03 August 2006

Punching Below Our Weight

One of the great myths of Canadian foreign policy is our past ability to "punch above our weight" and hang with the Great Powers. After WWII ended, we had the fourth largest military in the world, we were a major player in brokering a peace agreement in the Middle East, we stood with our democratic allies throughout the Cold War, and we held a considerable level of respect. For a humble nation without the long history of other states such as the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, Canadians rightly took pride in their high standing and considered themselves to be doing the most with their relatively modest means in order to wield an inordinate level of power and influence.

Canadians have a tendency to point to the days of Lester B. Pearson as the golden age of Canadian foreign policy. As with all myths, there is a kernel of truth within this perception that is wrapped up with nostalgia and nationalism. Members of the Liberal Party regularly point to that bygone era as one which we should all aspire to re-create. Yet while they do so, they have also done much to undercut our ability to get back to that plateau. I have no interest in playing partisan games or finger-pointing; getting involved in a "it's Chretien's fault," "no it's Mulroney's fault," "forget it, it's that damn Trudeau!" gamesmanship debate serves no real purpose other than to distract from the real problems and realities.

Since 1952 our defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been declining, to the point that now we're ranked 17th among NATO members in spending as a pecentage of GDP; only Luxembourg and Iceland spend less than we do on that basis. At $16 billion, the defence budget in absolute terms is quite small, particularly when you consider that the Canadian economy is now worth over $1 trillion annually. It is quite a drop in the bucket, all things considered. Obviously we're not going to emulate the United States, nor should we. Canadians have no interest in assuming the responsibilities of global leadership, and we simply do not have the capacity to come anywhere near the Americans' spending levels (relative or absolute) without severely undercutting programs that fit under the banner of "nation-building" (i.e. national health care standards). We're not going to be spending 5% of our GDP or $500 billion on the Canadian Forces any time soon. By "any time soon", I mean ever.

But when you look at what we do and compare it with where we stand, it becomes clear that not only is there no motivation to "punch above our weight," we're quite content to be punching below it. Canada has the eighth largest economy in the world, just a little bit bigger than Spain, yet we are ranked 15th in the world when it comes to absolute defence spending figures. This will rise in the coming years if the Harper government fulfills its promises to dramatically increase our spending to improve our military infrastructure by increasing the troop levels and adding new equipment, to the tune of $15 billion in new spending.

Military spending is only half the picture, however. There's also the matters of diplomats abroad to staff our embassies, foreign aid, the environment, and the contributions we make to international organizations and global causes. The evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon highlights our diplomatic shortcomings in the Middle East, as the understaffed and underfunded embassy was working around the clock to deal with overloaded phone lines and numerous complaints. We have yet to even come close to the decades-old pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on international assistance. In an economy of over $1 trillion, Canada is at 0.33% and shows little commitment to getting to that vaunted level by 2015. On the environment file, Kyoto is but a word that is thrown around by politicians, many of whom have probably never even read the Protocol, and is a liability to all of Canada, not just its political parties. One author has gone so far as to say that Canada participated in the "gutting" of Kyoto so that Canada could achieve its "end of making our commitment at the least possible cost."[1] In short, we know what's going on in the world, but there's a great reluctance to dip our toes in the water and get involved in it to an extent commensurate with our capabilities.

Why, and how, have we become this complacent? My belief is simple: Because we wanted to. When was the last time a Canadian election was based on foreign policy? Did Paul Martin suffer from his inaction on Darfur? No. Did Jean Chretien lose many votes because of Canada's unwillingness to go into Rwanda? No. The Canadian public, by and large, does not feel it is Canada's duty to go out in search of monsters to destroy, despite our legacy of doing exactly that and helping to establish a more peaceful, more democratic world. The following statement deserves consideration:
No one has stopped (or dared) to ask whether, or suggest that, the ideals and goals of Canadians in [2006] may be significantly different from those of past generations, or that if they are the same, the means of pursuing them may need to change to reflect both a changed international environment and changes in our ability and desire to deal with it.[2]

It is my opinion that our ideals and goals haven't changed, but we have not undergone a period of deep thinking to consider the new security milieu and whether the traditional Canadian paradigm still applies. The notion of exporting "Canadian values" still appears in our International Policy Statements, but Canadians are wary of undertaking concerted action in order to achieve that goal. Michael Ignatieff feels that there is a new paradigm involving peacekeeping/peacemaking, and we're in the midst of that in Afghanistan, and I concur with his assessment. I think that there is a general unwillingness to break through the limits of "old thinking" and truly, deeply engage the world as it currently is. We talk an awful lot about peacekeeping, yet our contributions to it are far smaller than in the past. After the fighting is done in Lebanon and an international force moves in to secure the Israel-Lebanon border and remove Hezbollah's influence, and this will likely happen, Canada has already signalled that it will probably not be a part of that international force. A few people may be disappointed and question this decision, but ultimately will not do much more than shed a few crocodile tears.

What is to be done if Canada truly wants to hold a position "of pride and influence" in the world? Simply put, punch our weight. We're a G8 member, that gives us access to the great powers of the world. We're the neighbour of the United States, the most powerful country to have ever existed in the course of human history, and when we are on good terms with Washington, there are few limits to what we can accomplish together. We're far too late in the game to meet Kyoto's requirements, but we can still demonstrate our commitment to a greener world that will ensure a sustainable environment for generations to come. I'm as anxious as anybody to see what will happen with the government's "Made in Canada" plan this fall, and I hope that it works and provides a strong blueprint for the coming years that goes beyond banalities such as the "One Tonne Challenge" and establishes something real and tangible.

Canada has shown flashes of brilliance in the past few years and decades. The Land Mine Treaty is a sterling example of Canada at its best. The commitment of the government to Afghanistan is another example of Canadians using their position of relative power to participate in international coalitions and take on a tough role and the toughest tasks within that role. The incredible display of Canadian sympathy and benevolence after the tsunami struck in 2004 showed that the Canadian people, properly motivated and channeled, possess incredible energy to do good in the world. If only we could be more consistent and match the rhetoric with action, walk the talk, as it were, we could truly hold a strong hand in international affairs.

I'm not advocating Canada as a 21st century great power, I'm advocating a Canada that takes its position of privelige and uses it responsibly to assist in advancing a better world that is reflective of our interests and ideals. "Punching above our weight" is a bridge too far and a mythology that cannot be re-created. I'm tired of punching below our weight and being disappointed with half-hearted action and words without meaning. But punching our weight, that is something to which we can aspire. It is not inevitable that events turn out the way we want them to, but with commitment we can certainly go further in ensuring that they do.

[1] Heather Smith, "Interrogating Images: a Response to Michael Ignatieff," in Graham F. Walker, ed., Independence in an Age of Empire: Assessing Unilateralism and Multilateralism, (Halifax: Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, 2004), 279.
[2] Jane Boulden, "Missing the Mark with Multilateralism: a Response to Michael Ignatieff," in Graham F. Walker, ed., Independence in an Age of Empire: Assessing Unilateralism and Multilateralism, (Halifax: Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, 2004), 108.


SouthernOntarioan said...

I have to admit that I agree completely with you.

I also don't believe that Canadians are interested in foreign affairs that greatly. What's sadder still is this smug attitude among many that Canada still has some sort of status as 'the great peacemaker'. We have never held that position, and unless our attitudes change, never will.


RGM said...

And while we think that of ourselves, by many other states Canada is seen as "the stern voice of the daughter of God." Quite a contrast eh?

C. LaRoche said...

Richard, normally I disagree with you, but I think you've got it fairly straight on this issue. Canadians, much like their government, seem to care about foreign policy only until it costs them money. We like to speak, but not to spend.

On an aside, I'm not sure if footnotes are really necessary for a blog post, considering legitimate newspapers don't even use them. Generally just mentioning the title of the work or the author right in the sentence at hand is good enough, and it might save you some formatting headaches.

RGM said...

Yeah the footnote thing may be a bit much, but after a summer of thesis-writing, it's almost old-hat and doesn't take much more time to add on than a regular sentence would. Linking is the way to go whenever possible. But hey, the joys of blogolia is that there really aren't any parameters to it.

I do agree with the sentiment of Canadians re: foreign policy. I think that's what gets me as frustrated as anything else given that I've devoted countless hours (and trees) to writing, reading, and talking about it.