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Do We Need a Foreign Policy Review? Afraid So…

Do we need a foreign policy review? Two prominent Canadians say no. Jennifer Welsh says yes.

By: /
29 January, 2012
By: Jennifer Welsh
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

A number of commentators, including former Canadian ambassador to Washington Derek Burney and Carleton University professor Fen Osler Hampson, have recently lamented the Harper government’s decision to engage in a review of the country’s foreign policy – with the end result likely to be a new “Foreign Policy Plan.” These critics call on Canada to focus on “doing” foreign policy, rather than “talking” about it, particularly if that talking involves any mention of Canadian values.

Call me a sucker for punishment, but I believe we actually do need to review foreign policy, and much better than we have in the past. Burney and Osler Hampson’s argument that Canada has engaged in strategic reviews more than any other country of “comparable size” needs greater scrutiny. Prior to 2005, when the Martin government issued its International Policy Statement (full disclosure: I was actively involved in producing this statement), Canada had not formally reviewed its foreign policy for a decade. Is this the definition of “frequent,” especially when the intervening events (like 9/11) and power shifts between 1995 and 2005 created critical new imperatives for our foreign policy?


I couldn’t agree more with the critique that Canada needs to focus on doing – rather than “promising to do.” But unless foreign policy is to be wholly reactive (and I’m not suggesting that it often isn’t, particularly when unforeseen events like tsunamis and revolutions occur), then it must be guided by a set of priorities and assumptions. Given how much money is at stake – across a variety of federal government departments – why shouldn’t these priorities and assumptions be made transparent? Moreover, why shouldn’t they guide the tough decisions about resources and effort that political leaders and civil servants will need to make? Burney and Osler Hampson write that future global involvement for Canada “should be calibrated against judicious assessment of our capacities and our interests, and not a Boy Scout inclination to be helpful fixers everywhere.” While I largely agree with this point of view, I don’t see how such judicious judgments can be made without a strategic direction.

Several of Canada’s core allies, like the United States, regularly issue National Security Strategies. The Bush Administration’s NSS of 2002 was a landmark document, signaling to countries the world over that the U.S. was taking a much more muscular and pre-emptive approach toward threats to its most sacred interests and values, and re-orienting the vast American government towards realizing those goals. Though Canada clearly isn’t a superpower, and shouldn’t inflate what it can do globally, it has the same obligation to think strategically, and to develop the ability and “culture” (as Irvin Studin has suggested) to set up and operationalize a set of priorities. (I’m not suggesting for a moment, by the way, that Canada should match in tone or substance the U.S. National Security Strategies – only that it should subject itself to the same discipline of analyzing the strategic environment, identifying opportunities, clarifying interests, setting priorities, and assessing capability gaps.)  

Underpinning much of the skepticism about conducting foreign policy reviews is the sentiment that “we already know what our real interests are,” and that we simply need to get busy with promoting and safeguarding them. But we need to question that assumption. The national interest is not so obvious and immutable. It involves some constant features, but how it is articulated can – reasonably – vary. Beyond saying that Canada should pursue greater prosperity and security (who could really argue with that?), what are the concrete priorities our country should be identifying? Burney and Osler Hampson claim that the pre-eminent focus on the U.S. is self-evident and beyond serious debate.  The U.S. is our most important economic partner, period. And on the political side, we have influence in the world on the basis of how well we influence our big neighbour to the south.

Without wishing to minimize the relationship with Canada’s crucial ally, I respectfully submit that these “truths” are not so self-evident. A number of commentators have been contending for some time that Canada should diversify and build new economic relationships. A decade ago, we were still being branded as Trudeau-esque “Third Option” advocates, though that argument is starting to run a little thin, given the rise of China, India and Brazil (not to mention others). It is astounding that the Harper government’s draft FPP was amended to call for a new engagement strategy with Asia only after the Obama administration signaled that it was going to delay a decision on the Keystone Pipeline project. This is the epitome of short-termism – not strategic thinking. Economic and demographic trends have pointed for at least two decades to a need for Canada to think truly globally, and for its businesspeople to stop kidding themselves that expansion into the U.S. is a “global” strategy.

Let’s focus for a moment on the energy data. Recent projections from British Petroleum’s chief economist show that the U.S. is on a clear path that will greatly reduce its demand for oil imports. (Indeed, these estimates show that North America will become almost totally self-sufficient in energy within two decades, due to biofuels, shale gas, and unconventional oil.) In the United States, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology has allowed it to release huge reserves of unconventional shale gas – meaning that it will soon become a net exporter of gas. Now that same technology is being applied to shale oil, with dramatic implications for domestic crude output. Of course, Canada will continue to be the key source of any imports the U.S. does need. But in relative terms, markets elsewhere are much more promising. By 2020, China will need to import 80 per cent of its oil and more than 40 per cent of its gas.

Politically, it’s also debatable whether Canada should seek to have influence solely via the U.S. Yes, we will engage in many initiatives together – as we did in Libya. And yes, the values we believe are the recipe for stable societies (democracy, the rule of law, respect for minority rights) are virtually the same as those guiding U.S. foreign policy – a fact many Canadians would like to ignore. But on many crucial issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation, a U.S-focused diplomatic strategy will not yield results. China and India are nuclear powers too, which demonstrates that the imperative to “engage” with these rising powers has to move beyond the minimal objective of tapping into their markets. Thankfully, the Harper government has begun to think about other bilateral relationships that will matter to our prosperity and security – though the current version of the FPP identifies 12 countries as priorities (a sign that we need further focus in terms of where to put our energies).  

Foreign policy reviews, like that of 2005, do involve a bit of navel-gazing. And the result of the Martin review process could have been better. While the final draft was in the respectable range of 30 pages (compared to the behemoth draft we started with!), it still had too many priorities. It was also too timid in its approach to issues like the environment. But the exercise prompted serious debate about choices – and it allowed politicians, civil servants, and the public to engage in that debate.

Three of the four key themes of the emerging Foreign Policy Plan are expressly political: fostering democracy, standing up for human rights, and promoting religious freedom. These are strong, almost “fighting” words. They also don’t provide any answers to how those goals might be pursued. (Europeans and George W. Bush-era Americans, for example, had quite different version of how to democratize.) If Prime Minister Harper wants to take Canada down a road that is more consciously driven by values (and a particular set of values), then the direction of that road should be subjected to rigorous discussion across government, and with Canadians.  That, for better or for worse, is what accountability means.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

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