David Bercuson’s Conservative Foreign Policy

By: /
1 September, 2011
By: David Bercuson

What, in your view, are the principal flaws in the liberal internationalist philosophy that has guided Canadian foreign policy for much of the past 20 years?

I don’t think there are any principal flaws in the concept of liberal internationalism (LI). I understand LI to be the whole complex structure that came out of the Second World War, and, specifically, which put flesh onto the concept of the Atlantic Charter. Basically, the notion, as I understand it, is that Canada supports certain aims as necessary for international peace and prosperity. These would be freer trade, freer flow of information, ideas, and people across international boundaries, some form of workable collective security, etc. The whole Gray Lecture thing. I think it’s all still valid.

What I believe went wrong sometime in the late sixties (and continued until about 2004) was that LI also depended on credible military forces as a means of defending the LI regime when necessary. Former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson understood that military power provided the glint of steel that made diplomacy work, as one wag once suggested. Pierre Trudeau did not – at least not at first. I don’t know what Jean Chrétien thought, except that nothing that happened outside Canada’s borders was worth losing an election – or at least exacerbating national divisions – for Bill Graham and Paul Martin started to get things back on track, in my view. They laid the groundwork for the Tories in being more pragmatic within the larger parameters of a LI foreign policy.

In recent history, a wide range of conservative thinkers (Burke, Strauss, Kissinger, Waltz) have influenced markedly divergent western foreign-policy agendas (Nixon, Thatcher, Major, Mulroney, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Cameron). What, for you, are the principles that should define small-c conservative foreign policy?

I’d echo Denis Ross and call it neo-liberalism. Pursue LI goals as we have for the last 70 years, but recognize that we must be wary of certain nations, trends, and “isms,” that the world is full of unfriendly and corrupt people, that some folks out there want to do harm to us, and that we sometimes must stand on principle and even fight for what we believe in. Closely related is a rejection of relativism. Some stuff is just plain wrong, period. And some stuff is just plain right.

How do you imagine Canada implementing these principles over the next eight years?

I’d like to see a foreign policy based on national interests. I also believe that achieving and maintaining LI is a principal Canadian interest. There are others that are obvious, such as working hard every day to ensure a good relationship with both Congress and the executive branch in the Great Republic. I’d summarize it as an “eyes open” and pragmatic approach within the broad boundaries of Canadian interests and LI. As to what our principal national interests are, I go back to the Gray Lecture. I don’t think they are really any different today than they were when St. Laurent first enunciated them.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter