in a shooting war and Canadians suffered their most serious military casualties since the Korean conflict. For Stephen Harper, who observed that these casualties were the price of greater global influence, this made sense.

In truth, however, Canada's global influence has not been increasing. If anything, it has been diminishing. In Afghanistan, Canada has been engaged in a hopeless American adventure. In the Middle East, Canada has aligned itself so closely with Israel as to strip our country of whatever small influence it formerly had. The pursuit of influence in the military adventures of the Anglo-Sphere has proved to be a dead end for Canada.

Canadians need to think through the principles on which a new Canadian foreign policy should rest. Although discussions of Canadian foreign policy often skirt around this, the starting point for any foreign policy needs to be the furtherance of Canadian domestic interests in the international sphere. And while there is no necessary contradiction between the two, the second goal of Canadian foreign policy should be to advance the principles to which Canada is committed in the wider world.

Canada's vital national interests have always been much easier to spell out than to realize. That's what comes of living in a unique neighbourhood in which an otherwise potentially influential country is left feeling quite impotent because it is located next door to the world's only superpower. The power imbalance between Canada and its puissant neighbour has always made Canadian foreign policy a peculiar amalgam of resignation and utopianism.

On the resignation side, a species of lobbyists whom I would call “continentalists in realist clothing” have argued that Canada cannot challenge the wishes of the United States on fundamental issues and that its best course of action is to accommodate to the direction America is determined to take and to obtain the greatest influence and the best bargain in the process.

In 1964, a former U.S. ambassador to Ottawa and a former Canadian ambassador to Washington collaborated to write a report (the Merchant-Heeney Report) that set out this approach. The report called on Canada to negotiate vigorously with the United States on bilateral issues, but to recognize the special global role of the U.S.

On wider international questions, therefore, where Canada disagreed with American policies, Ottawa ought to pursue what the report called “quiet diplomacy.” Canada ought to refrain from public disagreements with the United States on global issues that did not directly concern Canadian interests. The Merchant-Heeney Report quickly became notorious because it recommended what most people saw as an unacceptable abandonment of Canadian sovereignty, an unnecessary acceptance of American suzerainty on global issues.

While the Report was not adopted by Ottawa, the approach it advocated has been advanced repeatedly in one form or another, by pro-American lobby groups over the past four decades. The C.D. Howe Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly the Business Council on National Issues) have tirelessly promoted the notion that Canadian foreign and defence policies should be closely coordinated with those of Washington.

In his maiden speech in the House of Commons as Leader of the Opposition in 2003, Stephen Harper, then leader of the Canadian Alliance, excoriated the record of the Liberal government on the issue of Canadian-American relations. He accused the Liberals of having undermined the relationship with Washington by taking holier-than-thou positions on issues such as the treaty banning the use of land mines. He concluded that anything that substantially harmed the United States would devastate Canada.

Adherents of this school of thought make the case that on important military questions Canada has no choice but to align itself with the United States. In a study for the C.D. Howe Institute several years ago, historian Jack Granatstein advanced this argument.

We can label this the Continentalist School of Canadian foreign policy. The essential tenet of this school is that Canada is an economic, political, cultural and military extension of the United States, a lesser power whose larger fate is bound up with that of its neighbour. This school of thought was enormously influential in its advocacy of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in the 1980s and NAFTA in the 1990s. The members of the Continentalist School have been the most consistent advocates of a coherent approach to Canadian foreign policy in recent decades.

Over the course of Canadian history, there have been other coherent approaches. From the time of Confederation in 1867 until the Second World War, the dominant school of Canadian foreign policy could be called Imperial-Nationalist. At the beginning of this historical period, of course, Canadian foreign and military policies were legally in the hands of Westminster, although Canada had control of its domestic affairs.

This makes the term foreign policy premature and indeed, for decades the Canadian foreign ministry was called the Department of External Affairs. The great architect of the Imperial-Nationalist school was John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, whose tory-nationalism was the ideology that suffused the Canadian state and its economic policies for many decades.

The Imperial-Nationalist approach to foreign or external affairs grew out of the proposition that the supreme threat to Canadian nationhood arose not from Canada's colonial relationship with Britain, but from Canada's uneasy position vis-a-vis the United States. Macdonald believed that Canada needed Britain to offset the threat from the south. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill's policy was to call on the power of the New World to redress the balance in the Old. Macdonald's policy was the reverse of that: he called on the power of the Old World to redress the balance in the New.

The Second World War destroyed the power relations in the North Atlantic on which the Imperial-Nationalist school was based. The British Empire disintegrated in the years following the war and the American Empire took its place. Canada could no longer seek a balance in its relationships with two great English speaking powers. Britain's decline spelt the end of the Imperial-Nationalist school of Canadian foreign policy. The sentiments on which the school had rested outlived the disappearance of the geo-political basis for the implementation of its policies, however.

Nationalist conservatism has remained a significant sentiment in Canada, but as neo-conservatism grew, it lost its place in the Progressive Conservative Party. Today's Conservative Party of Canada is firmly locked within the logic of the Continentalist School of Canadian Foreign policy.

Over the past four decades, as political and cultural movements have arisen to contest the degree of American domination of Canada, the basis for a new school of Canadian foreign policy has emerged. We can call it the Canadian School.

The Canadian School seeks to achieve two large goals. The first is to promote the survival of Canada as a sovereign power in North America. The second is to promote the values to which Canadians are committed in the wider world. The first goal grows directly out of Canadian domestic policies. As is appreciated by all Canadians who have embraced their country's potential as something far greater than the quest for immediate material gratification, Canada has the capacity to enlarge itself in human terms over the course of this century.

Americans in the 19th century perceived their country's potential to achieve more in the future than it had in the past. Canadians, who are not bounded by the limiting confines of neo-conservatism and the subservience of the Continentalist School of Canadian Foreign Policy, realize that they are creating a country that will be greater in the future than it is today. That gives the present generation of Canadians an immense responsibility to realistically pursue the interests of Canada today in such a way as not to foreclose on the potential of the country for the future.

For the present, Canada needs a foreign policy with one eye on the long-term future, and the other on the present. The mixture that is needed is one that combines realism with a dose of utopianism. The Canada to come over the course of this century can expect to play as large a role in the world as the United Kingdom or France.

Consider the course of the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century, with a population of five million, Canada was five per cent as populous as the United States. When the century closed, Canada was more than ten per cent as populous as its southern neighbour. Laurier's boast that the “20th century belongs to Canada” has always seemed more than a little over the top, but he was not entirely wrong.

Not only did Canada's population more than double relative to that of the U.S., its economy more than doubled in size in relation to that of the United States during the 20th century. Reluctant and non-visionary though the country's leadership has often been, Canada has thrived over the course of the past hundred years.

Like the British Empire of the 19th century, Canada has grown in a fit of absence of mind. For our good fortune to continue, however, a more concerted approach is needed. The Canadian School needs to drive home the point that the Continentalist School is guilty of taking an extremely short-term approach and not even doing a good job of that.

The curious thing about the Canadian business lobbyists, for whom the Continentalist School speaks, is how lacking in serious ambition they are. Living as they do on a piece of real estate that is among the greatest on earth, and that is inhabited by a population that is highly motivated and well educated, you would think that Canadian business lobbyists would aspire to more than playing second fiddle to the Americans. One might imagine that Canadian business would want real power for itself, willing to engage in commerce with whomever, but always realizing that they could occupy a larger place in the global scheme of things.

In the 19th century, American business moguls had that sense of themselves. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, and the world's first billionaire, built his global petroleum empire through a peculiar combination of cutthroat competition and Christian piety. He was seriously religious and believed in a social Darwinist business ethic in which the stronger prevailed and the weak perished. Standard Oil set its sights on the domination, not only on the American petroleum market, but the global market.

The Rockefeller story has been repeated many times over in the annals of American business, right down to the present epics of the Waltons and Bill Gates. By contrast, Canadian business moguls have usually been full of bluster, but highly derivative in their ambitions, wanting little more for themselves than acceptance from their British and American counterparts. The consequence is that they have been quite prepared to concede the genuine power that could have been theirs in return for a comfortable seat in someone else's vehicle.

Under the circumstances, an alternative vision of Canada's place in world and its foreign policy will have to be based on other social forces. At first glance, this may seem to be a rather dim prospect. There are reasons for hope, however. For several decades, Canada has been that odd case, a country whose population has grown ever more committed to its survival in the face of business spokespersons who have largely abandoned this cause.

The collapse of the Bush administration's strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia makes the prospects for a shift in Canadian foreign policy brighter. Those who have been most inclined to follow the Bush line in Canada — the Harper Conservatives and the business lobbyists — have damaged their cause immeasurably in their stolid adherence to the lost cause. Theirs will be the fate of spear carriers through the ages who have wound up on the wrong side.

The new Canadian foreign policy should aim at preserving Canadian sovereignty and on lending Canada's weight in the world to greater political and economic justice and environmental sustainability. Canadians need to recognize that in the world of the 21st century national sovereignty is an immeasurably valuable asset.

The American novelist Mark Twain once advised people to buy land on the grounds that “they're not making any more of that.” The same thing is basically true when it comes to sovereign nations. It is true that a rash of them became sovereign in the great age of decolonization in the several decades following the Second World War. Then there was a second rash that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. And Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were severed into pieces.

But the point stands. Not many new sovereign states will be created over the course of the present century. Those that exist will prize their sovereignty as an asset that gives them admission to international decision making bodies and that allows them to shape affairs on their own territory to a considerable extent.

These assertions fly in the face of much received wisdom in the so-called age of globalization. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the world entered the brief era of the supposed End of History and the Borderless World. The curtain rang down on that brief epoch on September 11, 2001.

The terror attacks were followed by the rediscovery of the state — in fact, it had never gone away. The American state, which presided over the greatest empire of our time, under the direction of the Bush administration, staked its claim to remaining the world's paramount military power in permanence. The contradiction at the heart of the American Empire was that while it was able to shape the course of politics, the economy and society in many countries, it relied on the state in each country to administer affairs locally.

The great fact of our age is that we live in a world dominated by the American Empire, but a world in which the sovereign state is increasingly valued as a priceless asset by peoples everywhere. Empire and nationalism co-exist today as they co-existed in the age of the great European empires.

James Laxer is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. This is part 10.1 of a 10.2-part series that has run regularly on

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