Op-Ed in Toronto Star

Given we are hovering around the 50th anniversary of peacekeeping I wrote this op-ed for the Toronto Star. Of course, as I’m in Vancouver I can’t actually see said piece in print but remain hopeful a newsstand here that carries the star.

That might sound easy but you’d be surprised how little actually makes it over the rockies.

The Toronto Star link no longer works so I’ve copied the op-ed into this post.

Suez at Fifty: (Mis)understanding Pearson

On a small non-descript pillar in the lobby of Foreign Affairs Canada hangs Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize — a reminder of Canada’s high-water mark on the international stage.Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his and Canada’s suggestion and deployment of a peacekeeping force that would separate opposing forces in the Suez while a peace plan was implemented. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the UN General Assembly vote to send that police force into Egypt. It was the birth of peacekeeping. For many Canadians, even 50 years later, the crisis remains the defining moment of Canadian foreign policy, symbolizing Canada’s international role as a pacifist intervener that puts global interests before national self-interest.

But where has this ideal led us? Canada’s foreign policy, with its emphasis on multilateralism and the export of Canadian values, has become ever more focused on the goal of improving the world. And yet, despite these efforts, we have never been weaker or more marginal. Even the recent Conservative counterreaction — with its less critical support of America’s unilateral world view — has failed to provide a viable alternative.

What happened? Did Pearson’s success steer Canada in the wrong direction? Are the Suez Crisis and Peace Prize the bane of our foreign policy?

Sadly, the answer is yes. The blame lies not with Pearson but with us and our collective misunderstanding of the man, his ideas and his legacy. Much of the popular imagery surrounding him is myth, a national exercise in selective memory.

If we are serious about building an effective foreign policy for the 21st century, we must confront the central myth of Canadian diplomacy. Contrary to everything you learned, Pearson was neither a Boy Scout nor a dove. He was so much more: a creative problem solver who respected great-power politics and was unafraid to champion Canada’s national interests.

The 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis and the invention of peacekeeping is the perfect starting point for such a critical reassessment. Contrary to the mythology, Pearson did not advocate peacekeeping out of a humanitarian desire to prevent some far-off war. Rather, he recognized that unlike other conflicts of the time, the Suez Crisis threatened to draw the United States and Soviet Union into direct confrontation. Consequently, it posed a real and direct threat to Canada.

In 1956, intercontinental ballistic missiles were not a significant part of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Consequently, any war between the superpowers would have been fought in the skies over Canada as American and Soviet strategic bombers raced overhead to deliver their nuclear payloads. Pearson’s peacekeeping was not designed to stop a Middle East war but to prevent nuclear bombs from falling out of the sky over Toronto. Self-interested problem solving, not altruism or idealism, launched the peacekeeping project.

Nor was Pearson a dove. Yes, he recognized the essential role played by economic and social resources in improving society and proposed 0.7 per cent as the benchmark for foreign aid. However, he was equally aware of the critical role played by military power in international relations.

Canadians rarely discuss Pearson’s role as key architect, negotiator and signatory of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As he noted of the Soviet threat: “Our defence in this conflict must be one of increasing and then maintaining our strength, while always keeping open the channels of negotiation and diplomacy. Arms must go hand in hand with diplomacy.” This was a man who, when necessary, was unafraid to confront those whose goals were antithetical to Canadian values.

Pearson was a multilateralist, but he was first and foremost a pragmatist. He understood the importance of great-power politics and the limits of treaties. In his own negotiations, he noted that “… if the great powers have the will and desire to co-operate, even if the machine isn’t perfect, it won’t matter very much. It will work. Therefore, Canada’s preoccupation … is based on the hard realities of the existing international situation.” Recent Canadian foreign policy could not be further from this position. From the Land Mines Treaty to UN reform, Canadian efforts to improve the international system invariably focus on perfecting the machinery irrespective of the interests or participation of the great powers.

Unfortunately, we pay a significant penalty for the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ failure to grasp Pearson’s lessons. The Liberals have been more concerned with getting the principles right regardless of superpower interests. This approach feels good, but it erodes Canada’s influence. In contrast, the Conservatives simply substitute American for Canadian interests. Thus, in places like Afghanistan we adopt American strategies and tactics that alienate the local population and put the mission at risk. As a result, this approach may yield the (occasional) American photo op, but it generates neither influence nor results.

It is at home, however, that the real cost of misunderstanding Pearson is felt. Pearson was a Canadian success because he was pragmatic, creative and solved the problems that challenged Canada. The Department of Foreign Affairs remains a creative problem-solver, but it is rarely allowed to be either pragmatic or self-interested. It is no wonder that Canadians have acquiesced to declining defence, aid and foreign policy budgets.

By transforming our foreign policy into at times, a luxury item, a charitable endeavour focused on “raising our profile” or a poor extension of American foreign policy, our leaders have removed foreign policy from the public’s imagination and made it an easy target for budget cutters.

If our foreign policy is to experience another golden age, it must regain its relevance to Canadians. Our leaders need to understand Canada’s interests, articulate them clearly and find a means to advance them in a manner consistent with our internationalist values. Pearson understood this. It also explains why his legacy has been so difficult to grasp. He defies labelling. He was neither a hawk nor a dove, neither pro- nor anti-American. He simply solved Canadian problems in a way that made the world better for everyone.

If we are willing to shed the mythology surrounding the man, we might once again grasp his nuanced view of the world and Canada’s place in it. Then, maybe, the Suez Crisis and the Peace Prize will cease to be a reminder of what we once were and instead serve as a guide for what we can once again become.

[tags]foreign policy, public policy, canadian politics[/tags]

1 thought on “Op-Ed in Toronto Star

  1. Beck

    This approach feels good, but it erodes Canada’s influence. In contrast, the Conservatives simply substitute American for Canadian interests. Thus, in places like Afghanistan we adopt American strategies and tactics that alienate the local population and put the mission at risk.


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