Tag Archives: Paul Wells

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.

Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

Why is it that we continue to see the Afghanistan mission through the lens of peacekeeping, as opposed to peacebuilding? This fact seems to underlie and shape the entire debate – forcing us to ask the wrong questions and driving all our political parties to poorly thought out solutions.

Take, for example, the new Liberal position that insists on a non-combat role. As Rosie Dimanno points out in a recent Toronto Star article the number of Canadian troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year was 0. 12 were killed by improvised explosive and 11 by roadside bombs and land mines. In addition there have been deaths from accidents. But there has not been a single combat death since Sept 3. 2006. One is forced to ask… why insist on a non-combat role? It is because this is what we’d like the mission to entail? Or because this is what the mission does entail. Although we may wish it, we are not peacekeeping. Our troops are not positioning themselves between enemy combatants in an effort to prevent them from fighting. This is peacebuilding – we are one of the combatants and we should not pretend otherwise.

The risks of pretending we are peacekeeping however, are significant. As she points out:

If Liberals are trying to spare Canadian lives – by venturing passively, ducking into calmer territory and promoting reconstruction in the absence of a secure environment – an anti-combat insistence is utterly without merit.

But it might get Canadian troops killed. An enemy that knows troops won’t fight back, can’t fight back because of political handcuffs slapped on half a world away, is an enemy given a blood-embossed invitation to attack at will.

Her article may be alarmist, but its central argument is correct. As General Lewis Mackenzie confirms, denying our troops the capacity to take advanced actions to protect themselves – or the NGO’s and aid workers attempting to rebuild Afghanistan – is sheer folly. Our polticians owe it to both the public and our military to be honest about what this mission requires of us.

Which brings us to a second distortion. In a peacekeeping mission one would want to know other countries are participating. A broader coalition means more countries are fostering international pressure to end the conflict and bring their peacekeepers home. Again, however, we are not in a peacekeeping mission. Either we believe an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to our national interest or we don’t. If it is a threat, why does it matter what our NATO allies think? Did we, prior to the second world war, wait to see who else signed up before committing to action? Of course not. The cause was important enough for us to commit ourselves. Nor, after 1943, did we say “we’ve done our part, time for someone else to step up.”And yet this is precisely how we are presently framing the issue.

As a result our national debate over Afghanistan actually undermines our efforts to solicit support. Our politicians end up treating Afghanistan as a duty – something, like peacekeeping, we do to maintain for humanitarian reasons, or to buttress our reputation within NATO or the United States. Not once in the last few months has Afghanistan been described as an imperative. But few, if any countries, are willing to put their soldiers in harms way out of a vague sense of obligation to an international body. Countries – and Canada should be among this list – should put their soldiers in harms way with enourmous trepidation, and usually only when they believe vital national interests are at stake. By telling our allies “it’s someone else’s turn” we risk conveying that we really don’t believe this mission is vital. If it were, we’d be asking them to work along side us, not replace us.

At present, it appears the majority of our allies don’t believe a stable Afghanistan is essential to global peace and security. This is either because it isn’t, or because we’ve failed to convince them. This is a difficult assessment to make and I’d be foolish to claim that I know the answer with complete certainty. That said, I suspect – as Paul Wells points out – our diplomat efforts to make the case have been weak at best.

Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest. Sadly, I’ve heard little of this in the discussion among the political parties. And yet addressing this underlying question would not only be the more honest approach, it might cause the “are we in” or “are we out” debate to simply disappear.