'Are We the Isolationists?' North American Isolationism in a Comparative Context

Article excerpt

Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Studies, Queen's University, Kingston. The author is grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Security and Defence Forum of Canada' Department of National Defence for research funding.

INTRODUCTION

Arecent report from the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has tarred Canada with an unusual brush, one bearing a trademark more commonly associated with the country's southern neighbour. The committee members, seeking to mobilize support for a significant increase in defence spending, do not mince words, for they believe that, as a result of a long and sorry period of underfunding of Canada's military, the country has reached a point at which it is appropriate to ask: 'are we the isolationists?'(1)

There are two ironies in their cri de coeur. The first is evident in the italicization of the question's pronoun. Normally, it is the United States that is so often viewed suspiciously by those who worry about an inward turn in foreign policy in North American (I will exclude Mexico from the discussion here, though when it comes to playing the ostrich in foreign and security policy, if that is what is implied by isolationism, it needs no instruction from either of its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement) accompanied by a rejection of the burdens of multilateralism. Note the senators: 'Many citizens - including Canadians - have found cause to worry over the years that U.S. leaders might back away from this team responsibility, bending to the strong strain of isolationism that has always run through American political thought. It would be more useful if thoughtful Canadians started directing their anxiety at the strong strain of isolationism that has been running through Canadian political practice in recent years.'(2)

The second irony inheres in the senators' remedy for the problems stemming from chronic underspending on defence: the withdrawal of all Canadian military personnel from duty overseas effective upon the completion of current tours, after which there should be a moratorium on any further overseas deployments for at least two years. The Canadian forces currently deploy about 2900 personnel in a variety of coalition, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and United Nations missions outside North America. The single largest commitment is some 1600 troops serving as part of NATO's Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, under the Canadian designation of 'Operation Palladium.' The irony here is that one historical hallmark of (North) American isolationism was an unwillingness or inability (or both) to make a commitment to a security presence overseas, particularly in Europe; thus the senators would perforce implement that which they denounce.

The committee members are not oblivious of this second irony, but they believe that a failure to retrench and recover will render the forces even less able to function as a factor in international security in years ahead. They liken the means by which such recovery can begin to a tactic popularized by former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, the 'Rope-a-Dope,' which saw the fighter cunningly retrench into the ropes, whence he would bob and weave, avoiding the punches of his hapless and tiring adversary, all the while restoring his own strength for his next, usually decisive, sally of punches. The committee members advocate a similar 'strategic retreat,' acknowledging that in the past it would have been taken as conclusive proof that the country had, indeed, gone isolationist.(3)

Absent from this controversial and strongly worded report, which restates an earlier call by the committee for an immediate injection of $4 billion in defence spending (in addition to the current amount of nearly $12 billion), is any inquiry into what, presumably, the new money is supposed to prevent or, in the extreme case, reverse - namely, the danger of Canada becoming (or remaining, as the case may be) 'isolationist. …