A World Turned Upside Down

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03/24/2016

To face an age of climate change, Twitter and counterinsurgency, Canada’s foreign policy establishment needs fresh ideas.

LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA

Every year, a new book emerges that seeks to “rethink Canada’s place in the world.” Inevitably, as someone who studies and writes about international affairs, I do my part, buy a copy and settle in for the nearly inevitable slog. There is nothing wrong with these books, per se. The authors are often colleagues and friends. Most are written in a smart and accessible manner. They discuss all the big world issues I personally care about—conflict, peacebuilding, development, the United Nations, our relationship with the United States and so on. They prescribe thoroughly reasonable courses of action. They are sometimes even marginally provocative. But they invariably leave me wanting.

Perhaps it is the nostalgia for a golden age of Liberal Canadian foreign policy, when Pearson saved the Suez or Axworthy led on landmines or a small group of elites managed our engagement with the world. Perhaps it is the hyperbole surrounding Canada’s impact in the world—that everything we say and do will resonate through the international halls of power. Perhaps it is the near-ubiquitous Central Canadian worldview. Perhaps it is the often breathless critiques of, or acquiescence to, the United States.

Whatever it is, something is amiss. The Canadian foreign policy conversation is tired. The “road maps” presented are familiar, and there is a notable lack of innovation. There is no excitement.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe steady-as-we-go is the best approach to engaging with the world. Maybe there is a moderate, non-partisan consensus among foreign policy professionals over what our role should be, and we should leave the job to them. But I remain skeptical.

Whereas foreign policy was once the domain of the professional bureaucrat and the academic expert, it has since been radically democratized. Long gone are the days when the Department of Foreign Affairs had a monopoly on our voice abroad. Mining companies in Africa, innovative non-governmental organizations run by 20-somethings, private military contractors, blogs written by enthusiasts, do-it-yourself development initiators, social enterprises run by Ivy League entrepreneurs, Emmy-winning documentary filmmakers, and provincial and municipal officials all shape our national foreign policy today. If the foreign policy discourse is going to appeal to those now acting in the world, rather than those who got us here, then it must speak to their aspirations, adopt their worldviews and engage their tools. And they are diverse.


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This summer saw an addition to the Canadian foreign policy canon. Paul Heinbecker, former UN ambassador and lion of the country’s liberal foreign policy establishment, has given us Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada. The theme is clear. We are lost. We need a new way. This book will guide us.

Fingers crossed.

Heinbecker tells three stories: a memoir of his diplomatic career, a historical sketch of Canadian foreign policy, and reflections on, and Canadian policy prescriptions for, contemporary global affairs.First, the memoir. Heinbecker has had a remarkable diplomatic career. In the world of Canadian foreign policy, he has held all of the positions that matter—speechwriter and policy maker for prime ministers, top positions in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and ambassador to Germany and the UN.

In the last capacity, he was stationed in New York on September 11, 2001. His recounting of the year that followed is a highlight of the book, as is his depiction of the tension at the UN in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when he played a key role in promoting a last-minute, and unfortunately ultimately unsuccessful, Canadian compromise. He bore witness to the gathering storm of collective decision making that led to the invasion, and details the way the media and foreign policy establishment created a sense of war fever, where dissenters were ostracized from the policy, media and political establishment. He is also damning of General Colin Powell’s consequential testimony to the Security Council, stating that “little or nothing of what he said has ever been corroborated.”

Future debates over sanctioning war will be better informed by Heinbecker’s recollections, and his reflections throughout the book on our relationship with the U.S., developed from close personal diplomatic engagement, are also wise. But I found myself wanting more memoir. His anecdotes tease rather than satisfy, and feel hindered by diplomatic restraint. For better or worse, Canada rarely produces government insider tell-alls, so, unsurprisingly, Kissinger-esque Heinbecker is not.

Provocatively, this restraint is only lifted when reviewing Harper’s foreign policy, on which Heinbecker is scathing. Harper’s foreign policy has “tended to compensate for inexperience with ideology, to subordinate substance to communications, and to privilege partisan advantage over national interests.” His front-bench and regularly rotating foreign ministers have lacked experience, Heinbecker argues. His regular and unpredictable changes in diplomatic direction, and his disbanding of many foreign policy initiatives for which Canada has become respected, have aggravated our allies. And, according to Heinbecker, his exploitation of international affairs for partisan political purposes—on issues such as capital punishment, Israel and Palestine, human rights and Canadians held prisoner abroad—have added to the perception that he does not take foreign policy seriously.

(Wherever one stands on any of the individual critiques, they collectively provide a good starting point for understanding why we lost the election to the UN Security Council this past October.)

In the second part of the book, Heinbecker reviews the foreign policies of previous federal governments. This is useful as a generic outline, but the lack of overarching themes or lessons means it adds little to the established historical narrative, with the notable exception of an assertive defence of the UN. Rather than making the oft-heard case that the UN is the least bad option for global governance, Heinbecker convincingly argues that it provides a necessary hub for the international community that cannot simply be replaced with regional organizations and ad hoc initiatives. This is a rare moment when emotion enters onto the page, and it reads elegantly.

The final third, and primary objective, of the book is devoted to a “playbook” for Canadian foreign policy. Here Heinbecker lays out a sensible, moderate, middle-of-the-road mix of policies. The diplomat’s voice comes through loud and clear. But the problem with moderate, sensible prescriptions is that they are rarely innovative.On policy stagnation in Ottawa, for instance, we are told we need prime ministerial leadership, a respected finance and foreign minister, more resources for DFAIT, and the operation of the Canadian International Development Agency subsumed under Foreign Affairs. This is all fine, but what should these institutions be doing differently? Surely the problems lie deeper that the size and influence of government bureaucracies. Why is it, for example, that successful young people increasingly do not see the public service as an attractive career? How did CIDA get to its current operational stasis? What does it mean that we have provinces, corporations and non-profits actively defining the Canadian brand abroad? Will reverting to pre-1990s budget allocations and providing greater political leadership really address these and the many other core challenges?

On Afghanistan, by far Canada’s most significant foreign initiative in a generation, we only get two recommendations: no arbitrary withdrawal deadline and a national and parliamentary debate on what to do in 2011. The brevity of these proposals is understandable as few have good solutions for what is an intractably challenging conflict (although both are already out of date, we now have a timeline, established with no debate). But surely these very challenges, and the effects they have had on our role in the world, could be explored. Heinbecker offers no discussion about, for example, how the mission has fundamentally transformed the capacity and purpose of our military, or how it has confirmed our shift from a neutral third-party peacekeeper to a more assertive peacebuilding role that merges development and counterinsurgency, or how it has highlighted the types of conflict we are more likely to face around the globe, or how it has demonstrated the serious operational deficiencies of the efforts led by both NATO and the UN.

On climate change, we are told we need a “made-in-Canada” plan that supports sub-national initiatives, to implement aspects of Copenhagen not linked to U.S. legislation, and to “move heaven and earth diplomatically to make sure we are ‘at the table.’” Again, the core challenges inherent to policy making on climate change are simply avoided. If we believe climate change is an existential problem, as many do, then we should surely be doing more than the tinkering recommended. If we do not believe it is a problem, as much of the Harper caucus does not, then why are we doing anything at all? This is surely a case where the middle position between two extremes is inadequate.

Climate change is also a remarkably poignant case of a global collective action problem, one which new norms of global governance must be capable of addressing in order to be relevant in the 21st century. In terms of governance, Heinbecker’s focus is on strengthening the UN and the G20, with sensible steps that could be taken in each case. But in many ways these are the institutions of the 20th, not 21st century, and while they remain pivotal, there are surely opportunity costs to doubling down on them. Is making the Security Council slightly more representative really the best way we can support renewed global governance? What about regional organizations such as the African Union, which are increasingly taking a lead in everything from financial and trade reform to peacekeeping operations? Or trade regimes actively debating radical reforms to global capitalism, such as the Doha round of the World Trade Organization negotiations, or the age-old Tobin tax, promoted by many at the Toronto G20 but dismissed by our government?

While Heinbecker highlights a shift from (U.S.-dominated) unipolarity to multipolarity in international dealings, it may very well be that even multipolarity ultimately fails to account for vast new global forces. There is little discussion of the wide range of new non-state actors and networks that technology and globalized capital markets enable—phenomena that traditional foreign policy language is often ill suited to discussing. The key variable may not be that there are new powers in the multilateral game, but rather the diminished influence of state powers themselves.

Finally, as I sit here in Vancouver, I am astonished that there is so little on Asia in Getting Back in the Game. While the majority of Heinbecker’s proposals entrench Ottawa’s power and seek to reinvigorate old institutions, Western Canada quite literally has its back to Ottawa, and is faced squarely at Asia. How, for example, can there not be a discussion of the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative? It is hard to imagine a more significant new trade regime emerging in my lifetime than that enabled though this joint government program. With billions of dollars in federal, provincial, private sector and foreign funding, this project has significant implications for the next century of Canadian trade relations, for the development of the oil sands, and for our relations with the United States. It is also part of a shift that strikes at the core of our identity: are we an Anglospheric or an Asia-Pacific nation?

On a related note, the rise of China is also notably under-explored, as is the complex accompanying debate over human rights versus markets that we will increasingly have to come to terms with. It would be useful to know where Heinbecker, a leader in the Liberal human security and rights-based foreign policy agenda of the 1990s, stands on this vexing challenge. There is also nothing on population flows as a tool of foreign policy—a key emerging lever, with both immigration policy and diasporic influence getting increasing academic and policy attention.

And here lies the crux of the problem with this book. It sets out an agenda for the 20th century, rather than the 21st, written by and for the particular demographic that has long dominated this discussion. And by failing to update his worldview, Heinbecker has provided us with a policy platform that feels out of date—one that safely returns us to the (often successful) ideas and guiding principles of the 1980s and ’90s, rather than breaking new ground.

As memoir, Heinbecker’s book is interesting. As a summary of recent Canadian diplomacy, it is useful. As a guide for foreign policy, it falls flat. To borrow Heinbecker’s metaphor, this playbook may get us back in the game, but it is insufficient for us to win.Whether this is the perfect group is irrelevant: it is drawn from the new foreign policy establishment. And in part because of this, the resulting document presents a very different world than the one depicted by Heinbecker.

To start, the project developed a fascinating list of touchstones for our engagement in the world. These new global realities, or “game changers” as Greenspon and company call them, serve as a map of the 21st-century foreign policy playing field. While some, such as Indo-Chinese growth, climate change, terrorism and the limits to sovereignty are familiar to everyone, others are remarkably innovative.

Several get to the core of the idea that multipolarity is being usurped by diffuse and complex patterns of international relationships, an approach that has found voice, but few substantive corresponding policy shifts, in both Barack Obama and Michael Ignatieff. The start of Open Canada refers to the new importance of networks, and the report does a great service to those who wish to apply the concept by spelling out some of its realities: the observations that “ideas have replaced industry,” for instance, and that “information has been democratized” are rightly highlighted as likely the most important shifts in international affairs. Any policies that work against these forces, or that do not actively engage them, should be treated with skepticism.

What follows in the report is a series of brainstormed policy ideas, many truly advancing the discussion rather than retreading hallowed ground. Proposals include replacing CIDA with arm’s-length organizations based on the International Development Research Centre model, debunking the national foreign aid target of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product, granting Chinese-Canadian dual citizenship, building a university of the Arctic and creating a national energy strategy. These may not be the only solutions to problems identified, or even the right ones, but they do reflect 21st-century realities.

In that, such proposals are clearly the product of very different mapping exercises than Heinbecker’s. Whereas Open Canada argues that “there is no prestige at merely being at a table” of multilateral institutions, Heinbecker’s UN goals seem designed to be just this. Whereas Open Canada argues that ideas are the new institutions, Heinbecker doubles down on institutions. Whereas Open Canada prioritizes networks, Heinbecker looks to traditional actors using the traditional tools of diplomacy.

Ultimately, Open Canada provides the basis for a new way of engaging in foreign policy, and has the potential to frame a new generation of discussion. If Heinbecker asks and answers what a good 20th-century foreign policy looks like, then the CIC’s Global Positioning Project asks and begins to answer what a good 21st-century foreign policy looks like. Here is hoping that others will continue what the CIC has begun.

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To see just how different a new take on the global realities can be, one need only look at another Canadian foreign policy work published this summer: the Canadian International Council’s Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age.

The report is the product of a year-long effort to chart the 21st century foreign policy landscape. Ed Greenspon, the former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, was tasked with drawing new ideas from an eclectic group of mainly Gen-X leaders in foreign affairs. Notably, this group reflects the diversity of those now representing us abroad, including leaders from NGOs (Gerald Butts, World Wildlife Fund), the private sector (André Beaulieu, Bell Canada), foundations (Farah Mohamed, Belinda Stronach Foundation), academia (Stéphane Roussel, Université du Québec à Montréal), the media (Mercedes Stephenson, Sun Media) and multilateral organizations (John Hancock, WTO).

Taylor Owen is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia and recipient of the Forum's 2016 Emerging Leader Award.