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What Winston Churchill Could Teach Stephen Harper

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2 September, 2011
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered another glimpse into his foreign policy thinking yesterday – and it may help to explain why Canada’s foreign ministry has received so little love from his government.

On his way to a summit meeting in Paris, Harper stopped at an Italian airfield to thank Canadian military personnel who were part of the NATO operation in Libya. As it happens, the Prime Minister went beyond thanking the troops. The fact that there is now “new hope” in Libya, he declared, “gives some proof to the old saying, ‘A handful of soldiers is better than a mouthful of arguments.’ For the Gaddafis of this world pay no attention to the force of argument. The only thing they get is the argument of force.”

To appreciate the resonance of that declaration with Harper’s larger view of foreign affairs, it is helpful to recall an interview he gave to Macleans a couple of months ago. In it, he set out the dark vision of a Manichean world in which the forces of good and ill are locked in continual struggle. Against the background of this ongoing conflict, he further asserted, the use of armed force for righteous causes has defined Canada as a nation.

Turning back to Libya, it is true that Gaddafi needed to be confronted, because he had paid little heed to international demands that he stop attacking Libyan citizens. But Harper’s remarks yesterday went further. Indeed, he came close to lampooning the idea of diplomacy itself. Who needs a “mouthful of arguments” if you can land a good punch? It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the snickering behind that quotation.

Nor does it take much imagination to think of alternative quotations Harper could have used in his speech. Here’s one, for example, from a man who certainly knew how to land a punch, and whom the prime minister himself has described as “incomparable”: Winston Churchill.  The incomparable Churchill famously said this: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” That comes from someone who understood the terrible price of war.

Although it’s in little evidence these days, Canadians are actually pretty good at “jaw-jaw” in international relations. Our ability to use words to settle conflicts and advance our interests has defined this nation as much as, or more than, our wars have done.  That’s a part of our history – our diplomatic tradition – which Harper seems to be hiding behind his narrative of military prowess and sacrifice.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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