Why We Must Not Abandon Canada's Activist Foreign Policy

By Clark, Joe Louis | Canadian Speeches, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Why We Must Not Abandon Canada's Activist Foreign Policy


Clark, Joe Louis, Canadian Speeches


Former Prime Minister, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs

Now is not the time to abandon the activist foreign policy that has gained Canada such outstanding leadership in international affairs. Despite the emphasis on trade and economic matters, an activist role in diplomacy and global politics is seen as crucial in a world shrunk by technology and wracked by tension and conflicts. And despite increased difficulties, both domestic and foreign, an activist foreign policy is said to offer Canada greater benefits than ever. Speech to The Institut Quebecois des Hautes Etudes Internationale, Laval University, Quebec City, February 5.

I am honored to be back at Laval today, with the Institut Quebecois des Hautes Etudes Internationale, and want to try to put the issue of trade in some perspective, and emphasize the over-riding importance of broad foreign policy.

Rather often, in Canada, foreign and trade policy have been developed in parallel, rather than in harmony. They sometimes marched to different drummers and, when their rhythms clashed, ministers made choices.

Sometimes those choices placed political goals ahead of trade advantages. For example, despite the clear economic costs, the government in which I was foreign minister chose to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, and, again, chose to decline Canadian government participation in research for the strategic defence initiative, or "star wars."

On other occasions, trade purposes could only be accomplished politically. That was clearly the case with the first free trade agreement, between Canada and the United States. A trade issue became a foreign policy priority.

I was often the minister making the political case, the argument that more than money was at stake. That was my job, and my belief, but it also reflected my interpretation of Canada's tradition in international affairs.

Most of our major international decisions as a country were not driven by economic or commercial considerations -- for example, the decision to fight in two world wars and in Korea; the leading role in establishing the United Nations and NATO, and drafting the International Declaration of Human Rights; the opposition to Suez and the virtual invention of peacekeeping; the active role in the Colombo Plan and the establishment of the Canadian International Development Agency; the renewal of the Commonwealth in the fight against apartheid, and the creation of la Francophonie; and the commitment of successive governments to multilateral agencies and international agreements.

To use a simple phrase, if our trade activities fed Canada, those political activities defined Canada, as a distinct community in the world.

I do not dispute for a moment the central importance of trade and economics to modern Canada. That is self-evident. But a habit has developed recently, as we face fiscal realities and celebrate economics, of denigrating politics and diplomacy, and that is a mistake.

In this complex and turbulent modern world, political skills are at least as critical as economic skills; diplomacy is at least as important as trade. In Canada's case, our diplomatic skills and reputation are more unique than our trade and economic attributes, and we should be careful to promote those unique Canadian advantages, and make the most of our reputation.

Trade policy is not a substitute for foreign policy -- it is, rather, a tributary of foreign policy. The "make or break" issues in international affairs are political, not commercial. More specifically, the impact of "market forces" depends on the way we deal with international political and security issues. If those issues are managed, the market system will do well; if they are not, it will not.

Let me demonstrate my argument about the salience of foreign policy by referring to Asia, which we have come to see so emphatically in economic terms.

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