Libya and Canada’s “new” foreign policy

By: /
24 August, 2011
By: André Pratte
Editorial Pages Editor (Éditorialiste en chef) at La Presse

It is a question of days, if not hours, before Colonel Gadhafi’s regime is toppled by its numerous enemies. This would not have been achieved without the decisive support of NATO forces, including six Canadian fighter jets. In Monday’s Globe and Mail, we find two very different views about Canada’s participation in this UN sanctioned mission.

An article by reporter Bill Curry quotes academics and opposition MP’s who think that in deciding to be part of such a mission, the Harper government produced “a very significant shift in Canadian foreign policy.” According to Christian Leuprecht, of Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, “what we see in Libya, previous governments very likely would have sat out.” The report recalls Tory campaign ads glorifying Canada’s increased military strength. The Conservative government has also made a point of “taking sides”, for instance in the Middle East conflict, instead of playing the part of an “honest broker”.

So, is Canada’s involvement in Libya another step towards a more aggressive international posture?  Not according to Lloyd Axworthy. Writing in the op-ed page of the same newspaper, he defends the Libyan NATO mission as a demonstration of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle first put forward by Canada while he was Foreign Affairs minister. “We are seriously engaged in a resetting of the international order toward a more humane, just world, boasts Mr Axworthy. “It calls for immediate and appropriate action as called for in R2P.”

There is no doubt that Stephen Harper’s government’s language has been more favourable to military action than Canadians are accustomed to. But its actions? The decision to go to war against the Taliban was not taken by a conservative government. Neither was the critical one to take command of NATO’s operations in the dangerous province of Kandahar. Last spring, Michael Ignatieff’s liberals campaigned against Canada’s participation in the F35 fighter program, conveniently ignoring the fact that the first steps on this very costly road had been taken by a liberal government. I’m not saying I approve of Mr. Harper’s foreign policy. In fact, I often find it overly ideological and simplistic. I’m just asking the question to the readers and participants of this blog: is the Conservative foreign policy so different in fact from the traditional Canadian stand?

In answering the question, we have to take into account the fact that international politics and armed conflicts are not at all what they used to be. Public opinion in democracies does not tolerate that their governments ignore the sufferings of people under the boot of dictators or displaced by civil wars. Canadians may be proud of our role in traditional peacekeeping but when they learn of what goes on in Rwanda, Kosovo or Libya, they insist that the international community act immediately. In today’s world, where we learn in seconds what goes on in any corner of the world, waiting for a truce between combatants is considered a morally unacceptable option. So we have to wonder: faced with the same facts as the ones Stephen Harper had to consider in the case of Libya, what would Trudeau or Pearson have done?

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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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.

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