Optimism is an instrument of policy

Here is a draft version of a paper I’m working on. It is part of a workshop I’m heading too where each participant was given a quote said by John Holmes, the well known and highly respected Canadian diplomat and foreign policy expert.

Mine was “Optimism is an instrument of policy” which I found to be quite challenging.

Below is my best shake to date, it is always great to get thoughts or feedback as I strive to improve it… If you are feeling shy feel free to email me directly.

“Optimism is an instrument of policy”

As a worldview or philosophy, one would struggle to find a self-respecting international relations theorist who would suggest that optimism is a sound foundation upon which to construct a foreign policy. And this paper will not argue that it is – Homes was far too clever a man to make such a claim, and I am far too weak an intellectual to argue it. Rather, my reading of Holmes’s quote suggests that he was not claiming optimism should be the basis of a foreign policy; rather, he was stating that optimism is an instrument of Foreign Policy. In this much narrower construction, I think he was on to something important, and something our present foreign policy could learn from. Consequently, this paper will attempt to do three things. First, use an example to demonstrate that optimism can indeed be an instrument of policy. Second, try to dissect a few of the conditions under which it might be both necessary and successful. Finally, turn our attention to the present state of Canadian foreign policy and assess what, if any, role optimism may have to play.

For many, optimism — defined as both “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome” as well as “the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world” — has no place in the world of international affairs.  In classic international relations theory, we citizens are supposed to depend on our government having the opposite of an optimistic outlook. In an anarchical society, states live under the constant threat of being undermined, overrun, or exploited. Our government should, if anything, look at the world through pessimistic eyes in order to imagine and prepare for the worst possible scenario.

This simple view of our country and world is, of course, contestable. Canada does not live in a purely anarchical world. Indeed, in both the near abroad and across the Atlantic we have friends and allies who are generally friendly towards us. We collectively agree to constrain our behaviours in some mutually acceptable ways and as a result enjoy a somewhat narrower and more manageable (although not non-existent) set of existential threats to our country. So our relations with both our NATO allies generally and the United States specifically mean that we must not always adopt the most pessimistic outlook when confronting problems. Indeed, our history of cooperation with these allies has cultivated a trust economy where we can have more optimistic expectations of their behaviour towards us, and one another, than traditional realist theory might allow us to predict. But even within these more nuanced structures of inter-state relations there is a limit for optimism. The opportunities to exploit a situation, for members to free-ride, and for balance of powers to shift all mean that as a general rule optimism, as a basis for foreign policy, would not be wise.

This, however, is not what Holmes was stating. Holmes modified his reference to optimism with the term “instrument.” In this regard I would suggest he saw optimism not as the basis for foreign policy but as “a means by which something is done” and “an implement used to facilitate work.” And here I would argue that Holmes is absolutely correct. Optimism has long been an important tool for foreign policy for Canada and others. This is not to say it should be the only tool, nor to argue that it is a universally appropriate tool, only that it is a tool, albeit one that when used well can be powerful.

To highlight how optimism can be an effective tool of foreign policy let us briefly look at how it was wielded by one of history’s greatest realists: Sir Winston Churchill.

In the early days of World War Two, when Great Britain – and Canada – remained more or less isolated, the entrance of the United States into the war was not a foregone conclusion and Germany had a virtual free rein on the continent, any sober assessment – and for certain any realpolitik assessment – of the situation would almost certainly have concluded that all was lost. Beaten and scattered, Great Britain, the Commonwealth, and their few allies (mostly governments in exile) could not easily expect to be able to reverse the early defeats suffered in Europe. Indeed for many, the notion of challenging and defeating Germany would have been described as not merely optimistic in outlook, but possibly foolish if not downright suicidal. (A problem with this question is that one man’s optimistic outlook might be another’s pessimistic view – so I’ve tried to choose a scenario that comes as close as possible to being considered universally bleak.)

Churchill, of course, never lost sight of the raw realpolitik calculus that needed to shift in order to change the tide of the war. For the balance of power to shift Britain would need new allies; without both the Soviet Union and the United States all would be lost. Early on in the war this was his focus. But one key ingredient in pursuit of this goal was the unyielding optimism he radiated in those bleak early days. Whatever the man’s shortcomings, Churchill’s and the outlook of British Government were frequently tough, but the vision was always optimistic. As such they served to inspire not only the British but also their overseas allies in Canada, Australia and elsewhere as well as setting the tone with the Germans and the Americans about what they could expect, and what was expected of them.

As mentioned, many observers probably saw Churchill’s optimism as lunacy. There was certainly a fair degree of bluster and emphasis on a rosy outlook, but that doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. The appearance of reality can be as powerful as reality. Besides, for Churchill it was a necessary tool – one of the few that he had in his arsenal. He also happened to wield it well. However, he also never relied on it exclusively or forgot it was just a tool. His optimism was always in service of something. His belief that the war could be won, that it would be won, that it had to be won kept Britain’s morale and fighting will from collapsing, thus making ultimate victory for the allies possible. As a tool for engaging and cultivating allies, blustering and confusing enemies and simply invigorating citizens, I suspect it was indispensible. At a time when people risked being frozen by fear and all seemed lost, an optimistic vision of both the outcome to the war and for the future of the world was perhaps one of Britain’s greatest assets. This is not to discount the many other pieces of Britain’s foreign policy were essential – its naval power, it relationship with the United States, the resources of its colonies – but would Britain with these resources, but without Churchill’s optimism have helped win the war? I am unsure.

As a student and then a temporary wartime assistant at External Affairs living and working in England from 1938-1943, I expect that Holmes, who witnessed and experienced the potency of this optimism first-hand, probably asked himself the same question.

So what is it about optimism, as a tool, that makes it effective? There are two primary ingredients. First, optimism is a necessary precondition for imagining a better world. Those who believe that only the worst is possible or that the status quo cannot be changed can never imagine a better world, a better outcome or a better future for their citizens or country. This alone is probably the single most important role optimism can play in foreign policy. Unfettered, it can lead to dangerous flights of fancy. Its absence, however, saps the creativity from policy that makes change – particularly pragmatic and trust-building change – possible. Ironically, optimism as an instrument of policy becomes both most important and effective during the bleakest and darkest periods of a problem. It is precisely in such times – when our minds are gripped by fear and focused on survival – that the politics of what is possible is most needed.

Take for example the planning for a post-war era that took place from the midpoint of the Second World War onwards. Think of the optimism required of Churchill, Roosevelt and, to a much lesser degree Stalin to map out this future era. Here, in the ruins of the failed Treaty of Versailles, these men and their advisors – people who had lost friends and loved ones – continued to believe that despite all the lessons of history, all the efforts of men before them, despite the pressures facing their own alliance, that they could bring order and stability to the world. The Bretton Woods institutions – International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), along with the United Nations and policies such as the Marshall Plan rested on a belief that a better world was possible – indeed, that it was necessary. Optimism was not a luxury, but a critical tool that was needed to moderate the realist pressure to create a system that would only serve the interests of the allies. Too much blood had been spilt, too much treasure spent, too much lost for that not to be the case. A better future had to be imagined and created because something had to have justified the enormous cost of blood and treasure of the previous two decades.

The second element of optimism’s effectiveness as a tool of foreign policy is that it cannot operate in isolation. Optimism need not, and indeed cannot be divorced from realism. Those who seek to imagine a better world or a better outcome don’t succeed by merely hoping for it.  Optimism can only purchase interest on the part of citizens and allies or provide a vision for what should be done. Without hard assets, diplomatic leverage and the capacity to monitor and follow through on commitments, any such vision is pointless. Again, this paper seeks not to argue that optimism alone is ever sufficient; one need only look at Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement to see what optimism as a tool of foreign policy can look like when wielded in isolation. A vision of peace, nor matter how nobly optimistic, is worthless without the means to monitor and enforce it.

There was a time when Canadians – conservative and liberal – understood this. Wedding optimism with realism was supposed to be the trademark of Pearsonian foreign policy. Pearson proposed a peacekeeping operation to intervene between combatants during the 1956 Suez Crises and to re-imagine a world where war was not inevitable. Optimism was a key instrument: the idea that a small international force could separate and keep the peace between larger and better armed belligerent parties was not without risk. In addition the notion that a middle power could meaningfully intervene in the power plays of the great powers was also not immediately obvious. But in addition to optimism, Pearson’s proposal was combined with a deep sense of realism. Canada was intervening not just because it altruistically wished to prevent war, but because the risks of an escalated war between the Soviets and the Americans had real implications for the security of the country. In addition, although only a Middle Power, Canada had the credibility and capacity to lead such a mission. It could deploy its troops independently and had earned the trust of the key actors involved.

So if optimism is a legitimate tool of foreign policy, does it fit into today’s debate over the direction and future of Canada’s foreign policy? I think the short answer is yes, with an important caveat. I think if John Holmes were alive today he would argue that we need both more, and less, optimism.

First and foremost, there is at present no sense of crisis or urgency in the Canadian foreign policy arena. However much foreign policy enthusiasts may wish it, the public’s attention is not focused as it was during the world wars or even the Cold War. The war on terror has not captured the public’s attention. Indeed, the erosion of human rights and the instigation of the second gulf war has done interminable damage to what is a serious issue. On the other side of the spectrum, climate change increasingly penetrates the public’s (although not the government’s) consciousness as an important issue but it is nowhere near becoming an organizing principle for foreign (or even domestic) policy. If there is a foreign policy issue that is seen to be essential it is access to the American market – although even here the issue is plagued with rowdy opposition and significant ambivalence. (Have Canadians ever cared less about the United States than they do today?)

Without an exogenous organizing principle, and with the benefit of America’s security umbrella, Canada has been afloat. In this almost strangely unique and secure void we have the luxury to debate what, if anything, our foreign policy should look like. It is however, an urgent discussion. Canada has enjoyed an “influence dividend” that came as a result of our significant participation in the Second World War and, subsequently, the Cold War. But this increased significance was never structurally sound – over the long term our military and economy power could not justify. Only continued ingenuity and creativity, a demonstration to key powers that we can be of use and the ability to contribute to the ideas we put forward could the inevitable decline be arrested or at least managed gracefully. But rather than come to consensus on how to manage this problem we have instead vacillated between the extremes of excessive optimism and the complete lack of it.

On the one side we have had Liberals who sometimes misunderstand Pearson as a largely altruistic optimist. They 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 an optimist – he wanted to help foster a better world – but he also understood that optimism must be balanced with realism. In this regard he respected the role and necessity of power, 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.” Liberal foreign policy often strays from this understanding. From the Land Mines Treaty to UN reform, Liberals efforts to improve the international system invariably focus on perfecting the machinery irrespective of the interests or participation of the great powers.

But if the Liberals have divorced optimism from realism, Conservatives have divorced realism from optimism. Conservatives have often tried to emphasize the threats to Canada, focusing on the dangers and instability of the world. This messaging is often designed to promote the growth of hard power assets like the military. But extensive research shows that the more scared people become about instability and uncertainty the more unlikely they are to change how they think. The end result could be counterproductive. Painting the world a scary and hostile place that Canadians need to be protected from won’t create support for hard power and a more aggressive role in addressing the world’s problems, rather it could promote isolationism and a desire to retreat from the world altogether.

The Conservative approach is made all the more difficult because their desire to enhance Canadian power appears to be an end unto itself. Are Canadians willing to spend blood and treasure in order to simply earn a seat at the table? Possibly. But I have my doubts that they will be willing to do so in the absence of a genuine threat or opportunity the believe in. They will be even less inclined if our “seat” will be used to do nothing more than sustain the status quo, support American hegemony, or worse, simply substitute American interests for Canadian interests. Our present government has never been more intent on demonstrating Canada’s power but this has done little to arrest our decline, both internationally and vis-à-vis the United States. Today most countries wonder where Canada is on issues it has traditionally championed such as human rights and, to a lesser degree, the environment. It is worth noting that at the recent climate talks in Thailand the group of 77 – the countries of the developing world – simply stood up and out of disgust, walked out in the middle of Canada’s address. Realism without optimism has left us weaker, and less influential, not stronger.

There is no easy way to out of this debate. The whole discussion has a chicken and egg feel to it. Conservatives advocate for means without ends we care for, Liberals want ends we might agree with, but without the means required to make them reality. In the meantime Canada’s influence continues to slip.

The only thing more depressing than the debate is the shrinking number of Canadians who seem to think it matters. While the dedication of those who serve the government is unquestionable there appears to be more and more action taking place outside government. When young people today look for role models in the realm of international affairs they turn to the plucky start-ups of the last two decades like Engineers Without Borders, Free the Children, Greenpeace and others who appear far more adept at marrying optimism with the means of achieving this better, imagined world. If Canada won’t be creative and resourceful then the Canadians who do care will be, without or without their government.

Arresting this decline and trying to find a way transcend the debate between means and ends was one of the key goals of Middle to Model Power, the report I served as lead author of on behalf of the Canada25 community. We sought to marry optimism with hard power as well as tap into the energy of Canadians by focusing on how Canada could generate influence by modeling behaviour. This is not to suggest that the Model Power report provides the answer; but it was a genuine effort to engage some new and outside thinking as well as some younger blood into identifying a new path. Barring some new exogenous threat or organizing principle the difficult problem is that we will need to imagine our role, or stumble along in a free-rider malaise. My point is that we will have to imagine our role, it isn’t going to be given to us.

It is a challenge I suspect John Holmes would have found intriguing. I never had an opportunity to meet the man, but understand from those who worked with, studied under and admired him that he sought to engage young people in policy development, enjoyed creative thinking and believed in searching new and untested paths. Moreover, as president of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs he sought to broaden the community of people engaged in foreign affairs. I believe that all those traits of the man – plus a small dose of optimism about what Canada could be – are precisely what is needed.

10 thoughts on “Optimism is an instrument of policy

  1. Brenton

    First suggestion:”Rather, my reading of Holmes's quote suggests that he was not claiming optimism should be the basis of a foreign policy; rather, he was stating that optimism is an instrument of Foreign Policy.”I think that point is rather obvious, considering the quote.

    Reply
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  5. Jacques Drolet

    Good review and “look forward” David. I would still work on the last paragraph to make it more poignant if I may suggest. As for the key to regive Canadians a “International” positive meaning, I would like to suggest that after taking away the “threat approach” promulgated by Conservatives as you mention, the successful policy will have to make Canadians feel that ethical sustainability is a necessity and that it passes through better human relationships. Once that “necessity to change” will reach a threshold (some say 5% some 10%) the rest will be a matter of doing the work. now so much work is lost without the social acknowledgement of this “human-value” drive/driver.Hope this helps :-)

    Reply
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