G&M Op-Ed: Conservatives' misunderstand Canada's Foreign Policy History

Taylor Owen and I published this Op-ed in the online edition of the Globe & Mail today. It argues that the Conservative government’s intention to ignore the 50th anniversary of the Peace Prize is not only poor politics, it’s an indication that they don’t get Canada’s foreign policy history. If they did, they’d know that the principles of our foreign policy represented by Vimy and the Peace Prize may be very different, but they are very much dependent on one another.

Attached below is the original text… which includes a reference to the PM’s upcoming trip to the United Nations for the General Assembly (around the time of the Peace Prize anniversary) which could be a great opportunity to celebrate the achievement. But then… what is the plan?

We’ve celebrated Vimy’s 75th, but let’s not forget the Peace Prize’s 50th

2007 is a hallmark year for Canadian foreign policy. It marks the anniversaries of two events through which Canada contributed significantly on the international stage: the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Pearson Peace Prize. This is a wonderful coincidence. These two moments, and the values they imbue, are defining pillars that have guided our foreign policy.

Sadly, the principles these events represent are frequently held up as opposing ideologically doctrines between which an absolute policy choice must be made. In reality, the very opposite is true. Not only are Vimy Ridge and the Peace Prize both real and important achievements, but the policies and values they embody function far better in collaboration than in isolation.

The first pillar, Vimy Ridge, is a defining moment in Canadian foreign policy. It compels us to remember, and give thanks to, those Canadians whose sense of duty and sacrifice contributed to a greater cause. Equally important, Vimy personifies a Canada that stood by its allies and contributed more than its share. It created a lasting legacy of values that continue to serve us well: courage, allegiance to allies, steadfastness, valour, bravery, principle.

However, we must also remember that the First World War reflects an enormous breakdown in political leadership. It is an example of what happens when Great Powers allow their rivalries to run unchecked. Wonderfully, Canadian foreign policy responded to this deficiency, and evolved to include a second foundational principle: Pearsonian diplomacy.

By providing an innovative solution to the Suez Crisis and preventing its allies from stumbling into a global conflict, Pearson’s prize reflects a different set of values than those of World War 1: honesty, integrity, leadership, principle, and a willingness to question and check our allies. The Peace Prize honours a tradition of diplomacy that prevents us from having to commemorate another Vimy.

While both pillars are critical to an effective Canadian foreign policy, many on both the left and right would prefer to celebrate only one of these great events. Each claims that either Vimy or the Peace Prize imbue ‘true Canadian values’. Both are mistaken. It is the interplay between them that makes Canada a credible and recognized actor in global politics. Notably, this is accomplished by being neither militaristic hawk, nor unwavering peacenik.

There is no doubt that diplomacy was ultimately what prevailed in the Suez crisis, yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was backed up by a credible military presence. An idealistic dependency on diplomacy has limits, as Romeo Dallaire is quick to point out. Sometimes it is the threat of force that is required to keep, and increasingly to build, the peace.

Likewise, the use of military force also has its limits. America’s predisposition to rely on force often taints the legitimacy of their military interventions. In contrast, countries respect Canadian interventions because they know of our diplomatic history and leadership in avoiding unnecessary conflicts.

Recent achievements continue to demonstrate the value of carefully weaving together these two pillars. For example, Canada did not participate in the second Iraq war because we rightfully believed diplomacy had not run its course. Ambassador Paul Heinbecker’s Pearsonian UN resolution, proposed on the eve of war, assuaged legitimate international concerns by balancing credible weapons inspections with the threat of force. Had it been adopted, and no weapons found, a disastrous war might have been avoided. As a result countless lives might have been saved and possibly another Peace Prize sent Canada’s way.

Contrast this to the First Gulf war, where diplomacy was allowed to take its course. An important norm of the international system – the unsanctioned use of force – was defended. Canadians fought valiantly not only alongside our Anglo-American allies, but with the legitimacy of a broad 30 nation coalition.

In both of these cases, the Vimy and Pearson pillars worked in tandem and resulted in principled international action.

Sadly, we may be drifting towards an over-emphasis on the Vimy pillar of Canadian foreign policy. The Harper government appears overly romanced by our military tradition, and negligent of our diplomatic history. The UN Peace University in Toronto has recently been closed down and funding for the Canadian International Model United Nations has been cut. More telling and in sharp contrast to the months of time, energy and money that were appropriately dedicated to the Vimy celebrations, the Conservative government’s plan for the Peace Prize anniversary are unclear.

The Prime Minister’s treatment of Peace Prize’s milestone will be telling. If he believes that the second pillar of Canadian foreign policy is indeed symbiotic with the first, the same priority will surely be placed on celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.

David Eaves is public policy and negotiation consultant who served as lead author of Canada25’s Middle to Model Power. Taylor Owen, is a Doctoral student and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford.

[tags]Vimy Ridge, Pearson, Peace Prize, Suez[/tags]

4 thoughts on “G&M Op-Ed: Conservatives' misunderstand Canada's Foreign Policy History

  1. Amiel Blajchman

    An interesting article. I agree with your opinion about Vimy vs. the Peace prize. However, I wonder, is it the conservatives who have ignored that milestone, or is it Canada in general? Canadians have looked at the peace prize as Pearson’s, but not necessarily ours. Granted, we have a national identity with peacekeeping, but that’s not exactly the thrust of your argument.

    On an entirely unrelated note: I work with a homeless organization and we’ve penned an opinion (similar in length to your op-ed) response to the G&M’s article on homelessness and the crack “epidemic” in Ottawa. If you don’t mind my asking, who/what email is the best place to send it to?

    Cheers,
    Amiel

    Reply
  2. Amiel Blajchman

    An interesting article. I agree with your opinion about Vimy vs. the Peace prize. However, I wonder, is it the conservatives who have ignored that milestone, or is it Canada in general? Canadians have looked at the peace prize as Pearson’s, but not necessarily ours. Granted, we have a national identity with peacekeeping, but that’s not exactly the thrust of your argument.On an entirely unrelated note: I work with a homeless organization and we’ve penned an opinion (similar in length to your op-ed) response to the G&M’s article on homelessness and the crack “epidemic” in Ottawa. If you don’t mind my asking, who/what email is the best place to send it to?Cheers,Amiel

    Reply
  3. ALo

    Great piece gentlemen – congrats. Nice to see the discussion it’s created as well.

    Positing an extremely half-baked idea here, but I wonder if part of what drives Harper et al’s foreign policy decisions is in part an ethos about control as much as it is a philosophy about one pillar over another. His desire for control has been well-documented in other circles, in large part because it makes journos’ jobs more difficult. Perhaps he’s looking to bring foreign policy more tightly into the hands of the “state” (e.g., military) rather than pursuing a more diffused, collaborative strategy because it gives greater short-term control to the issues at hand.

    I appreciate this is very open to criticism, so please don’t hold back. I also appreciate that this may be a broader issue than just Harper. This reflection is due, in part, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the extremely honest note written by Shauna Sylvester about the closing of IMPACS and posted on your blog (sorry, I’m not savvy enough to link back to it). While most of the issues she outlines pre-date “Canada’s new government” the funding cuts do not. IMPACS is yet another case study of how difficult the Canadian government makes it for Canadians to mount genuine collaborative efforts to contribute to Canada’s international policy.

    Reply
  4. ALo

    Great piece gentlemen – congrats. Nice to see the discussion it’s created as well.Positing an extremely half-baked idea here, but I wonder if part of what drives Harper et al’s foreign policy decisions is in part an ethos about control as much as it is a philosophy about one pillar over another. His desire for control has been well-documented in other circles, in large part because it makes journos’ jobs more difficult. Perhaps he’s looking to bring foreign policy more tightly into the hands of the “state” (e.g., military) rather than pursuing a more diffused, collaborative strategy because it gives greater short-term control to the issues at hand. I appreciate this is very open to criticism, so please don’t hold back. I also appreciate that this may be a broader issue than just Harper. This reflection is due, in part, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the extremely honest note written by Shauna Sylvester about the closing of IMPACS and posted on your blog (sorry, I’m not savvy enough to link back to it). While most of the issues she outlines pre-date “Canada’s new government” the funding cuts do not. IMPACS is yet another case study of how difficult the Canadian government makes it for Canadians to mount genuine collaborative efforts to contribute to Canada’s international policy.

    Reply

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