OPINION

Foreign policy? What’s that all about?

Even with the U.S. in decline we focused on America and forgot how to talk to anyone else

PAUL WELLS February 18 2008
OPINION

Foreign policy? What’s that all about?

Even with the U.S. in decline we focused on America and forgot how to talk to anyone else

PAUL WELLS February 18 2008

Foreign policy? What’s that all about?

OPINION

Even with the U.S. in decline we focused on America and forgot how to talk to anyone else

PAUL WELLS

Canadian diplomacy truly is formidable when unleashed. A few weeks ago John Manley sent Stephen Harper a report. It said the Prime Minister should pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan unless other countries send 1,000 more soldiers to fight alongside ours. And it urged Harper to step up his diplomatic efforts to get other countries on board.

Well, Harper didn’t need to be asked twice. He picked that old telephone right up and he called the White House. Then, after a day’s rest, he picked that phone right back up again and he called Gordon Brown in London. Then he went back to making fun of the opposition in question period.

Fun facts about the United States and Great Britain:

(a) Between them, they’re already contributing more troops to NATO’S Afghanistan effort than all other countries put together;

(b) If you’re looking for additional troops for Afghanistan, they are therefore maybe not whom you should call.

As if to prove this latter point, U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates wrote letters to Germany and France. Germany and France have lots of soldiers but they have sent few of them to the scary parts of Afghanistan. Gates encouraged the two countries to try sending soldiers to where the fighting is. This more closely fits the definition of diplomacy that was probably in John Manley’s mind when he suggested Harper try some: if there is a problem in the world, talk to the countries best able to solve it. Not the ones likeliest to commiserate.

But if one thing is increasingly clear about Canadian foreign policy, it is that our leaders have more or less forgotten how to do it. Other countries may yet chip in the extra 1,000 troops Manley wanted, but if so it will be hard to track success to any effort from Harper or his ministers.

Compare and contrast. Radislaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, was in Ottawa on Feb. 4 to give a public speech about Afghanistan. He brought the welcome news that his country will send two helicopters to Kandahar, where Canada’s troops are stationed. This may get you wondering what Canadian ministers say when they give speeches in foreign countries. Keep wondering. Peter MacKay’s website contains no speeches by Canada’s defence minister on foreign soil. Maxime Bernier’s contains no speeches by the foreign minister outside Canada, Washington and New York City. This is embarrassing. Canada is now asking other countries’ soldiers to risk their lives to meet our war goals. But the ministers of Canada’s government cannot bring

themselves to ask the leaders of those countries directly, or even to visit them in person.

To be sure, MacKay will be attending a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Vilnius, just as Stephen Harper dutifully shows up for G8 meetings every year. Canada’s leaders aren’t yet skipping the classes where the prof takes attendance. But to show individual initiative? Use creative thinking to get attention? Perish the thought. This week Angela Merkel announced Germany’s cabinet—all of it—will visit Israel in March for joint working sessions with Israel’s cabinet. It’s simply impossible to imagine Harper’s cabinet doing the same, in Israel or anywhere else.

This is the foreign policy we are stuck with, six years after 9/ll led Canada’s entire foreign policy elite, such as it is, to put all its eggs in one basket: Canada-U.S. relations. Remember September 2001, when Tony Blair sat next to Laura Bush in the gallery for a speech in which

George W. Bush didn’t mention Canada? Remember how that seemed to matter?

Three successive prime ministers responded to that shock with sweeping institutional changes designed to align Canada with the wounded, defensive American behemoth. Jean Chrétien named a deputy foreign minister, Peter Harder, whose overwhelming priority was to smooth eagle feathers ruffled by the decision to stay out of the Iraq war. But that wasn’t enough. Paul Martin created a forest of advisory bodies to make the CanadaU.S. relationship more complex than ever before. But that wasn’t enough. Harper ran on still closer Canada-U.S. co-operation.

Nobody in the country’s chattering classes did anything to hold them back, from the National Post (“Told You So,” the banner headline read after Saddam’s statue came down in Baghdad) to the Liberals’ resident American obsessive, Tom Axworthy.

Two things happened as a result. One was entirely predictable: as our leaders racked their brains figuring out how to talk to the Americans, they forgot how to talk to anyone else. The second is more surprising, but surely by now incontrovertible: America’s relative power declined in the world. The vaunted army was pinned down in Iraq and unusable almost anywhere else. The U.S. economy started to

sputter. Other nations and regions rose.

By now it is obvious that, spooked by 9/11, Canada’s ruling classes bought America at the top of the market. Our closest neighbour will remain the most important single country on earth, but it is madness to act as though it were the only country. Two of this spring’s big books, by scholar Parag Khanna and journalist Fred Kaplan, will feature Americans arguing that the U.S. faces new competition from shifting coalitions of sometime competitors—when it isn’t simply irrelevant to important regional disputes. George W. Bush, of all people, gets it: his new budget calls for 1,100 new foreign-service professionals to be hired. Harper’s Canada, meanwhile, is closing diplomatic missions abroad. No wonder we need Bob Gates to deliver our mail. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells