BLOGGING FOREIGN POLICY
Could a proposed new border fee lead to a tipping point?
Under intense budgetary pressures, Washington is looking for easy ways to make money. Border watchers were therefore not surprised to hear that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering slapping a new tax on pedestrians and passenger vehicles at border crossings. More …
The just announced budget proposal is drawing ire from both sides of the border. Politicians and business leaders are arguing that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest. Most research on the border supports this position. Anything that impedes legitimate cross-border interaction is likely to have negative consequences for our tightly-integrated economies and societies. And it is not clear that it will have an improved security impact – which is again top of mind after the Boston marathon attacks.
Here’s why such a proposal – if it comes to fruition – matters.
The U.S. will continue to be Canada’s largest trade partner for the foreseeable future. Our study What Might Canada’s Future Exports Look Like? shows that the emergence of fast-growth markets is reducing our share of trade with the U.S. market, but it will still be our most important trading partner by 2025.
Low-cost access to the U.S. matters a lot for Canada and Canadians. For one, relatively free access to the U.S. provides Canada with far greater growth prospects than if the country were confined to selling to its relatively small domestic market. The evidence shows that relatively open access to the U.S. has substantially improved Canadian living standards beyond what they would otherwise have been.
We need to be able to move people and sell expertise. The proposal would certainly hurt cross-border shoppers and the U.S. states that rely on their purchases. But it extends far beyond this. Canada’s fastest-growing exports are not goods, but services and expertise, as our recent report Walking the Silk Road: Understanding Canada’s Changing Trade Patterns shows. Examples include financial services, and engineering and architectural services, not to mention expertise that is part and parcel of buying goods or resources. Selling this expertise requires moving people across the border – sometimes by plane and sometimes by car.
Small border cost increases can have large effects. Small increases in cross-border trading costs may sound relatively minor. But they matter – and more so for Canada. Goods and people often cross the border repeatedly, magnifying any cost increases.
Over time, we may reach a tipping point. One border fee may not affect a decision to travel to the U.S., but when one is added to the others, this may tip the balance in favour of not going. This could negatively impact the U.S. economy, and impede Canadian companies’ ability to sell both our goods and expertise in the U.S.
Moreover, Canadian companies face competitive pressures beyond North America. The rise of large developing countries such as China has led to intense global competition. Added to this are pressures from the rapid appreciation of the Canadian dollar over the last few years. In such a highly competitive environment, even small costs can tip the balance away from companies investing in Canada to serve the North American market.
If Washington wants to boosts government revenue and drive U.S. economic growth, instead of studying a new border fee, it might want to look at the impact of going in the opposite policy direction. A more forward-looking avenue might examine the impact of opening up the Canada-U.S. border to greater mobility of low-risk people. This could possibly help to alleviate unemployment, plug skill shortages, focus security attention on higher-risk individuals, and boost cross-border trade – especially of services.
The post-2015 development agenda will shape the direction of aid policy and practice for decades. And for the selected goals to be useful, they must also be perceived to be legitimate and universal. The very fact that they are being subjected to wide-ranging global debate is testament to the ways in which the tectonic plates of aid are fundamentally shifting. For its part, the High Level Panel is playing a critical role in guiding the form and content of future goals, targets and indicators. Its diverse membership of international leaders and experts is intended to ensure tomorrow’s aid architecture accounts for the latest insights from around the world. More …
A signal question confronting the High Level Panel is the place of conflict, violence, and fragility in the post-2015 development equation. For the past two years this issue has preoccupied thousands of diplomats, activists, and practitioners. Their concerns were given voice most recently during United Nations-supported consultations in Monrovia, Panama, Jakarta, and Helsinki. Routinely highlighted at these meetings was the central place of “peace” – whether conceived narrowly as the absence of violence or described in broad terms as safety, security and freedom from fear. For his part, the United Nations Secretary General also declared that the transformation of “violent conflicts and fragility into peace, justice and shared prosperity” must be a cornerstone of the post-2015 agenda.
There is solid empirical evidence illustrating the correlations between conflict, violence, fragility and development. Statistical research demonstrates how persistent insecurity leads to underdevelopment and improvements in safety contribute to sustainable development. Countries and cities exhibiting the highest rates of violence also register the lowest gains in social and economic progress. Moreover, where low levels of human development persist, the incidence of real and perceived violence also tend to be high. These are hardly novel findings. They are clearly outlined in the World Development Report, the Global Burden of Armed Violence, and countless studies issued by the United Nations, research institutes and non-governmental organizations.
There is also growing support among some governments for ensuring conflict and violence prevention and resilience to fragility are elevated as key pillars of the post-2015 agenda. The so-called g7+ and dozens of other states have stressed the importance of security and justice promotion together with armed violence reduction and peace-building as critical for the future of sustainable development. As Larry Attree observes, European Union members explicitly highlighted peace and security as core priorities for the post-2015 framework. What is more, a recent poll of over 200,000 people highlights how the “protection against crime and violence” ranks as among the top priorities for future goals. This has in turn prompted the Beyond 2015 coalition to include peace and security as a red flag issue in judging the recommendations of the High Level Panel.
Given widespread global support for ensuring conflict, violence and fragility are included in post-2015 development framework, why the hesitancy on the part of the High Level Panel?
For one, it seems that anxieties among some Panel members are less academic than political. Certain emerging powers are uneasy with the underlying assumptions and practices of conflict prevention, violence reduction and measures to redress fragility. Indeed, while conflict prevention is undergoing a renaissance in the United Nations, views are still mixed about the direction of the armed violence and fragility agendas in the General Assembly. A small but significant clutch of governments are wary of the ways in these issues might sanction intervention and trespass on national sovereignty. Some diplomats also feel that these themes fall outside of the remit of “development” and should be reserved for other forums in the United Nations (or elsewhere). The more orthodox among them insist the post-2015 agenda should be restricted to staples such as poverty reduction, social and economic equality, and the environment. According to John McArthur, stalwarts even contest the introduction of “governance” to the discussion.
Another obstacle is semantic. Although there is clearly appetite among many member states for including conflict, violence and fragility priorities in the post-2015 development framework, there is still disagreement on the basic terminology. Even well hewn concepts such as “peace” and “security” are disputed. In spite of considerable enthusiasm registered during global consultations in the Americas, Africa and Asia, there is still a surprising lack of consensus on how these expressions are defined. Such doubts raise obvious challenges when it comes to their translation into practical strategies. Discussions around the world have revealed a remarkable diversity of terms ranging from citizen, civilian, and personal security promotion to peace-building, peace-making, and peace consolidation. The High Level Panel would do well to acknowledge and celebrate this diversity and their unambiguous linkages with wider questions of development.
In light of these above mentioned tensions, it is hardly surprising that there are still ongoing debate on the appropriate metrics by which to measure improvements in conflict prevention, violence reduction and efforts to mitigate fragility. Certain governments wish to confine indicators to “output” measures such as the strengthening of institutions. Fortunately, considerable thinking by governments, thanks tanks, and researchers has gone into setting out a number of impact indicators to real and perceived outcomes. Many experts agree that reductions in the number of violent deaths, rates of displacement, the incidence of rape and sexual violence and the proportion of people feeling unsafe are a solid starting point. Other indices include changes in the confidence of citizens in security and justice institutions, access to judicial services, the proportion of victims reporting crime, and the extent of pretrial detention. These are all widely accepted and measurable indicators and could be considered in the deliberations of the High Level Panel.
There is ample public support and scholarly evidence to back a progressive approach to the post-2015 development agenda, including one that explicitly accounts for conflict and violence prevention and reduction. There are also practical reasons to take a bold approach since virtually no low-income fragile state is on track to achieve Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Fortunately, federal, state-level and municipal governments and civil societies around the globe are already developing programs that privilege the safety and security of citizens, mindful of the ways in which routine violence undermines development. There are promising innovations in Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. Many of these were designed with the understanding that the prevention and reduction of conflict and violence are not just a means to development, but worthwhile ends in their own right.
The High Level Panel has an historic opportunity to set out bold recommendations in its report to the United Nations Secretary General in May. To its credit, in November 2012 the Panel acknowledged the central role of conflict, violence and fragility in disabling development. But they can also take practical steps to making the world safer. At a minimum, panelists should reach out to diplomats and allay political concerns, clarify semantic disagreements, and propose metrics grounded in evidence and focused on improving the lives of civilians. They must make clear that peace is not the preserve of a small number of fragile countries, but is a universal public good for all United Nations member states and their citizens. This is the least the Panel can do on behalf of the half million peopled killed annually and millions more suffering from violence around the world.
It is possible to catch a glimpse of the future of international development in the well-appointed reception areas of Latin America’s five-star hotels. There, beneath the ubiquitous crystal chandeliers, one often finds charity boxes requesting donations for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, Syria’s civil war, and natural disasters in Haiti.
More and more homegrown charities are busily advertising how just a few dollars can provide life-saving assistance for the desperate residents of Newark, Damascus, and Port-au-Prince. The messages are apparently convincing: the boxes are stuffed with billfolds of local currency, a testament to the charitable impulse of the region’s well-heeled elite. More …
For generations, there has been just one formula for global development accepted by polite society: industrialized western societies voluntarily provide official development assistance (ODA) to the unfortunate poor of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Over the decades, a number of “theories” have been proposed about what makes for effective ODA. The most recent of them focus on conditioning aid dollars to improvements in “good governance” among recipients themselves. Broadly speaking, ODA has routinely aligned with foreign policy and market interests, and included accountability mechanisms designed to ensure that the hard-earned tax dollars of Western citizens spent overseas also result in tangible benefits at home.
Yet, over the past two decades the tectonic plates of the aid world have shifted. The theories developed so far, based on single prescription from an earlier era, may not provide an adequate framework for the future. Most aid agencies in the rich world have been slow to catch on to the transformations underway. And as the Canadian government launches an ambitious and wide-ranging overhaul of its development policy – most notably through the integration of Canada’s international aid agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade – it would do well to recognize just how much the ground beneath its feet has moved.
The architecture of development assistance was originally constructed around the transfer of material and technical assistance between governments, known as donors and recipients. During the Cold War, these donors were roughly divided between Eastern and Western bloc countries while recipients were widely distributed across the Southern hemisphere. Both blocs were anxious to chalk-up successful recipient models to their side. This arrangement continued for more or less five decades. By the end of the twentieth century, donors were still predominantly members of the club of rich countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The first indication that the aid pillars were swaying coincided with the arrival of a host of emerging powers, including Brazil, China, India, Turkey, Qatar, and others, to the table. Many of these countries had long provided technical assistance to their neighbors and allies but rapid economic growth encouraged the elevation of development assistance among their strategic priorities. Meanwhile, the private sector – including philanthropists, foundations, multinational companies and banks – also started assuming a more prominent role in the aid business. Civil society also became increasingly active. The advent of new technologies sparked the creation of hundreds of citizen groups with a flexible means of getting resources to those who need them and no longer reliant on middle-men. The aid business is today a crowded market and established players are having a tough time keeping up.
While debates over the future of traditional aid are discussed by diplomats and practitioners in New York and Paris, established donors, including international agencies, are falling behind the curve. The United Nations and the World Bank, for their part, are rapidly losing relevance in an increasingly competitive aid market. Some bilateral and multilateral organizations recognize that their future resides in a small cluster of especially unstable and fragile countries where poverty and inequality are most entrenched. Others are calling for a greater emphasis on the promotion of so-called triangular and south-south aid. These debates have taken on a more urgent tone as the financial crisis has ripped through the industrialized world and as Western countries – including Canada – search for new markets and sources of economic growth.
Canada’s geographic location, security priorities, and recent declarations about prioritizing security, democracy, and development its own hemisphere make Latin America and the Caribbean clear priorities. Countries across the region are actively adjusting to the transformations in the aid market, and pushing forward significant changes to their own aid policies. Specifically, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico – after decades of being on the receiving end of ODA – have all established their own development agencies and are steadily increasing their aid portfolios. Brazil, for example, now disburses as much aid as Sweden. It has opened more than 30 embassies in the past decade, and is expanding cooperation across its own neighborhood and throughout Africa and Asia.
An even more interesting window onto the future of aid cooperation is Colombia – a country that is still listed as one of the top 20 sites of focus for Canadian development dollars. As of 2013, the Colombian government supported over 60 new aid projects in dozens of countries. Featuring considerable expertise (owing to support from the United States) in fighting narco-traffickers and organized crime, the country is developing a new style of “police diplomacy” in Central America and the Caribbean, and as far away as West Africa. In a previous era it was Canadians, wearing blue helmets, who sought to stabilize many of these regions. But today, with new threats to security and novel challenges for state-building, it is countries like Colombia that have valuable know-how to share. It currently fields 34 police serving with UN operations in Haiti, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, and Sierra Leone, and since 2010 has trained more than 14,000 police from 50 countries, including 7,000 from Mexico.
In some ways, the stepping-up of countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico is an inevitable by-product of the growing political and economic clout of Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern societies. Traditional ODA from western donors now accounts for less than 1 per cent of the budgets of many of these countries. It is little wonder that North American and Western European aid agencies feel they are losing leverage and generating only middling impacts. This is not to say that they have not made formidable contributions in the past. Nor is it necessarily the case that these governments are adopting enlightened positions when it comes to aid policy or investing in critical independent thinking on the domestic front. But what external donors can and should seek to contribute in this new environment is now open to serious interrogation. In the meantime, we can probably expect the charity boxes across the south to keep proliferating.
Why is Foreign Minister John Baird misrepresenting Canada’s policies on the Mideast?
Last week, Mr. Baird met with Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem. The meeting was controversial because of its location. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it. Canada, like most of our allies and the United Nations, has historically regarded that territory as occupied, rather than as formally part of Israel. More …
Any peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will have to address the city’s contested status. Partly for this reason, Canada has maintained a longstanding policy of not meeting with Israeli officials (or accepting Israeli government escorts) in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. These guidelines have reflected both Canada’s strong support of Israel and its commitment to international law and a just peace.
Why, then, did Mr. Baird later say that the location of his East Jerusalem meeting was “irrelevant” and that it did not “signal a change in Canadian foreign policy”?
Perhaps he did not know about the policy or did not understand the political implications of meeting an Israeli minister in occupied territory. Either of these explanations might account for his “irrelevant” remark. They might also explain his spokesperson’s breezy justification of the meeting’s controversial location: “As guests, we were pleased to meet our hosts where it was most convenient for them.”
However, neither of these explanations is plausible. Mr. Baird has traveled to the Mideast before and seems to have a particular interest in the politics of the region. It is inconceivable that fundamental facts about the political status of East Jerusalem would have escaped his attention.
It is similarly inconceivable that his officials would not have been informed him of Canada’s longstanding policy regarding meetings with Israeli government officials in the occupied territories, along with the reasons behind this policy.
If we set aside ignorance or negligence as reasons for Mr. Baird’s actions, the remaining explanation is that he knowingly altered Canadian policy and deliberately misrepresented this fact when he was challenged.
As foreign minister, Mr. Baird has the right to change Canadian policy, but he is not entitled to change policy and then to deny doing so. Yet, that is precisely what he seems to be doing.
Although ministerial double-speak is troubling at any time, it is particularly disconcerting when it comes from a government that claims to “speak clearly” in the pursuit of a “principled” foreign policy.
Moreover, the East Jerusalem incident followed Baird’s visit to Bahrain, where he made no mention of that country’s atrocious human rights record – in spite of the fact that both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have repeatedly stated that Canada will speak out strongly for human rights, regardless of whether doing so is “popular, convenient or expedient.”
These actions raise important questions about the consistency and purposes of Canadian foreign policy, but the question of honesty is even more fundamental. If Mr. Baird wishes to change Canada’s Mideast policies, he should follow his own government’s injunction to “speak clearly” to Canadians about what he is doing in their name.
I am not an expert on terrorism, and the one time I played that role on TV did not go well (the local Texas station egged me on to make it seem like Lubbock was under fire). However, I cannot help but write about yesterday’s events for my weekly post. For me, as an international relations scholar, I know that there are other events in the world and certainly tragedies occurring daily in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Yet Boston pushes all of those events out of my mind, as I am an American, and Boston plays such a special part in American identity and history. More …
The Boston Marathon takes place on Patriots Day, which marks the battles of Lexington and Concord that started the American Revolution. Because these key battles were near Boston, Massachusetts celebrates this day (along with Maine) with a day off from school, an early baseball game (the Red Sox won), and the marathon. This, of course, makes any and all related events highly visible targets for anyone who wants to send a message.
Still, it is way too early to offer much insight on the particular attack. My colleague, Jeremy Littlewood, does raise some key things to think about here. Otherwise, we must observe every report and commentary with a huge grain of salt. We do not know the extent of the attack nor its source. There will be a tendency to fill the hours of TV and the pages of newsprint with whatever editors can find. Twitter, blogs, and other social media allow for faster transmission of information (false or not) and opinion than ever before.
For me, there are two things to focus on as we await more certainty about the events: inevitability and resiliency.
While we would like to have a 100% success rate against terrorist attacks, it is unrealistic to expect perfection. There are simply too many causes that might motivate someone to commit such acts, there are too many activities and locations to protect all of the time, and there is too much time. Eventually, someone will slip through the nets. Yesterday, someone did (or some people did), despite a high security presence including bomb sniffing dogs. There will be a tendency to point fingers and politicize, but the reality is that no country is immune (democracies tend to be targeted more). Indeed, the U.S. has a long history of bombs being used by those with grievances and ideologies.
If mistakes were made, then we need to correct procedures. But not all failures to predict something are really intelligence failures. 9/11 included some significant intelligence failures because various arms of the U.S. government detected pieces of the plot, but failed to put together the puzzle. In many other events, it is simply not realistic to expect intelligence agencies to have connected the dots since there may have been few, if any, dots to connect.
The second issue is of resilience. The temptation is to overreact and change how one lives one’s life and how one governs. The U.S. made that mistake many times and in many ways after 9/11. But we didn’t stop flying, we didn’t stop gathering, and we didn’t really change how we lived our lives. I expect that there will be more marathons and other sporting events, that security may be tightened a bit more. I do hope that we do not overreact either in our politics of blame-casting or in our policies that might contribute to the theatre of security without significantly improving our actual security.
The good news is that the people of Boston and beyond quickly demonstrated much resilience. First responders did what they are trained to – head directly into the area to treat those harmed. The surrounding community quickly opened up their doors for the visitors who were displaced. Google even helped to crowdsource the effort to get people to find those who were missing. Many people cited the Mr. Rogers quote about how to help kids deal with events like these: “Watch the helpers.” Indeed, there was much aid given to those at the scene. The rest of us could only watch on TV or the internet, but the day’s events proved once again that while one person or a small group can commit such grievous harm, they are always outnumbered by the people who seek to help.1 There is much solace to be gained by thinking about that.
1. I am grateful to the caustic comedian Patton Oswalt for his widely shared facebook message that conveyed exactly this message.
A wise old green man once said: “Do or do not…there is no try!” Well, when it comes to foreign military training, the reality is very much the opposite: one must try, as engaging with the militaries of other countries is almost unavoidable. The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” series on the issue while CIC and its partners have a paper on the topic. Such efforts are fraught with peril, as Afghanistan and Mali have demonstrated quite clearly. Engaging the militaries of less stable, less institutionalized countries raises a variety of challenges and risks, but we often forget that not engaging such countries merely passes the risks on to others. More …
The biggest risk, of course, is failing – that heaps of resources can go to support the training and socialization of another military, but it may not work out. The newly trained and outfitted military may direct its resources to overthrowing the national government or repressing the population. These poor outcomes are costly not only to the trainee’s country but also to the trainers’ countries, which are inevitably assigned at least partial blame. The second biggest problem is that real change takes a great deal of time. Columbia is now seen as a success story, but how many decades has the U.S. been working to improve the Columbian military? And what has happened during that time frame?
The efficacy of military training is still in doubt, as two problems get in our way: selection bias and confirmation bias. In this case, selection bias refers to the reality that much military training is aimed at the most difficult cases, so it is less clear that training in itself is a futile exercise. Military training in Afghanistan may end in failure, but that may say much more about the overall political and economic environment in Afghanistan than the quality of the training. Poor infrastructure, an illiterate population, a context of civil war, deep corruption, and more all make training a military very difficult indeed. The other bias is that we notice the spectacular failures and not the quiet successes. For instance, much effort was expended on mil-to-mil exchanges and training with Eastern European countries to stabilize the post-Cold War transition to democracy. The militaries of these countries now deeply buy into civilian control of the military, and many of them have been significant assets in Afghanistan. Not a bad outcome, but one we hardly notice.
Given how military training can be risky (green on blue attacks) and can produce embarrassing outcomes, why do it? There are several reasons: first, the biggest threat to any democracy is its military. Civilian control of the military is the requirement for democracy that we tend to overlook the most. So, if we want to support democratization, engaging with the militaries of less stable countries is a necessary part of the process. Second, with the advanced democracies returning to their pre-9/11 stances of being reluctant to engage in wars around the world, they will want to rely on other countries to handle their own problems and those in their neighborhoods. The U.S. is already turning to regional allies to engage in regional maintenance. Building more competent militaries around the world might mean fewer failed states, and more countries equipped to fight terrorism nearby. Indeed, the mantra of counter-insurgency is that the indigenous forces will always do it better. Third, as the Canadian Forces returns from Afghanistan, they will possess a skill set that can be helpful to Canada as it still seeks to make a difference in the world short of engaging in combat.
To be sure, military training is not easy, it is not a panacea, and one can be associated with some awful actors. The government needs to examine those who are to be trained (the U.S. did much vetting of Bosnian actors to make sure it was not working with war criminals) to limit the risks, but inevitably those needing the most training will be militaries in the most dysfunctional of societies. With great opportunities comes great responsibility.
The death of Baroness Thatcher, one of Britain’s most influential Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, has re-launched a fierce debate about her impact on her country’s economic, political, and social life. But Margaret Thatcher was more than just a national figure; she also stood out as a key leader of the world’s liberal democracies, which had endured a difficult decade in the 1970s. More …
It may be hard to remember a time when the United States was a ‘diminished’ power, but so it was after the trauma of the Vietnam War, the economic woes associated with declining wages and price inflation, and the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she combined her forceful nature with vision to offer a style of leadership that had the potential to rehabilitate all liberal democracies – not just her own. The essence of that style, as Henry Kissinger remembers it, was the courage to clearly define a direction for the future and to embed it in the minds of citizens, without succumbing to the temptation to compromise or search for middle ground in order to secure continued victory at the ballot box.
There is a famous episode of the celebrated British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, in which Prime Minister Thatcher is dining in a restaurant with her cabinet colleagues (all male), who are keen to curry her favour. The waiter arrives to ask Thatcher for her order and she promptly chooses steak for her main dish. The waiter then asks what she might like for the vegetables and she replies dryly: “They’ll have the same as me”.
Prime Minister Thatcher became the epitome of forceful and uncompromising, dominating her political peers and taking on the constituencies in her native Britain that she believed had made her country ungovernable. Her involvement in the various wars that populated her time in government reflected a similar clarity of purpose.
The most significant of these was, of course, the 1982 Falklands War, which by Thatcher’s own admission was the defining period of her prime ministership. She overruled the voices of caution – including many in the Reagan Administration – to pursue a negotiated solution with the Argentinians to the dispute over the islands and sent 38 warships and 11,000 soldiers and marines to the other side of the globe. The 74-day war was Thatcher’s attempt to compensate for the humiliating British defeat at Suez a quarter of a century before and restore the United Kingdom’s image as a world power. But victory also entailed significant costs on both sides, including 400 Argentinian soldiers who lost their lives when Thatcher made the controversial decision to sink the Belgrano (an Argentinian cruiser).
Prime Minister Thatcher was also influential in the decision to confront another perceived act of aggression: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Though this war occurred during the time of her own political unraveling back home, Thatcher pressed then President George H. Bush to heed the lessons of the twentieth century and stand up to aggressors. It was ‘no time to go wobbly’, she reportedly told her American counterpart. Moreover, she was willing to respond to Iraq unilaterally, suggesting to the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, that United Nations authorization was an unnecessary luxury.
And then there was her own war against terrorism. Prime Minister Thatcher’s uncompromising stance towards the IRA was informed by very personal brushes with acts of terror. Just months before she took office in 1979, her Northern Ireland spokesman, Airey Neave, was murdered by Republicans. She then narrowly escaped assassination herself in the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference (an attack in which five were killed, including two high-profile Conservative party members). Despite this incident, she continued to push for a new ‘deal’ for Ireland, leading in 1985 to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Irish government in the South direct input into the running of the North. Unfortunately for Thatcher, this overture did not manage to isolate radical Republicans (as she had hoped it would) or to moderate politics in Northern Ireland, and the violence continued. In 1990, her close friend and parliamentary aide Ian Gow – who had worked closely with her on Irish policy – was killed in a car bomb in the driveway of his home.
Thatcher’s experiences with Irish terrorism no doubt affected her more general views on political violence. Her uncompromising disposition sometimes put her on the wrong side of history, as in the case of South Africa. Here, she branded the ANC and an imprisoned Nelson Mandela as ‘terrorists’, offered implicit support for the apartheid state, and resisted international efforts to impose sanctions.
This black and white mentality skewed her reaction to another history-making event: the fall of the Berlin Wall. While other Western leaders had the courage to embrace a new territorial and political reality in the European heartland, and to meet the aspirations of Germans on both sides, Margaret Thatcher was wary about a reunified Germany and actively sought to prevent it. This resistance partially stemmed from her own memories of the Second World War, but also from a fear that a united Germany would somehow forestall Britain’s return to greatness on the world stage. Thus, while Thatcher is often credited with foresight in her favourable disposition towards Mikhail Gorbachev – seeing him as a man with whom the West could ‘do business’ – she was much less imaginative in seeing how the most visible division caused by the Cold War could be overcome.
Uncompromising. Steadfast. These traits can sometimes be virtuous. But they can also cause leaders to misread the events and trends that will have the longest impact. When I think of the late twentieth century, and its key moments, two images always come to mind: young East and West Berliners in the fall of 1989, hacking holes in the wall that had kept them apart, and Nelson Mandela in February 1990 walking slowly – in the sunshine – in freedom.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper prides itself on having a “principled” foreign policy and for taking “clear positions” in the defence of human rights. Why, then, did Foreign Minister John Baird barely utter a peep in public about Bahrain’s terrible human rights record when he visited that country on Wednesday? More …
When Arab Spring protests spread to this Persian Gulf state in 2011, Bahrain’s government responded with deadly force, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and other forms of ill treatment, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many other independent observers.
Although Bahrain’s government later promised to implement reforms – including accountability at the uppermost levels of the country’s security forces for abuses against protesters, and the release of unjustly imprisoned opposition and human rights leaders – it has taken little action to fulfil these pledges. The regime’s latest initiative has been to launch a “National Dialogue” with opposition groups, but whether it will lead to substantial improvements in human rights, or simply produce talk without concrete action, remains to be seen.
In the past, Mr. Baird has made it abundantly clear that he favours action over talk. Just last week, for instance, he explained that Canada was withdrawing from the UN convention on desertification because it was a “talkfest.”
Moreover, both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said, many times, that Canada will “speak clearly” and without “moral ambivalence” in defence of what is “principled and just” – including freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – regardless of whether doing so is “popular, convenient or expedient.”
In practice, however, the application of these principles has been haphazard and contradictory. In some cases, Ottawa has reacted with startling intensity. In January, for instance, when Sri Lanka’s parliament dismissed the country’s chief justice, Mr. Baird responded with rhetorical guns blazing. He “condemned” the move – strong language in international diplomacy – and bluntly called on the Sri Lankan government to “change course immediately.”
In other cases, however, the Canadian response has been muted and feeble. Ottawa has little to say about Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. Canada even refrained from criticizing the extra-legal detention of a Canadian citizen by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
Bahrain is the latest example of inconsistency. After meeting with Bahraini officials, Mr. Baird issued a statement with a single, milquetoast paragraph on human rights and the rule of law. “I was pleased to learn of progress on the National Dialogue, which is meant to ease sectarian tensions and advance the rights of all Bahrainis,” he said, not even hinting at the continued illegal incarceration of political activists. “Frank and constructive dialogue between the government and the nation’s young people is especially crucial for Bahrain as it works toward stability, prosperity and pluralism.”
Perhaps Mr. Baird believed that he had good reasons – such as strengthening the commercial and strategic relationship between Canada and Bahrain – to avoid mentioning the country’s human-rights record. Such calculations are the stuff of foreign policy, a domain in which competing imperatives are common. However, when it comes from a Canadian government that has repeatedly and sanctimoniously proclaimed that it will never “go along to get along,” this silence is jarring.
It also reflects a deeper problem in Canadian foreign policy. After more than seven years in office, the ruling Conservatives remain uncomfortable with diplomacy. Their default orientation is to divide the world into friends and enemies – white hats and black hats. When they are faced with competing imperatives and nuances, they seem to have difficulty calibrating their positions.
As a result, Canada lurches around the world like a drunk, sometimes shouting and haranguing, and sometimes whispering conspiratorially. One day we praise the UN desertification convention; the next day we reject it as worthless and stomp away. No one knows what to expect from Canada anymore – except unpredictability and tactlessness.
Canada is one of the oldest democracies in the world. We have a proud tradition of effective, sustained, sophisticated international diplomacy. Surely, we can do better than this.
I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the Economic Research Forum in Kuwait City, hosted by the Arab Fund for Economic Development in early March. The forum brings together leading economists and analysts to discuss the Middle East region. When it came time to assess Egypt’s economic and political situation, it was hard to find too many optimists in the room. To say that Egypt’s economy is suffocating under the weight of a looming fiscal and political crisis is an understatement. Egypt is on the verge of a real fiscal cliff; if it goes over, the transition from authoritarianism to democracy will be fatally undermined. More …
The coming fiscal meltdown is linked to the Morsi government’s continuing political and security failures, which have greatly affected confidence in the Egyptian economy. According to some accounts, Egypt lost $20-$30 billion dollars of foreign exchange reserves in the first two years of its transition and now has only $13.5 billion left in its coffers. Hard currency is also in short supply as domestic and international investors’ trust in the government has plummeted, leading to capital flight.
The fiscal cliff did not appear out of nowhere–wealthy Egyptians and international investors have been slowly taking their savings out of the Egyptian economy for some time. From the outset of the revolution, many feared (whether rightly or wrongly remains to be seen) that the Muslim Brotherhood would soon turn to draconian economic nationalization schemes–much like Gamal Abdel Nasser did with the economic elite in the 1950s–and consequently began transferring their wealth abroad. The result? An Egyptian stock exchange that is anemic at best.
The Muslim Brotherhood has not managed to stem the outflow of confidence and funds from Egypt’s economy because the more frustrated the people become, the more wealthy Egyptians fear the government will target them in a political witch-hunt for benefactors of Mubarak-era corruption, in order to deflect public pressure. The Egyptian government’s recent announcement that it will fine members of the wealthy Sawiris family for unpaid taxes is a case in point. While these measures appeal to the Brotherhood’s populist base, which demands compensation for years of crony capitalism, they also warn off international investors and further alienate Egypt’s economic and financial elite.
The prices of imported goods keep fluctuating upward as the market value of the Egyptian pound declines in value. The extent of the economic uncertainty has brought the domestic economy to a standstill, as previously announced expansions of capital and investment have been stopped. Compounding the fiscal crunch is the loss of tourism income, which on average fueled a quarter of Egypt’s economic earnings and served as a key means of capturing foreign exchange. The suspension of much Western financial aid only adds insult to injury. To put i simply, Egypt is nearing bankruptcy.
Unable to implement the difficult pre-loan conditions required to get cheaper credit from the IMF, Egypt’s interest payments on the private market have become extremely high. High rates worsened an already large public debt problem, driven largely by the societal expectation of government subsidies. Energy subsidies account for approximately 80 per cent of the government’s subsidy bills; food subsidies account for less but are still significant. Both pose a real socio-political challenge.
Low foreign exchange reserves and a lack of willing creditors means that in the next few months, Egyptians will face rolling electric blackouts, fuel shortages leading to industrial stoppages and long queues for vehicles, and worsening unemployment. Egypt is also the world’s largest importer of wheat, which it uses in large part to make bread that can be sold at subsidized prices to the growing masses of the poor. The foreign exchange crisis has already created wheat shortages in food manufacturing chains. It will take only a few more months for this to hit the street level at which point no more subsidized bread will be available on market shelves. With so many poor Egyptians (currently estimated at more than 20 million) who depend on bread as their major source of calories, Egypt will confront starvation on a scale it has never experienced.
Most economists believe Egypt is approaching a fiscal cliff and that this has the potential to create economic–not to mention geopolitical–shockwaves that will spread throughout the Middle East. So far, the Egyptian government has failed to secure a badly needed IMF agreement for $4.8 billion. But even if the recent request for the return of an IMF team is initiated, this will not be finalized for another eight weeks at which point it will likely be too late to avert a crisis. Egypt’s only remaining benefactors are the oil-producing Arab countries in the Gulf and they are getting tired of bankrolling a country while getting nothing in return. Sly media comments about the financial vultures of the Gulf taking advantage of Egypt’s ailing economy to buy political influence may keep them invested a while longer, but their patience is wearing thin.
On his recent trip to the region, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry freed up $190 million in cash transfers as a sign of good faith, but made clear that the U.S. will not release the promised $1 billion (this would be specific debt “forgiveness grant”, to be used and administered by the U.S. for implementing education policies and others) until serious economic and security reforms are enacted.
The current chaos suggests reform is a distant prospect. But Egypt, a land of 86 million people in the heart of the Middle East, is simply too important to fail. Great political and regional chaos will follow if it does. The Morsi government must find ways to demonstrate its commitment to addressing Egypt’s economic and political challenges if it wants the U.S. and the IMF to extend the lifeline that Egypt so badly needs.
What is up with the Harper government pulling Canada out of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification? Is he that vexed by climate change politics? Oh, no, it is just poorly spent money. Given that every country in the United Nations (even the U.S.) supports this effort except Canada now, why take the step of putting Canada into the “pro-desertification” camp? More …
Sure, that is unfair, but much of Harper’s politics is ‘us or them’, ‘with us or against us’. Anyone remember his party’s take on those opposed to his party’s take on internet regulation? They called opponents of the effort supporters of child porn. And, as Thomas Homer-Dixon notes, those opposed to Keystone are environmental extremists. So, if you are against the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, does that not make you pro-desert? Just asking.
This reminds me of the penny-wise, pound-foolish effort by Donald Rumsfeld to pull the U.S. out of every overseas obligation it had made back when he was Secretary of Defense. Repeatedly in 2001-2002, during my year on the Joint Staff, I had to respond to a “snowflake” memo from Rumsfeld, with the basic proposition of ending all multilateral efforts around the world. The memo contained a list of most American military deployments and asked which ones should be kept, ignoring the realities that most of these deployments had maximal political payoffs for minimal investments, such as four or so officers participating in the East Timeor effort. The U.S. military, through my memo and paperwork, pushed back, not once or twice but three times.
Is this because of climate change? That’s one hypothesis making the rounds:
The government’s decision to pull Canada out of the convention came just one month before a major scientific gathering to be hosted by the Bonn-based secretariat of the UN convention.
The meeting would have forced Canada to confront scientific analysis on the effects of climate change, droughts and encroaching deserts. The Harper government has been vilified an as outlier on climate change policy in past international meetings.
Maybe, but that is still damned silly. Canada is going to face criticism on climate change whether it belongs to this organization or not. Actually more so now. Now Canada will be attracting much attention because it does stand out so, the only country in the world no longer in the anti-desertification fight. Still, it may be the case that there is a sincere effort here to avoid supporting international organizations that are lending legitimacy to the idea that there is climate change going on, and that countries should be cooperating to address it.
Perhaps the government is either still feeling hurt because Canada did not get into last round of the UN Security Council. But that would mean that the Harper government is spiteful, right?
This could also be part of a larger, equally sincere effort to spurn multilateralism, a very Liberal value. Given that the Harper government has spent far, far more on memorializing the War of 1812 than it costs to belong to this convention on desertification, maybe this is just one more way they are trying to alter Canadian nationalism and identity.
One can go through the list of Canadian efforts under Liberal governments to build a more cooperative world, from Pearsonian peacekeeping to the fight to ban landmines. These helped not only define the Liberals as a party supportive of international cooperation, but also helped to define Canada’s place in the world as a builder of multilateralism. Given that the Conservatives have sought to erase Liberal legacies everywhere else in the Canadian political system, including putting ‘Royal’ back into the names of the navy and air force, it makes sense that they do so here as well.
The truly strange thing in all of this is that Canada must be a multilateral country: it is just not big enough to get what it wants on its own. Bilateralism often puts the weaker country at a disadvantage. Only countries like the U.S. or China can go it alone in the world, and even there, Bush’s unilateralism did not work out so well.
The money involved might seem like a lot, as long as you don’t compare it to anything else. But compared to the political capital now burned by being the only country to pull out, this is just heaps of dumb. Even if you want to protect miners, the oil industry and whatnot, there are better ways than this. But calculating the diplomatic costs of this would require consulting someone… like the folks at Foreign Affairs. And that is just not the way this government operates.