Canadian Foreign Policy: Time for a Revolution

By Simpson, Jeffrey | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Canadian Foreign Policy: Time for a Revolution


Simpson, Jeffrey, Queen's Quarterly


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Canadians like to think of their country as an honest broker in the world, a nation with a long history of tolerance and fairness and a commitment to international aid and defence of democratic values. But in an increasingly competitive, dangerous, and environmentally imperilled globe, we face new challenges that require our immediate attention. Small countries that turn in on themselves--that waste decades as Canada did with constitutional and federal-provincial debates, and that seek to protect themselves from the world, rather than focusing internal efforts on competing within the world--are destined for long-term decline.

CANADIANS did not know--how could they have known?--that at the very moment they debated, approved, and ratified a free trade agreement with the United States, that the US was at the apogee of its power, from which it has slowly slid, and will continue to slide in the decades ahead.

Remember the context in the years of negotiation, ratification, and entry into force of the flee-trade deal: 1988-1992.

The United States was the only superpower, the USSR having imploded. The US was not only unchallenged militarily, it led an impressive coalition of nations to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The "peace dividend," courtesy of the Cold War's end, allowed some retrenchment in defence expenditures. Kuwait aside, there were few and mild military engagements that involved the United States, as in the Balkans and Haiti. The country, broadly defined, was at peace. Evidence of jihadi Islamic fundamentalism was beginning to emerge, but episodic attacks and internal intelligence briefings did not suggest a mortal threat, let alone the forthcoming "war on terror."

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China had begun its market liberalization policies a decade before, but it was too early to take the measure of those changes. And, anyway, the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989 made the Chinese regime look as unappealing as ever. What the killings and their aftermath seemed to have provoked internally was a re-dedication of the Chinese leadership to centralized political control and further market liberalization, although the Chinese political structure still controls large sectors of the economy and has decided not to allow its currency to float.

The 1990s, in retrospect, seemed in the United States like an updated version of the Roaring Twenties. The high technology boom lifted economic boats everywhere, from company productivity to Wall Street. Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Valley; these were among the iconic names of the high-tech boom. Meanwhile, angel capitalism spawned tech companies that spread from California to Utah, Arizona, and even to such sleepy, unlikely places as Bozeman, Montana, and Boise, Idaho. Endowments soared for US universities, or at least for the elite private and largest public ones.

Capital gains and overall economic growth swelled government revenues such that, starting in the late 1990s, the us federal budget actually showed a surplus. Interest rates were low, growth was strong, the budget was balanced, debt was being paid off, the rich were getting even richer, while the number of people in the lowest income groups fell. Could it have gotten any better? The country was so affluent, confident, and secure that it could allow itself the fixation on a president's sexual dalliances, up to and including impeachment proceedings in the Congress. Countries with serious problems/challenges can scarcely afford to waste time on such trivialities; countries with little to worry about apparently can afford such diversions.

It was to the United States, at that marvellous time, that Canadians fixed more firmly than ever their economic star through the free trade agreement. Free trade was the right option, given the others on offer. The economic benefits were real; the potential escape from more threatening US protectionism worth taking. …

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