Africa is not a liberal idea

Taylor and I published this piece in Embassy Magazine today. They’d asked for our reaction to PM Harper’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations…


Embassy, October 3rd, 2007
OPED
Africa is not a Liberal Idea
Taylor Owen and David Eaves

“It was clear that he had a particular feeling about the continent (Africa) and particularly that underdog feeling of Mulroney’s where you want to come to the defence of the beleaguered. It was a fascinating dimension of the man which is not widely appreciated by Canadians.” – Stephen Lewis on Brian Mulroney

Of all of Prime Minister Harper’s remarks at the Council of Relations last week, what was most important, and revealing, was what he didn’t say. Amid the platitudes over US-Canada co-dependence and shared values was a noticeable omission.

Not once was Africa mentioned.

For an hour and a half discussion that covered the breadth of Canada’s Foreign Policy agenda, this is remarkable. For just over 20 years, Canada has progressively increased its presence in Africa. Largely driven by CIDA funding, but also through the support of peacebuilding missions and humanitarian relief operations, we have developed tremendous experience and expertise in African development.

And for good reason.

For a country that balances its foreign policy between the promotion of values and national interests, and that defines these values in notably humanitarian terms, there is no better place to project our resources and influence than Africa.

However, it is no secret that the current government sees Africa as a Liberal idea. Canada’s “New” Government has sought to distinguish itself from the past whenever and wherever possible, and Foreign Policy is no exception. This has manifested as a major regional shift in policy towards Latin America and a corresponding thematic shift to democracy promotion and trade liberalization.

This is of course the Prime Minister’s prerogative. There are, however, real costs to this regional and thematic shift. Moving to Latin America means both rebuilding our in-house regional expertise, and devoting resources to developing a new skills, networks and institutions focused on democracy promotion and trade liberalization rather than on local development and humanitarian relief. It also shifts our limited resources from a continent struggling with extreme poverty, communicable disease and war, to one much further along the path of development.

The sad irony of course, is that Africa was never a Liberal idea. If anything it was a Conservative one.

Both Chretien and Martin were certainly strong supporters of Canada’s role in Africa. But Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was there first. Prompted by a public outcry to the devastation they saw on their televisions, he led the world in responding to the Ethiopian famine in 1984. More importantly, this leadership wasn’t just financial. Canada acted diplomatically, breaking ranks with its Western Allies and becoming one of the first countries to talk to Ethiopia’s then-Marxist government. In addition, it is widely accepted that Mulroney took special interest in tackling apartheid and again broke ranks with our allies by pushing for tougher sanctions.

More ironic still was how Prime Minister Harper’s partisan-influenced remarks stand in contrast to much of the American Foreign policy discourse, driven in no small part by the Council on Foreign Relations. The Council has been critical in enabling America to discuss its role in the world within a bipartisan community. In the US, the promotion of national interests and values are seen as largely non-partisan issues, with many foreign policy issues discussed with a degree of centrist objectivity.

The Prime Minister however, did the very opposite. He went to great pains to point out that whereas he wants to lead by example, previous (read Liberal) governments, were content to lecture the world. Ignored in this twice repeated sweeping generalization was: the Land Mine Treaty, Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court. Together these foreign policy successes have become symbols of our role in the world and of our national identity. They are representative of multilateral tradition and our capacity to mobilize the international community.

More than a partisan oversight, this slight by the Prime Minister is emblematic of an underlying insecurity among many conservatives towards foreign policy. By viewing past initiatives like our focus on Africa, through a partisans lens they risk implementing reactionary and counterproductive policies that will marginalize past successes and impede future accomplishments.

More importantly, however, this insecurity is unnecessary. Many of our great foreign policy initiatives, such as the response to the Ethiopian famine, the Acid Rain Treaty, and the fight against Apartheid, were led by conservative governments. Like the Mine Ban Treaty, the ICC and R2P these were not partisan, but national accomplishments..

Rather than lead Canada out of Africa, the Prime Minister could use the network, infrastructure and expertise Canada has developed to – by his own words – lead by example. His successes would be celebrated by Canadians as national, rather than partisan, achievements for which we can all be proud.

Taylor Owen is Doctoral Student and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford and a 2007/2008 Action Canada Fellow. David Eaves is a frequent speaker, consultant and writer on public policy and negotiation.

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