Review of Michael Byers "Intent for a Nation"

Today, Taylor and I published a review of Michael Byers “Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada’s Role in the World” in Embassy Magazine.

Attached below is the full length version – we strayed far beyond Embassy’s word count…

Intent for a Nation

Michael Byers, Professor of Politics and International Law and regular public commentator, describes his book, Intent for a Nation: A relentlessly optimistic manifesto for Canada’s role in the world, as a challenge to Grant’s generation-defining thesis. Canada, Byers argues, may not be on an inalterable path towards full US integration.

intent for a nationBut contrary to its title, Intent for a Nation does not reject its namesakes’ thesis – it embraces it wholeheartedly. Lament for a Nation paints Canada as a country already lost to the forces of Americanization. Byers, in contrast, places Canada on a precipitous edge, teetering on the abyss. Indeed Canada position is so precarious, Byers himself twice believes the country doomed: once after the “Free-Trade election” and again after Chrétien signs NAFTA. And yet, a handful of increasingly rare policy decisions manage, albeit just, to preserve a distinct Canada and Canadian foreign policy. In reality ‘relentlessly optimism’ simply means believing Canada can still be saved.

Intent for a Nation is thus a firmly nationalist treatise – a book that sees Canada under immediate and imminent threat from Americanization – and this perspective is the source of its strengths and weaknesses. As a nationalistic critique, it is often powerful, providing important insights. At the same time, its anti-American lens is extremely limiting. Byers, like Grant or Hurtig, overweight’s America’s role, holding it responsible for almost all Canada and the world’s problems.

As such, this book is as much about America and Americanization as it is about Canadian Foreign Policy. In virtually every instance the analysis inevitably leads to the same conclusion. Canada’s choice is black or white – assimilation or isolation. A choice Byers echoes with chapter titles like “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” The face that such a course of action would be a best difficult, and at worst disastrous, is a window into the book’s central limitation – its inability to move beyond critique. For a self titled ‘manifesto,’ the book focuses almost exclusively on what Canada shouldn’t do, and says little about what it should.

That said, it is refreshing to read a strong nationalist critique of Canadian foreign policy, particularly one that adeptly engages on military issues. The argument that the goals and purposes of Canada’s military are increasingly shaped by its integration with US forces is the book’s most convincing discussion. A Canadian military that fully integrates with its US counterpart does indeed run the risk of preparing for, and executing, US styled military operations. As military strategist Martin van Creveld points out, American Forces: “Combine aggressiveness with impatience. Putting blind faith in technology and using far more firepower than is needed, they regularly end up by alienating whomever they face-as happened in Vietnam, Somalia, and now in Iraq.” Do we want to spend (literally) billions to emulate the many idiosyncrasies of the US model? More importantly, if we mold our tools after America’s hammers, should we be surprised if we increasingly see global problems as nails?

In a similar vein, Byers’ discussion of the Canadian Arctic rightly stands in notable contrast to much of the military-centric discourse on ‘securing’ the north. And his treatment of war on terror, racial profiling, and missile defense are all notably level- headed. It is clear that Byers has an important voice to add to the debate. Indeed the problem in each of these cases isn’t what he says, its’ that he doesn’t say more. A strong critique is important, but we were frequently left wondering, what does Byers think Canada should do?

As a manifesto, the book provides few options. Both the chapters on climate change and terrorism never take the reader beyond past mistakes. There are hints of possibilities (such as increased individual responsibility for emission control, and greater use of legal mechanisms in the war on terror), but at markedly few points does Byers provide directions for action. Indeed, his regular calls for national leadership, with little indication of a policy platform, become frustrating.

Take, for example, the treatment of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Byers rightly argues that Axworthy showed prescient leadership by convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). He then argues that Paul Martin, and by extension Allan Rock, sold out by presenting a watered down version to the UN General Assembly in 2005.

The principle of R2P is that the international community should have a mechanism to intervene when sovereign governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens. Faced with the problem of how this principle should be actualized, Martin argued that the Security Council’s threshold for the authorization of Chapter VII intervention should be expanded to include a wider range of harms. Byers suggests a more appropriate course would have been to “embark on a long and difficult campaign to shift international opinion towards a right to unauthorized humanitarian intervention.”

This is a strikingly ambiguous, and controversial, statement regarding one of the central foreign policy challenges of our time. We are provided with no indication of what a different legal framework might look like, nor do we receive guidance on how this would mitigate the central concern of R2P’s critics – its abuse by powerful countries over weak ones. Indeed, this policy challenge was so difficult, that the ICISS commission itself deferred answering it and it is the underlying reason why Martin chose to work within the UN framework rather than against it.

In addition to failing to flesh out his policy prescriptions, the few sentences he does provide do not form a coherent list of policies, but rather a catalog of often conflicting reactions.

For example, in a chapter entitled “Climate Change” Byers speaks urgently, but vaguely, of the need for a green economy. But later, in a chapter entitled “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” he laments the decline of east-west tractor-trailer traffic across the country and rise of north-south traffic between Canada and the United States. And yet comparatively, this east-west traffic was grossly inefficient. Trade between Seattle and Vancouver is much more efficient – and thus green – than that between Vancouver and Toronto. Byers may be both a nationalists and environmentalist, but he never tackles the tough issue of prioritizing or contextualizing these two policy objectives with respect to one another.

Another example emerges from his treatment of Afghanistan and Darfur. “Where would we gain the most?” Byers asks. “Continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur.” The choice appears clear: deploy our military to Darfur to project our humanitarian interests. But in order to do so, we would need to pull our troops out of Afghanistan. While our role in Afghanistan should be debated, there are real humanitarian costs to leaving. Not accounting for these costs, in an argument on the moral imperative of inserting military forces – against the desire of its government – into another Muslim country rife with sectarian conflict and radical jihadism is highly problematic.

Similarly, calling Afghanistan a “US led war in Asia” and Darfur a peacekeeping mission trivializes the former and romanticizes the latter. This month rebels killed 10 African Union peacekeepers and a further 50 are missing. Darfur could be every bit as complicated and dangerous as Afghanistan. Both are examples of complex emergencies in which new, and in large part Canadian-led concepts such as 3D and human security, are being applied.

One senses that Byers disdain for Afghanistan springs not from the nature or intent of the mission, but simply that it was American instigated and led. When discussing Afghanistan this bias is merely distracting, but in other cases, the distortions border on the absurd. For example, Byers rightly criticizes successive Canadian governments for failing to give .7% of GDP in overseas development assistance (ODA). However, when assessing why Canada has failed to do so, his culprit is all too predictable. The United States – who contributes a mere .1% of GDP – fear their international reputation will suffer if Canada fulfills its ODA commitment and thus exerts subtle pressure which keeps our contributions down. Putting aside that no examples of how this nefarious influence is exerted, are we really suppose to believe the United States cares how much Canada donates in ODA?

What makes this bias all the more frustrating is that without it, the book would be far more compelling. Byers considers Canada a powerful country, capable of greatness on the international stage. In interviews he fleshes out how internally generated insecurities often impede our success. It is a sentiment we agree with, and to which history can attest. When Canada chooses to lead, our track record has been remarkable. But in his book, this insight is crowded out by the obsession with the United States, who is inevitable blamed for our shortcomings.

If Canada is a powerful country, how should it exert its influence? The final chapter on Global Citizenship is clearly intended to provide an inspiring framework that can tackle the problems Byers identifies. But the conclusion does not unify the book’s varying themes and critiques. It is hard to find the link between the concept of global citizenship proposed and the challenges outlined in the previous 9 chapters. Moreover, Byers’ definition of Global Citizenship ultimately does not differ from those he critiques, as well as others he doesn’t mention, making it difficult to tease out his unique contribution to the debate over this term.

In addition, the book’s obsession with the United States ultimately hinders, rather than enhances, its analysis. Byers’ examples – standing up to the United States and charting a path not determined solely by economic factors – of how Global Citizenship can be actualized at the national, as opposed to individually focus principally on Canada-US relations. Canada must preserve its ability to act independently on the international stage when necessary. But Byers conflates our capacity to act independently with our choice to do so. Are there troubling aspects to the Canada-US relationship? Absolutely. But Byers seems less interested fixing them than firewalling the country off from the United States. Is disengagement and isolationism the logical conclusion of global citizenship? Surely being sovereign, and a global citizen, entails more than not being American?

But this criticism should not diminish the role Michael Byers’ and his book serve as agent provocateurs. Intent for a Nation was written to spark discussion, and in that spirit it is an important contributor to the national debate. He is right to argue that Canada can do more and that message deserves an audience, both in Ottawa and across the country.

As a stand alone piece however, the book lacks cohesion, contains vague and conflicting advice, and overemphasizes the role of the United States. These issues largely spring from the fact that Intent for a Nation embraces the same flawed analysis of its namesake. Four decades after the publication of Lament for a Nation, nationalists continue to cling to the same gloomy predictions. All this despite the fact that Canada has retained its independence, and according to some pollsters, has become increasingly different from the America. Maybe its time we moved beyond the constraints of this thesis?

8 thoughts on “Review of Michael Byers "Intent for a Nation"

  1. brenton walters

    Michael Byers’ arguments about Afghanistan perfectly illustrate the problems I see in critiques of Canada’s involvement there. What would happen if we left? There are huge problems with the mission. I am not convinced that we should be there in the capacity that we are. However, leaving would be highly problematic, and I am scared to think about the retaliatory killings that would surely occur.

    Reply
  2. brenton walters

    Michael Byers’ arguments about Afghanistan perfectly illustrate the problems I see in critiques of Canada’s involvement there. What would happen if we left? There are huge problems with the mission. I am not convinced that we should be there in the capacity that we are. However, leaving would be highly problematic, and I am scared to think about the retaliatory killings that would surely occur.

    Reply
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