Canadian Foreign Policy: `Show Me the Money'

By Brecher, Irving | Behind the Headlines, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Canadian Foreign Policy: `Show Me the Money'


Brecher, Irving, Behind the Headlines


Simple Simon met a pieman

Going to the fair;

Says Simple Simon to the pieman,

Let me taste your ware.

Says the pieman to Simple Simon,

`Show me first your penny';

Says Simple Simon to the pieman,

`Indeed I have not any.'

Author Unknown

The federal election campaign of June 1997 generated a lot of noise on a wide variety of issues. But on questions of Canadian foreign policy, there was only a thundering silence.

This may not seem surprising. Understandably, the national unity issue emerged front and centre; and however much they may have tried, our political leaders could not sweep 1.5 million Canadians under the unemployment rug. Then, too, campaign rhetoric on public finance reached a new high - a huge number of Canadians were convinced that Ottawa could do virtually nothing about alleviating economic or social problems until draconian spending cuts had eliminated the federal deficit. Nonetheless, it is difficult to grasp the fact that foreign policy was almost totally ignored in a country which has traditionally taken great pride in its active role on the world stage.

Sure! The governing Liberals never ceased to proclaim that Canada is consistently ranked among the best countries in which to live. But if anyone believes that such statements, however accurate, shed sufficient light on Canadian foreign policy, then I am ready to sell him or her the Prince Edward Island-New Brunswick Confederation Bridge at a bargain-basement price.

The Mulroney Years

Let us take a few steps back to the government of Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives. There will be plenty of scope for historians to assess their impact on national unity, socio-economic progress, and public morality. I have a much narrower focus - the foreign-policy dimension during their time in office.

Ideas and questions about Canadian foreign policy had seen a resurgence during the years when the Liberals were in power under the leadership of Lester Pearson and then Pierre Trudeau. Strenuous efforts were made to define goals and priorities in Canada's international relations. Basically, there was a search for ways and means to reconcile short-term self-interest with long-term advancement in a peaceful, just, and prosperous world - an elusive search for Canadian trade, investment, and security gains joined with a successful projection of Canadian values abroad.

From this perspective, the middle and late 1980s can be viewed as an exciting period during which the federal government produced or sparked a number of substantial foreign policy studies and strongly urged Canadians to participate more actively in policy formation. A major effort was made to put more meat on the conceptual bones and to give the Canadian public a greater awareness of what goes on in this vital field. Nor was that all. Canada achieved world recognition as a promoter of international human rights and democratic values. It also undertook some important initiatives that were, I believe, entirely compatible with its foreign-policy goals: a free trade agreement with the United States, for example; a leadership role in the international economic boycott of South Africa's apartheid regime; full membership in the Organization of American States; establishing in Montreal a federally funded International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD).

There is, however, another side to this story. The most charitable way to describe the Canadian mission to Somalia is to speak of a well-intentioned, ill-prepared exercise in near-futility, with negative side-effects on Canada's national security. It is very difficult to be as charitable towards Ottawa's relations with China, Indonesia, and Cuba in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The record on China was particularly bleak. Canada - along with most of the international community - voiced the appropriate outrage over the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 and suspended high-level official contacts with Beijing. …

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Canadian Foreign Policy: `Show Me the Money'
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