Monday, July 16, 2007

Afghanistan: Looking for Canadian Sovereignty

This is part of a much longer series that is available at Rabble. Laxer is usually quite interesting and makes many good points but I find this selection wanders a bit and sometimes is vague. There is not the bite that there was in his earlier work during the time of the Waffle movement. There isn't even a whiff of socialism in this portion of his commentary.

Afghanistan: Looking for Canadian sovereignty

>by James Laxer
July 16, 2007

(Mission of Folly: Part ten —2) In this new age, while Canadians have had very little leadership on this score from political leaders or intellectuals, they have moved in the same direction as other peoples in cherishing the survival of their state. Canadians have had a curious history on the question of national sovereignty in recent years.

From the political right, once a strong source of support for a sovereign Canada distinct from the United States, Canadians now receive continentalist rhetoric, buoyed up by neo-conservative notions that the strong state is anathema to a free people. Neo-conservative ideas propel Canada toward descent into a series of regional extensions of the United States, tethered together by a weak federal government.

On the political left, the tradition of left nationalism has been strong and has had a major cultural impact. Left nationalism propelled the campaigns against the supine acceptance of American corporate ownership of the Canadian economy and played a seminal role in the resistance to free trade.

In recent years, however, other voices on the left have been far less concerned with national sovereignty. Some of these voices have been highly derivative of the ideas of the American-centred anti-globalization movement. For them, the compelling questions in the world turn on the relationship of the rich nations of the north to the poor nations of the world.

Canada's struggles to maintain its sovereignty vis-a-vis the United States have meant little to those with this point of view. Intellectually, in any case, they remained enamoured of the liberal anti-state ideologies that flourished during the brief post-Cold War era. Ironically, where the state is concerned, they shared much in common with neo-conservatives.

Those who believe that Canadian sovereignty needs to be sustained and extended should establish a set of goals.

If a major objective of Canadian foreign policy should be to foster a sustainable global environment, Canada will have to reacquire sovereignty in the critical area of the petroleum industry. Under the terms of NAFTA, Canada must continue to maintain petroleum exports to the U.S. at the level they have reached over the preceding three years. As conventional Canadian oil production declines, Canada is becoming ever more reliant on oil sands production to sustain and increase overall petroleum output.

Using present production methods, which involve the use of enormous quantities of fresh water, large scale strip mining, the injection of clean natural gas to produce oil from the sands, and the emission of a huge volume of greenhouse gases, increasing oil sands production condemns Canada to a dirty global environmental role.

For Canada to achieve its environmental objectives, at home and abroad, the present American lock on the oil sands has to be broken. This will require either an amendment to the NAFTA Treaty, to remove the Canadian requirement to supply the United States with petroleum, or the abrogation by Canada of its place in NAFTA. Withdrawing from NAFTA would position Canada within the trade regulations of the World Trade Organization. For those who fear that leaving NAFTA would place Canada in the line of fire for U.S. retaliation, the backup of the regulations of the WTO should be kept in mind.

There are other crucial goals that need to be addressed as elements of Canada's bilateral foreign policy with the U.S. Recognized as important by successive Conservative and Liberal governments, but with little action to back it up, is the need to sustain Canada's claim to its Arctic territorial waters. Both the United States and the European Union refuse to accept Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage as Canadian waters. The Harper government has now announced plans to spend money on the acquisition of ships to patrol our Arctic waters. An Arctic patrol fleet should be the first new military undertaking in line with a new foreign policy.

Sovereignty also requires Canada to halt and reverse steps toward the concept of a Fortress North America alongside the United States. Canadian refugee and immigration policies should be de-linked from those of Washington. In the past, linking refugee policies to those of the U.S. would have resulted in consequences most Canadians would have lamented. After the U.S. backed coup in Chile in 1973, thousands of refugees were admitted to Canada. A refugee policy linked to that of Washington would have prevented those Chileans from reaching solace and a new life in Canada.

Canada should also halt the move toward interoperability of Canadian with U.S. military units. Interoperability is not a technical matter, although it is often portrayed that way. It is a political choice. The assumption underlying it is that Canada's main military operations will be alongside the Americans, or more accurately, under U.S. command.

The premise of the alternative foreign policy, outlined here, is that Canada's first military priority should be to patrol the nation's territorial waters, especially those in the Arctic. It flies in the face of elementary logic for a country to integrate its armed forces with those of a country with which it has an ongoing, indeed deepening, dispute over territorial sovereignty. Would the Americans integrate their armed forces with those of a state that disputes Washington's claim to an important portion of U.S. territory?

The second priority of the Canadian military which also does not require interoperability with U.S. forces, should be to prepare for participation in international missions that fall under the heading of the “Responsibility to Protect.” The Responsibility to Protect, recognized by the United Nations as an international obligation, arises when peoples face catastrophes, whether natural or man made. The tsunami in south Asia in December 1995 is an example of the former. The Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing in Sudan are examples of the latter.

Is it possible in a world dominated by the United States, and its potential challengers, most notably China, to find ways to address humanitarian catastrophes that are not bound to end up simply opening the way for the achievement of imperial aims? In the 21st century, is humanitarian intervention nothing more than the equivalent of missionary efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries that provide a fig leaf for imperial aggression? Must we face the hard truth that humanitarian interventions cannot be conceived in good faith until empires have been reconciled with nation states and international law? And will this predicament become worse as the American Empire faces increasing challenges from China and other actors over the next 20 or 30 years?

If those such as Michael Ignatieff, who would rely on the American Empire to deliver aid to suffering people do not have the answer, two other possibilities remain: reform of the global system from above; or transformation of the system from below. Should reform from above, to which we will return, prove a failure, as well it may, that leaves transformation from below as the road ahead. Uncertain, uneven, and explosive, upheaval from below will erupt in those cases where poverty, exploitation and authoritarianism, as well as ethnic and religious oppression, can be effectively countered by force.

Where and when such volcanic eruptions may occur in Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia, the one certainty is that the consequences will not be those that warm the hearts of liberal democrats, with their preference for pluralism, the rule of law, civil liberties and fair elections. But where liberals have made themselves the allies of global corporations and obscene income and wealth inequality, the pale light of their abstract quest for justice will scarcely bring warmth to those who suffer. Liberals could well end as sponsors of justice the way medieval churchmen were sponsors of charity.

What then of reform from above?

Efforts at transforming the UN have been undertaken many times in the past, and almost always, with meagre results. More often than not what has stood in the way of reform is the unwillingness of member states to cede power so as to make the UN more of a supranational authority and less of an intergovernmental organization. The five permanent members of the Security Council (P5), armed with vetoes, have always been, and remain today, jealous of the clout this gives them. On top of this, the United States, with its unique power, has shown its unwillingness to submit to any international regime or regulation that it sees as threatening its right to control its security and retain its full sovereignty.

One could conclude that that is the end of the matter.

At present, initiatives to reform the UN to enable it to be much more effective in delivering humanitarian aid are being seriously pursued in a number of places. Let us explore one possible way forward.

As potential actors, hope lies with a number of countries that are relatively wealthy, but that lack the capacity, military and economic, to vie for global power. What is needed is a system for undertaking humanitarian interventions that is as insulated as possible from imperial power rivalries. Of course, perfection in this regard is unattainable. Let's concede, at once, some of the limitations. Humanitarian interventions are not possible in regions that are directly controlled by great imperial states (for example, Tibet, or Panama or Colombia.) And they are not likely to be possible in zones in which rival imperial powers are in active contention with each other.

In other cases, however, it could be possible to launch a system, under the auspices of the United Nations, in which the notion of the Responsibility to Protect can be acted on in clearly defined cases of humanitarian catastrophe. Second tier countries, while often closely tied to imperial powers — as Canada is to the U.S. — also have their own interests and aspirations which include a desire not to be completely subsumed within the weltanschauung of the world power.

It is worth investigating the proposition that an international role for such countries as purveyors of humanitarian interventions, acting through UN mandates under the rubric of the “Responsibility to Protect” could be established. For such countries to invest their treasure and their manpower in these missions would carve out a significant global role for them. Further, it would, in many cases at least, remove the taint of imperial aggression from such interventions.

No one ought to contend that such missions would much reduce the spheres of imperial power in the world. Indeed, such a role for second tier states would deal with situations the U.S. and the other imperial powers would rather avoid. This point is crucial, because it means that a space could be found for action that does not imply a direct confrontation with the power of the United States and its major competitors.

What countries could fall under the heading of second tier countries that could be recruited to play such a role? The criteria for inclusion could be rather broad. First, there ought to be a crucial restriction. The list should not include powers that possess nuclear weapons. Obvious candidates for the list would include Canada, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and South Africa could qualify. More controversial would be Germany and Japan.

What could emerge from this sort of initiative could be a new layer of power directed at alleviating humanitarian crises. This international mission could reduce human suffering, and arguably, could contribute to a safer world.

In conjunction with a Canadian commitment to enlarging the capacity of this country and others to act under the UN rubric of the Responsibility to Protect, Canada ought to move swiftly to providing 0.7 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product for Official Development Assistance. This goal, first included in 1970 in a UN General Assembly resolution as a target toward which developed countries should move, has for far too long been evaded by successive Canadian governments.

Canada's Afghanistan mission, conceived with little thought, has taught an important, if costly, lesson about the falseness of seeking to enhance Canada's global position through participation in the armed struggles of the Anglo-Sphere. Even though Canadians have paid a disproportionately high price in blood in Afghanistan in relation to that paid by our allies, there has been no increase in the influence of Canada on other nations. In the wider world, the effect of the Harper government's foreign policy has been to reinforce one perception of Canadians that is already strongly held — that we amount to little more than an extension of the United States in thought and in action.

That is highly unfortunate because another perception of Canada has been taking hold in the wider world in recent decades. That perception is of a country that is genuinely a refuge of liberty and tolerance, a human space where the world's travails can be addressed in a calm and compassionate way.

In the narrower world of the Anglo-Sphere, the consequences of the Harper government's foreign policy have been telling, and not a little ironic. In Afghanistan, Canada measured up to the standards of sacrifice of the Americans and the British, but the impact on Washington and London has been negligible.

On softwood lumber, Washington pushed a completely self-interested bargain on Canada, taking no account at all of the fact that “Steve” was at the helm in Ottawa. On the Mahar Arar case, the Bush administration refused to take the Syrian-born Canadian off their watch list despite the request from the Harper government that they do so in the aftermath of an exhaustive Canadian investigation. The much touted friendship between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay meant nothing when the chips were down.

As for wider public opinion in the U.S. and Britain, Canadian casualties were simply not noticed by the American and British media. They were no more inclined to cover Canada after the sacrifices than before. As it has turned out, the supposed realism preached by Canadian neo-conservatives has produced no tangible benefits for this country.

It is time to turn the page and move on, to stake out a foreign policy that is rooted in self-interest and the quest for a better world, the combination that is needed in a country whose best days are in the future.

James Laxer is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. This is the last part of a multi-part series on Afghanistan that has run regularly on The complete work, Mission of Folly, with appendices, sources and acknowledgments is available to download in PDF.

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