Category Archives: canadian foreign policy

When Canada makes the US border thicker

Canadians spend a lot of time worrying about the “thickening” border with the United States. This is for good reason. Given the importance of the US market and the sheer number of exports between the two countries, issues that thicken the border – like the requirement to use a passport or more strict rules around shipping goods – have an enormous impact on Canada’s economy.

Usually, Canadian officials complain that it is hard to get Americans to engage on this issue. So it is exceedingly frustrating when the Canadian government takes actions that thicken the border and simultaneously discouraging and encouraging when it is senior American officials have to intervene to make it thinner.

Last week, despite lobbying from the Mayor of Vancouver, the Premier of British Columbia, a number of business and tourism representatives and even conservative party caucus members, the Federal Goverment looked set on killing a program that saw a set of Border Guards pre-clearing trains that run from Vancouver to Seattle. Without this pre-clearance the trains would run much, much slower and so Amtrak, who runs the trains, said it would end the service.

It now appears that the border service was saved only after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson personally intervene. Yes, you read that right. US officials were racing trying to persuade Canadian officials to keep the border more open. The problematic nature of such a headline cannot be underscored. Yes, it is great that senior officials in the US care about ensure the Canada-US border remains as open as possible. But, as a country still dependent on an open and friction free border with the Unites States it is disturbing their intervention was necessary.

Indeed, as the country with the most to suffer when the border gets thicker (we feel the loss of exports and trade more than the Americans do) we need to model behaviour and be a leader in striving to make it as open and as accessible as possible. Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson intervention now means that two senior US officials may now believe that Canada’s commitment to friction free and accessible border is not as strong as we have claimed. If we aren’t concerned here, maybe we aren’t as concerned  on other, even greater areas of concern regarding the increased thickening of the Canada-US border.

And the damage has not been undone. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the decision, has only only preserved the service for one year. Indeed, in his statement he added “In this period of time, the residents of British Columbia and Washington State primarily will demonstrate whether, in fact, this is a necessary service.” Of course, the second train has already doubled the number of people traveling via rail between the two cities and, according to BC’s transportation minister, has injected $11.8 million into the BC economy.

Canadians should be thrilled that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the government ultimately made the right decision around keeping this service in place. But as a country still concerned about the weakened economy, the US border and our relationship with the United States, we should be concerned that the government took the most painful and costly route to arrive at this decision.

On Policy Alpha geeks, network thinking and foreign policy

In the past few weeks the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) and the Canadian International Council (CIC) both launched new visions for Canada’s foreign policy. Reading each, I’m struck by how much overlap both documents have with Middle to Model Power, the Canada25 report written 5 years ago by over 500 young Canadians from across the country and around the world.

With Middle to Model Power, a group of young people largely self-organized to lay out a vision and selection of ideas around how Canada could rethink its foreign policy. Take a look at this selection from its executive summary, including an overview and the first recommendation:

We submit that Canada should cease assessing its influence on the basis of its size or position within an obsolete global hierarchy. Instead, Canada25 calls on Canadians to look at the world as a network, where influence is based on the capacity of an individual, company, non-governmental organization (NGO) or country to innovate and collaborate. Building on this perspective, we propose that Canada become a Model Power—a country whose influence is linked to its ability to innovate, experiment, and partner; a country that, by presenting itself as a model, invites the world to assess, challenge, borrow from, and contribute to, its efforts.
In pursuit of our vision of Canada as a Model Power, we outline three priorities for action. These, accompanied by some of our recommendations, include:

MAKE CANADA A NETWORK NODE. Enhance the ability of Canadians to create, nurture, and tap into international networks:
• Issue five-year work visas to foreign graduates of Canadian universities • Reach out to Canada’s expatriate community by creating an international network of
Canadian leaders…

You can download the full report here, but you get the idea. Remember this is a group of 23-35 year-olds writing in 2005.

Now, quickly compare this to the summary’s of both the LPC and CIC’s new reports.

The LPC report, called a Global Networks Strategy opens by stating:

Networks define how the world works today, as hierarchies did in the past. Influence is gained through connectedness, and by being at the centre of networks. That is good news for Canada, because we have a reputation for being able to work with others, we have shaped many multilateral organizations, and our population today reflects the diversity of the world. The Global Networks Strategy is designed to leverage these assets. It sets priority areas in which the federal government must collaborate with the full range of players who contribute vigorously – and most often in networks – to Canada’s presence in the world: other governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, young Canadians, academia, faith- based groups, artists and others.

And in the CIC report, titled Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked World, has as one of its opening paragraphs:

Canada will never be the most powerful nation on Earth. But we live in a digital age, where might is measured in knowledge rather than muscularity. If we keep building on our openness—attracting the best and the brightest citizens, generating and exchanging new ideas and new ways of doing things and welcoming investment in our economy—Canada can position itself at the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century.

And, unsurprisingly, the deeper details of the reports offer many similar prescriptions.

So how, on a shoestring budget, can a group of young Canadians many of whom were not foreign policy experts, write a report that identifies an organizing principle that 5 years both a major political party and one of the country’s newest and best funded think tanks would put at the hearts of their own reports?

A few ideas come to mind:

1) The Medium is the Message: Middle to Model Power was not written on a wiki (in 2005 none of us knew what a wiki was!) but it was written over email. The authors were scattered across the country and the process of organizing local events was relatively decentralized. People raised whatever topics that mattered to them, and during the drafting phase they simple sent me their ideas and we batted them around. There was structure, but were were a pretty flat organization and… we were very connected. For Canada25 a network wasn’t just an idea that emerged out of the process, it was the process. It should hardly be surprising that the way we saw the world reflected how we organized ourselves. (When I say that Canada’s digital economy strategy will fail unless written on GCPEDIA this is part of what I’m hinting at). The medium is the message. It’s hard (but not impossible) to write about networks deep in hierarchy.

2) Look for Policy Alpha Geeks in resource poor environments: So why did Canada25 think in terms of networks? How was it that before Wikinomics or GPS or pretty much most other things I’ve seen, did Canada25 organize itself this way?  Well, it wasn’t because we were strategic or young. It was because we had very little money. We couldn’t afford to organize any other way. To get 500 Canadians around the world to think about foreign policy we had to let them self-organize – we didn’t have an org structure or facilitators to do it for them. We had to take the cheapest tools (email) and over use them. Don’t get me wrong, Canada25 was not poor. Our members were generally very well educated, we had access to computers and the internet and access to interesting people to interview and draw ideas from. But the raw infrastructure we had at our disposal was not significant and it forced us to adopt what I now see were disruptive technologies and processes. We became Policy Alpha Geeks because we had to innovate not to be relevant, but to ensure the project survived.

3) It’s not about the youth: People presume that our thinking emerged because we were young. This is not entirely correct. Again, I submit that we got to thinking about networks because we were operating in a resource weak environment and had exposure to new tools (email) and a risk tolerance to try using them in an ambitious way. This isn’t about age, it just happens that generally it is young people who don’t have lots of resources and are willing to experiment with new tools. Older people, who frequently have more senior titles, generally have access to more resources and so can rely on more established, but more resource intensive tools and processes. But again, this is about mindset, not about age. Indeed, it is really about the innovators’ dilemma in policy making. Don’t believe me? Well, as lead author of Middle to Model Power I can tell you that the most influential book on my thinking was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock which I read in the month preceding the drafting of the report. It was written in 1970 by an author who was, at the time, 42. In sum, young people can be a good guide, but it is environmental factors that you can replicate, not intrinsic qualities of being young, that allow you to innovate.

Both the LPC and the CIC’s documents are good and indeed, more up to date than Middle to Model Power. But in terms of core organizing principles the three documents are similar. So if you are genuinely interested in this take a look at all three documents. I do think they put forward what could become an emerging centrist consensus regarding organizing principles for Canadian foreign policy. Certainly that was the ambition back in 2005.

Competitive Bureaucracies: Why is IDRC a Success?

A long time ago a friend of mine was talking about how some organizations thrive by being under constant threat. His favourite example was the US Navy’s Marine Corp. The Marines are, operationally, the cheapest army corp in the United States forces, among the most mobile and, many would argue, possibly the most effective.Why, he asked, do you think the Marine Corp is considered so excellent? Why does it work so hard to excel in every way?

Well, he claimed, it was because the Marines are always an obvious target for budget cutters and larger rivals. If were looking cut duplicating services it would be easy to look over at the Marine Corp and ask… Why does the Navy need an army? Isn’t the army supposed to be our… army?

And trust me, this is a questions the Army asks regularly. Indeed, reading the Wikipedia page about the Marines – one can quickly see how the Marine Corps dissolution has been sought at various points in history:

The Marine Corps combat capabilities in some ways overlap those of the United States Army, the latter having historically viewed the Corps as encroaching on the Army’s capabilities and competing for funding, missions, and renown. The attitude dates back to the founding of the Continental Marines, when General George Washington refused to allow the initial Marine battalions to be drawn from among his Continental Army. Most significantly, in the aftermath of World War II, Army efforts to restructure the American defense establishment included the dissolution of the Corps and the folding of its capabilities into the other services.

So what does this have to do with International Development Research Centre?

I confess that I am not involved in development issues that much. But every time I do stray into the space and am impressed with a project that is innovative or interesting, it seems the IDRC has had a hand in funding it.

For example, readers of this blog know that I’ve become involved with OpenMRS, a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system platform specifically designed for doctors in the developing world. IDRC is a funder. Or, guess who is helping fund a community driven approach to bring connectivity and the internet to developing countries… IDRC is. There have been others over the years that I’ve seen, but can’t remember.

Some of this relates to part of the IDRC’s mission, which centres around the use of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) but I also believe that part of it has to do with the fact that the bigger and more amply funded Canadian International Development Agency is just a kilometer away across the Ottawa river the IDRC must always be demonstrating that it is leaner, faster and more effective to justify its existence.

Just like the Marine corp must always justify its existence by being both excellent, effective and cheap. So to must the IDRC. It is the organization in government that – from what I can tell – is more likely to embrace technology, promote an innovative culture and, to be blunt, get the job done. Why? Because it has to.

This is not a defence of duplication of services (and, to be clear, I do not think that IDRC and CIDA’s services directly overlap – but they do operate in similar spaces). But it cannot be denied that competition helps. But I’m not sure it is enough, either. Sometimes, duplications of services simply leads to two poorly performing institutions. I would love to be able to explore what it is about the IDRC and Marine Corp that enable them to channel the threat to their existence into innovation. Is it history? Was it the personality of their founders? Corporate culture? I suspect it is more than the threat of the budgetary axe wielder. But what… I’m not sure.

Perhaps someone will make it a thesis topic some day. I’m going to give it more thought myself.

Some More Core-Periphary Maps

Those who’ve been reading my blog for a long time may remember one of my more popular posts comparing the Firefox 3 Pledge Map (locations of downloads of Firefox 3 back in June 2008) versus Thomas Barnett’s Map (published in The Pentagon’s New Map – his blog here).


firefox PNM mash up 2

A little while back a friend shared with me a new map, called The Walled World, that she’d found over at The Raw Feed (a great site, BTW) which offers a similar perspective… but with clearly delineated walls that show who is being kept out of which parts of the world.


All three maps continue reasonate with me. The first offers us a stategic overlay. Which countries are powers/maintainers of the international system – which places are seeking to radical alter it, or cannot seem to become part of the core.

The second shows the virtual implications of that gap. Here, the gap between core and periphery is made starkly clear in technology use.

The final shows the physical manifestation of the gap. A stark reminder of the fences we build and the enormous sums of money and energy poured into keeping certain people out.

As a final note, I do think the third map is slightly misleading. As disturbing as it is, it is actually far, far too flattering to many traditional western powers as it continues to place them at the “centre.” In a world where the United States appears to be in decline this type of map makes China, Brazil, India and Russia (and even South Africa) look like non entities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Canadian Foreign Policy: The War on Independent Thought

Two stories this week highlight Canada’s rapidly decaying capacity to think, engage and act on foreign policy issues. The first was the Globe’s story Canadian Aid Groups Told to Keep Quiet on Policy Issues, the second is Paul Well’s detailed and devastating account of the implosion of Rights and Democracy, an NGO run by the Federal Government which has seen its entire staff revolt in the face of the political efforts by government to reset its policies.

Both stories hint at a common pattern – that through bullying, funding decisions, appointments and any other means at its disposal – the conservative government is seeking to ensure that any voice in Canada that engages international issues aligns itself with the government’s opinion. In short, this Conservative government is seeking to recentralize Canadian foreign policy. It is an effort that cannot succeed, but in which the attempt will devastate Canada’s influence in the world and negatively impact our capacity to act on the global stage.

Why is this?

Because in the 21st century a country’s foreign policy capacity – especially a small country like Canada – does not spring solely from the size of one’s military and the influence of one’s diplomats. Rather, influence springs from the capacity to tackle and address – increasingly complex – problems. Military might and diplomats can be deeply important but they are increasingly a smaller piece of the puzzle. The real question is, how does a state marshal all the resources and talents at its disposal and focus them on a problem.

In the 19th century the answer was easier. Military might and diplomats were the only tools and so control over these tools – the capacity of a single person (the PM) or group (cabinet) to focus the energy of the state on a problem – was the essence of international influence. But today this is no longer the case. Many of the critical relationships, expertise for addressing problems, volunteering capacity and even funding, lie beyond the control of the state. More importantly, public opinion has become an essential part of any effort. In this world, where the state is only one of many actors, and is one that is frequently looked upon with skepticism, how does one marshal this network or foreign policy ecosystem and attempt to focus it on a problem?

This is the great challenge facing government’s everywhere (especially those of smaller countries where resources outside of government are essential).

The conservative response – outlined above by the Globe and Paul Wells – describes an effort to assert control over these non-state actors and opinion shapers. To bully them into line and force them to not only cooperate with but mimic the government’s priorities.

This strategy will not work.

Over the short term the talent in Canada’s foreign policy network will simply balk. The best will leave for other countries which will seek to engage them on policy, not declare war on independent thought. Today we risk the great “hallowing out” of our foreign policy capacity (and thus international influence) not because the quality of our diplomats or military will decline, but because the quality of our NGO sector will decline.

Moreover, this sector’s international influence depends on independence. Other states and public opinion more generally will not respect Canadian organizations that are seen as merely puppets of the Canadian government. Indeed, expect these types of organizations to see their influence wain to a point where they become insignificant on the international stage. In short, there will be fewer Canadian voices and they will all carry less weight.

Finally however, the ecosystem will adjust. Already many Canadian organizations that work and engage in international issues find it cumbersome to work with Government. People I speak with often eschew CIDA grants since the reporting mechanisms they come with are often more expensive to implement than the value of the grant. Now that Government money is linked with political interference and meddling, an increasing number of organizations will avoid engaging the Canadian government altogether. The result? A NGO sector that is actively hostile – or at best indifferent – to the government and a diminished capacity to coordinate action, research and policy across the Canadian foreign policy ecosystem.  In short, the Canadian government will have no more control over internationally focused resources, but it will have shrunk the country’s collective influence.

In a networked world you can’t control the network, you can only seek to influence it. This government’s actions are a case study in how to lose credibility and sacrifice capacity. If, however, they don’t want a Canada that engages in the world, perhaps, in their mind, it is all worth it.

Has Canada entered a Bush-Like Vortex?

No new piece on today as I wrote a special for the Globe and Mail.

The piece is entitled Has Canada entered a ‘Bush-like vortex’? and explores how the Colvin testimony suggests the public service has become compromised in a critical way. Specifically, it suggests that increasingly, public servants are being forced to shape facts and the truth to fit a narrative already constructed by our government. It’s a dangerous path down which president Bush took the American public administration with disastrous results. Here, with out traditions of a greater separation between the political and the bureaucratic, the outcome could be even worse.

Anyway, you read it here on the Globe site. I’ll cross post it tomorrow.

Torturing Afghan Prisoners: Blind and Dangerous

As most (Canadian) readers are probably aware by now (American readers will probably still be interested), yesterday, a senior Canadian diplomat, Richard Colvin, testified to Members of Parliament that Canadian soldiers regularly detained innocent Afghan citizens and then handed them over to Afghan authorities who they knew would torture them. In short, the Canadian government has become knowingly complicit in torturing and violating the human rights of Afghan citizens.

These allegations are serious. They present numerous problems, but I’d like to highlight two: first, that our government has evolved to become willfully blind to torture; and second, that as a result, we jeopardize the Afghan mission and increase the risks to the lives of our own soldiers.

Willfully Blind:

Only slightly less distressing than learning (again) that the Canadian military was allegedly handing civilians over to local authorities who then tortured them is how the Conservatives – once so proud of the public service whistle blower legislation they helped pass – now seem intent on ignoring the issue and tarring the whistle-blower.

It is eerie to read Tory MP Jim Abbott get quoted in the Globe as saying “Out of 5,000 Canadians who have travelled through there, at least in that period of time, you were the one single person who is coming forward with this information. So you will forgive me if I am skeptical.” Of course, the fact that Richard Colvin testified that senior public servants were instructing him and others to not share or record this information is perhaps one of the reason why Mr. Abbott never heard of the problem. But then, Mr. Colvin has not been alone in raising this issue; the Red Cross and Amnesty International both tried to inform the government about this problem, to no avail.

Indeed as Paul Wells has aptly written, the Conservative machine has now embraced what he terms “the bucket defence” and is doing everything it can to sow confusion and claim this is not an issue. (Rather than trying to figure out how it is that Canadians were handing Afghan citizens over to Afghan authorities with full knowledge that they would get tortured). This is not only irresponsible, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, and accountable government. It is also downright dangerous.

Dangerous to the mission and our soldiers:

The Globe article also included this still more frightening quote from Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant. She worries: “The fanning of the fames of outrage over allegations [of torture], however unproven, are really having the desired effect on the Canadian people of wanting our troops to return even quicker.” Note here, the truth is irrelevant, it matters not whether we are complicit in the torture of Afghans, what matters are polling numbers and support for the mission.

It was a very similar response to these allegations by the Prime Minister back in March of 2007 that prompted me to write this blog post on why torturing one’s enemies increases the dangers to your own soldiers. The post was subsequently republished as a opinion piece in the Toronto Star, and since, sadly, it still relevant today, two years later, I’ve reposted it below:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments regarding the Liberal’s “passion” for the Taliban was more than just a new low point in Canadian political debate – it also reveals the government’s disturbingly shallow grasp of the strategy and tactics necessary to win in Afghanistan.

For the sake of both our military and the mission, the Prime Minister would be wise to read lieutenant David Grossman’s landmark book, On Killing. In the book, Grossman, a U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel and professor at West Point, describes the psychological implications of killing, both legally and illegally, in battle.

Of specific interest to the Prime Minister would be the psychological argument and historical evidence that explain why adhering to the Geneva Conventions and treating PoWs humanely is of supreme strategic and tactical importance to any organized army. In short, enemy forces are much more willing to surrender when secure in the knowledge that in doing so they will be treated fairly and humanely. Enemies that believe otherwise are likely to fight to the death and inflict greater casualities even in a losing effort.

During World War II, the Allies’ adherence to the Geneva Convention resulted in German soldiers surrendering to U.S. forces in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the experience of the Soviets, who cared little for PoWs.

But one need not go back 60 years for evidence. Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, who fought in Iraq and then founded and became executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, makes a similar argument regarding today’s conflicts.

Prior to the Abu Ghraib debacle, he noted how “(O)n the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets. It saved innumerable lives …”

When MPs and ordinary Canadians ask questions about the treatment of Afghan prisoners they don’t do so out of contempt, but out of a deep respect and concern for Canadian soldiers. Canadians know we can ill afford to treat enemy combatants inhumanely. They know this because it is in opposition to our values and our very purpose in Afghanistan.

However, they also know there is a compelling military reason: It would rob our soldiers of possibly their single most important tactical and strategic tool – moral integrity. Without this, who knows how many Canadian lives will be needlessly lost in battles where an insurgent, believing that surrender is tantamount to execution, instead opts to fight to the death.

The Prime Minister may believe that talking like a cowboy about the Taliban and human rights make the government appear tough. But in reality, it only makes it dangerous, both to the mission, and our soldier’s lives.

CIC: New Thinking on Canadian Foreign Policy?

Really pleased to hear that the Canadian International Council (CIC) has launched “The GPS Project: A Global Positioning Strategy for Canada.” After several years of fits and starts I’ll confess I haven’t seen the CIC strike off in a new  and interesting direction – something that has worried me. This new initiative however, has real potential.

First off the project has good timing and a firm deadline around which to make suggestions. As the press release notes:

The project will generate and disseminate fresh perspectives and ideas both in the short term, as Canada prepares to host the 2010 G8 Summit next summer in Huntsville, Ontario and, more fundamentally, for the years beyond. The “Muskoka” summit will also have to co-ordinate its work with that of the new G20 summit institution that came to fruition in November 2008 as a result of the global economic crisis.

But more important is who is involved. Projects like this are never guaranteed to succeed, but at least the CIC is being forward looking with this initiative. Gone are the same old voices we frequently hear debating Canada’s foreign policy. A number of the names are on the young end of the spectrum and many are impressive:

I’ve never met but have heard great things about Andre Beaulieu and Gerald Butts (very pleased there is a strong environmentalist voice within the group). Roland Paris is a great choice out of the academic world: young, smart and not lost in the ivory tower. Jonathan Hausman, George Roter and Mercedes Stephenson are both friends and great choices – young, thoughtful and active in the international arena. I’ve also had some long chats with Yuen Pau Woo – the President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada here in Vancouver – he is very smart, thoughtful and an essential addition to the group. For a country that frequently talks about Asia, but does very little about it, his perspective is essential.

Indeed, the diversity of perspectives and overall youth of this group is its strength. As the CIC noted, they wanted a group “largely from the generation that came to age in the post-Cold War era of global horizons and digital connectedness.” I think they have done well in choosing it.

I’m looking forward to hearing about the process and reading their outputs. Let’s hope they generate some good discussion and debate about Canada’ foreign policy.

With The GPS Project, two heads are better than one and more better yet. The CIC has assembled a panel of 13 emerging leaders to assist with this project. All in the ascendancy of their careers, the panelists are drawn from diverse career paths and largely from the generation that came to age in the post-Cold War era of global horizons and digital connectedness. The promising, upcoming leaders committed to working together on The GPS Project are:

Canada's Arctic Strategy – playing to the strengths of others

Last week I the good fortune of participating in an intimate workshop on Canadian foreign policy hosted by CIGI and convened in preparation for an upcoming issue of the International Journal in which the papers will be published.

One of the participants, Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, gave an excellent paper on The United Nations and the Regime to Manage the Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles. During the discussion of her about her paper and Canada’s activities in the North more generally she reiterated the point she made in her September 2008 Policy Options article entitled Canada’s Arctic continental shelf extension: debunking myths:

Contrary to commonly held myths that Canada is losing the race to stake claims to the Arctic continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles as other Arctic countries move more quickly and effectively to secure the resources for themselves, there is no “Wild West” scramble occurring, and relations among the participants are remarkably cooperative. There is an international legal regime in place, and its rules are being observed by the Arctic countries. Furthermore, these states already have sovereign rights over the continental shelf beyond 200 miles that do not depend on occupation or proclamation.

I found Riddell-Dixon’s comments fascinating. Her thorough and convincing assessment sits in stark contrast to the headlines one normally reads in the news: “Battle for the Arctic heats up” (CBC), “Arctic military bases signal new Cold War” (The Times), “Canada uses military might in Arctic scramble” (The Guardian) and “Sweden’s arctic army can beat up our arctic army” (who else… The National Post).

Given these articles one is liable to think that a Russian invasion of The North is imminent! And this is perhaps understandable, talking about military exercises and a “wild west” sells newspapers and makes citizens feel patriotic. It is however, completely divorced from how decisions are presently being made. Indeed, Riddell-Dixon pointed that if anything the activities of Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark have been marked by cooperation – we share information, resources and even ships – as we collectively map out the ocean floor. Indeed, this – and other areas of cooperation between the 5 circumpolar countries – was outlined in the (dramatically under-reported) Ilulissat Declaration in which the Arctic Five reaffirmed that:

The five coastal states currently cooperate closely in the Arctic Ocean with each other and with other interested parties. This cooperation includes the collection of scientific data concerning the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment and other scientific research. We will work to strengthen this cooperation, which is based on mutual trust and transparency, inter alia, through timely exchange of data and analyses.

So we have an international legal regime (based on the Law of the Sea) for resolving boundaries in the North. All the relevant actors are adhering to (and even cooperating around) it. And yet, the military rhetoric around the North continues to get trotted out. If the only consequence was to whip up a sense of nationalism and win votes this would be okay. The problem is that, internationally, this behaviour is irresponsible.

Why? Because language about militarizing The North that implicitly suggests disputes will (or worse, should) be resolved through military strength plays to our weaknesses.

If the North really is going to be resolved through (or influenced by) military might then we will find ourselves clashing with the United States (the world’s lone superpower), Russia (a Great Power) and Denmark and Norway (both of whom can more easily focus their military resources in the North). In a game of military chicken we are, in every scenario, the losers. Ratcheting up rhetoric around the military is the exact opposite tact we should be taking. There is an international legal regime in place plays to our strengths: it reaffirms Canada as a norm adherer, commits every one to a rule-based process as well as reinforces the norm that science and data are central to resolving disputes. For a middle (or model) power like Canada, it is hard to ask for a better outcome.

This isn’t to say we should have no military presence in the North – but by emphasizing the military aspect of the North we encourage others to deviate from a process that benefits us and push them towards one that can only hurt our interests. While it may be a simple vote-getter, let’s hope the Prime Minister tones down the rhetoric around the North – my suspicion is that a North that is truly militarized will be a massive drain on resources, an unwelcome distraction and ultimately, a vote loser.

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.