A fix-it guide for Canada’s next foreign minister

In an open letter to whoever may be foreign minister after the October vote, Jocelyn Coulon offers six suggestions for a much-needed revamp of Canada’s approach to foreign policy.

By: /
25 September, 2019
(L-R) E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida pose for a family photo during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi
By: Jocelyn Coulon

Researcher, author and former advisor to Justin Trudeau and Stéphane Dion.

I want to congratulate you on your (re)appointment as minister of foreign affairs.

It will not have escaped you that Canada’s international relations are in serious turmoil. The situation you inherit is unique and disturbing: for the first time in recent history, Canada has a complicated, if not awful, relationship with the four major powers of today, the United States, China, Russia, and India. And never has Canada counted so few friends ready, at least publicly, to stand by it in difficult times.

How did we get here? For nearly half a century, the two major parties that have successively ruled the country — the Conservatives and the Liberals — have shared the same ideas about Canada’s place in the world. They defended a committed Canada on the international scene and a strong supporter of multilateralism, disarmament, peacekeeping and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Of course, Canada was not neutral. It was aligned with the United States and a member of NATO. At the same time, it never sought to poison relations between powers. Its diplomacy contributed to a strategy of constructive engagement to avoid conflicts that could have been devastating during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, this policy of caution and dialogue has been replaced by dogmatic positions, which have aroused and then aggravated quarrels with many countries. Such a break with the previous policy came at the time of the election of the Conservatives in 2006 and has continued under the Liberal government since 2015.

“A policy of caution and dialogue has been replaced by dogmatic positions.”

Stephen Harper had a strong orientation to his foreign policy. He emphasized the “warlike” side of our historical experience in order to promote and defend a “moral” vision of international relations. Justin Trudeau has focused his foreign policy agenda on active participation in multilateralism, disarmament negotiations, peace operations and the defence of human rights. And, like Harper, he injected his approach with a good dose of morality.

Paradoxically, in both cases, the direction adopted did not produce the desired results, simply because the two governments engaged in moral crusades which impacted Canada’s relations with several great powers. China, Russia and India have been on various occasions ignored, sanctioned, slandered or even humiliated by incompetent and sufficient Canadian politicians.

Canadian foreign policy now needs a good deal of realism. It is not a question of opposing morality and interests, but of recognizing that a policy limited to values narrows the field of action and masks the specificities of each situation.

Now that you are in office, get rid of the ideological heaviness and the podium effects of election campaigns. Your government must strive to review the conduct and substance of our foreign policy. To meet all these challenges, I suggest six ways to improve Canada’s foreign policy in the years ahead:

1. Make better use of the foreign service.

As minister, you lead a few thousand diplomats who are Canada’s eyes and ears in the world. They are an inexhaustible source of ideas that must be exploited. Unfortunately, the two previous governments have neglected this natural resource. They gave priority to the diplomat-technicians, those who have mastered the art of responding immediately to expectations, and marginalized the diplomat-thinkers, those who are able to decode future trends and help Canada find its path.

Restore balance, stimulate debate, listen to those on the ground. Also consult the experts, they have ideas. Increase our diplomatic presence on some continents, particularly in Africa, where Canada’s footprint is slowly fading. Remember, we are a declining middle power. By 2050, we will no longer be one of the top 20 economies in the world. Active and creative diplomacy could help Canada continue to distinguish itself.

2. Diaspora groups alone shouldn’t dictate foreign policy.

Our foreign policy is too often a victim of passions. This is clearly seen in the place occupied by lobbies representing diasporas whose concerns are sometimes in opposition to our national interests. Foreign policy is not intended to promote particularism, although it is tempting for political parties to woo the vote of ethnic communities. But the defence of the national interest demands a cold and dispassionate look at the affairs of the world. You will have to keep away from these influences and keep in plain sight only the interest of the country.

3. Don’t be afraid to be bold.

It is wrong to claim, as you can often read or hear, that Canadian foreign policy has been built primarily on the defence and promotion of democratic values. If that had been the case, we would never have established relations with the former Soviet Union, China and all the dictatorial regimes that have long constituted the bulk of the members of the international community.
Therefore, given the current international situation, we must talk to everyone, even those who are unpleasant to us, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea. Remember, a few years ago, the United States refused any contact with the Taliban because they were considered terrorists. Until recently, Washington was actively negotiating with them peace-building in Afghanistan, just as terrorists they remain. Do not hesitate to take risks, to be bold.

4. The reality is, the US will always be a vital partner.

The United States will remain Canada’s most important economic, diplomatic and military partner for the next century. Do not give in to the temptation to make teary speeches about our desire for independence from our neighbour to the south. You will be applauded, but will not be taken seriously, as our dependence on the United States is unavoidable. Rather, take concrete steps to move towards independence by working, for example, on our necessary economic and trade diversification. So, despite the tension following the arrest of Huawei’s vice president, at the request of the Americans, China remains one of our business destinations, but there are others to explore in Asia and in Africa.

5. Reframe the debates that should unite, not divide, us.

Conflict resolution, peacekeeping, disarmament, the promotion of human rights, the reception of refugees and immigrants, and now the fight against climate change have been and are activities at the heart of our international action. However, over the past 15 years, they have all too often been the subject of ideological controversy between Conservatives and Liberals — useless and fruitless controversies that have damaged the image and reputation of our country. Re-examine them in a new light, without a crusading spirit.

6. The world is in constant flux, we need to provide our own perspective.

Finally, the challenge to the international order undermines our certainties. This subject is the most difficult you have to face. It requires in-depth reflection in order to understand the causes and to provide answers. This year we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the post-Cold War world has not yet reached its final form because currently no state or state configuration has neither the will nor the capacity to impose one.

You see it every day, everyone tries in their own way to shape this new world order in the making. Canada should not stay on the sidelines. It should provide its own perspective to participate in the game and find its bearings in the world of tomorrow.
Good luck.

This article is based on a piece first published in L'actualité.

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