Photo by Jamie McCaffrey via Flickr

Election 2015: Canada's role on the world's stage

With the federal election less than two weeks away, internal reports leaked last week had senior Foreign Affairs officials raising the alarm on Canada’s international reputation being “eroded.”

The reports specifically identified climate change, helping to build stronger democracies and engaging the United Nations as key areas where Canada’s influence is dwindling. And they called for a post-election focus on improving the country’s image.

While pundits have noted the timing of the leaked reports – ahead of the Munk foreign policy debate and right before the 70th UN General Assembly – both NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for hurting Canada’s reputation abroad by backing military action rather than diplomatic efforts.

U of T News asked Professor Robert Bothwell from the Munk School of Global Affairs and PhD candidate Tina Park to reflect on whether Canada’s global reputation has taken a hit, and what’s ahead for the next Prime Minister.

While Bothwell supervises Park on her thesis, they don’t always agree on the issue.

Is Canada's influence declining on the world stage? If so, why?

Bothwell: There are several reasons. First, the government’s basic foreign policy is solipsistic – it really concentrates on reactions inside Canada, and inside Canada either from its “base” or from ethnic groups whom it hopes to influence. The obverse of that is that, as Stephen Harper said recently, the government cares little for “elites.” As we know, this includes scientists and their views on various subjects, like the environment; in terms of foreign policy, it means diplomats. Second, Harper approaches the rest of the world through an ideological lens. This has much to do with his poor relations with U.S. President Barack Obama, whom he has repeatedly disappointed. That has resulted in the U.S. failure to consult over such things as auto parts in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Park: There are different measures for influence and most countries outside the orbit of superpowers tend to ebb and flow from time to time. On maternal, newborn and child health, Canada has played a significant global role. On promoting human rights and the rule of law within the 53 nations of the Commonwealth, Canada has been a leading voice against homophobia in the African region and‎ an end to repression and impunity in Sri Lanka, along with India. Within NATO, despite our limited military resources, Canada has stepped up admirably in Afghanistan, Bosnia and more recently against ISIS with both training and air combat missions. On issues like UN peacekeeping, our direct commitment has decreased, but countries such as South Korea are actively engaging in training programs with Canada to learn the best practices. Furthermore, Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with South Korea, which came into force earlier this year, marks our first FTA in the Asia-Pacific region and has the potential to strengthen Canada’s economic, political and strategic engagements in Asia.

Can you point to specific international issues where Canada's voice was not heard or its input not taken?

Bothwell: On the auto parts issue, there are 80,000 workers in the auto parts sector. During negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. simply ignored Canada and negotiated a side deal with Japan. When objections were made, the U.S. seems to have consulted with Mexico’s president but not Canada’s prime minister. Harper has repeatedly disappointed Obama – at the 2010 summit in Toronto, in his method of promoting the XL pipeline in the US, in his non-support for the Iran agreement. In the dispute between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a volatile subject in the US and politically delicate, Harper has sided with Netanyahu. Harper’s linkage to Netanyahu has certainly won him points inside Israel, with the Israeli government and its supporters, but it has alienated many Arab states. The Israeli opposition regards Canada with bemusement, at best. One result may be seen in Canada’s failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council some years ago. I believe the United States voted against us, and for Portugal, which won.

The most spectacular example, however, is on the environment. Here it is well known that Canada has nothing positive to say, and nothing constructive to add. Canadian statements are met in public with derision by the international environment movement, and in private by other countries’ representatives. It is well known abroad that Canadian scientists in government service are muzzled, and it has been the subject of comment in the international media.

Even where Canada has been active, sending troops to Afghanistan, we just could not send enough because there weren’t any left to send. As a result, our contribution, brave and professional though it was, could never be enough. You would never know it from government statements. It is well known abroad that under Harper, Canada speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

Park: Canada can, and should, do more in tackling global climate change, one of the principal challenges facing humanity with grave environmental, social, economic, and political implications. Canada’s forceful voice in support of a two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinian authority has been diluted by Canada's stronger advocacy for Israel and strong opposition to Iran. This is often an issue of emphasis. Canada has shown support for Palestinian police and judicial training, as well as helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Many Canadians and Canadian NGOs are on the ground in these conflict zones in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, delivering aid, protecting women and children fleeing from danger, and making meaningful difference in promoting human dignity. That said, there is always more we can do to uphold our collective responsibility to protect amidst ongoing crises around the world.

What led to this point? Has the nation’s reputation dipped because of the Harper government or other factors?

Bothwell: Canada has been known to punch above its weight in international affairs for some time, at least since the 1980s. This was because at the time we had an excellent foreign service – meaning high professional competence – and a reputation for reasonableness, though on some subjects, like NATO, we were plainly committed. Canada was committed to the proposition that peace was indivisible, and we were happy to co-operate with other countries in shoring up peace or at least avoiding war. Peacekeeping is a part of this, although in some places like Croatia in the early 1990s it verged on peacemaking. The foreign service was respected by government – Progressive Conservative or Liberal – and its advice carefully considered. Diplomats were given a fair amount of freedom of action in representing Canada abroad.

All this has changed. The foreign service has been put on short rations. Embassies abroad have been sold. This also has much to do with the Harper government’s distrust of and contempt for “elites.” Ambassadors have to clear their speeches with the prime minister’s office in Ottawa. A Canadian foreign minister freely confided to another foreign minister how much he distrusted his own foreign service. The most Canadian diplomats abroad can expect from their professional counterparts is sympathy. “What’s happened to Canada?” is a question that was asked in the early Harper years. It is no longer asked. And, the nation is divided on the subject. The Harper base either does not care or approves. They would certainly approve putting those snotty diplomats in their place.

Park: I think our debate about Canada’s role in the world is intrinsically connected to the general state of soul-searching in our international system today. Seventy years since the founding of the United Nations, we are witnessing growing skepticism of our international order, especially in light of global paralysis on Syria, inadequate response to the global climate change crisis, and a sense of helplessness in the face of horrific acts of terror committed by non-state actors like ISIS. Across the globe, polarization, sectarianism and extreme politics are on the rise. With our track record of success on initiatives such as peacekeeping operations, promoting human rights, and championing causes for humanity, the bar is set high for Canada to be influential and be a compelling force for change.

What should we be looking for in our next prime minister if we want our influence to be restored?

Bothwell: Canada is going to have to be humble for quite a while. The first task is to rebuild the foreign service. The second is to stop blathering in the style that foreigners have come to expect from Canada. Let’s be quiet for a while and try to understand the world as it is, and not a fantasy world defined by Canadian electoral politics.

Park: I agree that what we need most from our next prime minister is a touch of humility in the face of global complexity. Historically, Canada has been a leader in promoting global humanitarianism, and I think it is a legacy that is close to the heart of many Canadians.   

There will be no clear blueprint for how to tackle the situation in Syria, eradicate poverty or save our planet. We need a leader who can combine compassion, courage and a clear vision for Canada in the next century, while also being pragmatic and innovative. Tackling difficult challenges will require imagination and re-calibrating our strategy, so that both principle and complexity are better reflected in our foreign policy. In the end, Canadian foreign policy must reflect our core values of democracy, rule of law, equality, diversity, gender equity and human rights.

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief