On Being a Positive Force [Reply to Conrad Black's Article Taking Canada Seriously, in Winter 1997-1998 Issue]

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Conrad Black (winter 1997-8) wants Canada to be a 'first level power, not just a middle power, and argues that, to be so, we must end the ambiguity about Quebec's future and stop the brain drain to the United States. He is probably right about this, although my own experience abroad suggests that Canada is admired in many countries partly because we are able to make a virtue of the Janus-like face we present to the world -- in peacekeeping for example -- and because the ambiguity contains or postpones separation, a fate that others have suffered. In any event, Canadian leaders have sought, consciously or not, to make Canada's role in world politics a source of pride for all Canadians, and have usually succeeded. But, I agree that, if we fail to maintain what unity we do have, our foreign policy will count for little in world affairs.

As for our relations with the United States, the pull of superior wealth and power will always be a major challenge. But whether this ought to lead us to build 'a system of civilized individualism,' as Black hopes, or to maintain at least a shell of collective responsibility for the well-being of our citizens, as I would prefer, is a question that can be argued elsewhere. Canada-United States relations, however, are obviously the first priority of Canadian foreign policy, and Black is right to emphasize them. To believe we ought to be 'supportive allies in all major issues external to North America' is another matter. Canadian governments have always walked a thin line between uneasy support and nervous doubt about American threat or use of force, direct or indirect, against weaker states, perceived either to be pawns in a game of great-power chess, as in Vietnam or Cuba, or as threats to American national interests, as in the case of Iraq. Where such use has some form of United Nations sanction, as it did in Korea and later in 1991 against Iraq, Canada has offered help. But otherwise we have preferred caution or to look the other way.

Black is especially critical of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's occasional efforts to soften the edges of American policies during the cold war, but let me assure him that, during the early Reagan period, when I was in Moscow, no member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was more eager to cut virtually all non-diplomatic ties with the USSR than was Canada. When tension rose to dangerous levels in 1983, Trudeau, aware that his personal reputation in Moscow continued to enjoy respect, embarked on a tour of world capitals to propose ways of reducing tensions. Whether or not his mission helped in the end to do so, it was hardly an attempt to placate the Soviet Union, as I know from my efforts to persuade them to co-operate. …