Common Folks Making Foreign Policy A 'Round-Table' Approach Pioneered in Canada Is Now Getting Attention

By Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Common Folks Making Foreign Policy A 'Round-Table' Approach Pioneered in Canada Is Now Getting Attention


Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If war is too important to leave to the generals, foreign policy may be too important to leave to the guys in the striped pants.

Several countries are trying new ways to involve their citizens on international issues - especially the "new" issues less easily addressed through traditional channels, such as immigration, science, and the environment.

Canada has established itself as a leader in this field, sometimes called "public diplomacy." In round-table discussions and other forums, knowledgeable citizens have joined politicians and diplomats not only to consult but actually to make foreign policy. Just days after a discussion on East Timor in February, for example, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy issued a statement that followed the citizen recommendations very closely. Both the statement and citizen recommendations supported the United Nations tripartite process, demanded an immediate cease- fire, and called for establishment of a UN presence in East Timor. Moreover, the Canadian model is having wide influence. "We consider Canada among the pioneers of this concept, especially since Minister Axworthy took over," says Rdiger Lemp, an official at the German Embassy in Ottawa. As an example of German initiatives inspired by Ottawa, Mr. Lemp cites a broad public forum in Germany this month on global issues, including the environment. One center's key role The Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development (CCFPD) is at the heart of Ottawa's efforts to include citizen policymakers. Over the past 15 years, says CCFPD national director Steven Lee, "There's been an awareness that the public can add value to thinking about foreign policy." Canada's internationalism is related to its nationalism, reflecting both altruism and the desire to make a distinctive, maple- leaf-shaped mark in the world. Axworthy has cut a high profile by championing such "human security" issues as banning land mines and controlling small arms. His ideas about "soft power" have been criticized by conservatives as naive or worse. But in the main, his approach connects with deeply held Canadian values. Last spring the center held a series of discussions called National Forum Meetings to gather citizen input on Arctic policy. Local government officials, economic development activists, journalists, academics, and even a sprinkling of high school students took part. Results included a discussion paper candid enough to ask whether circumpolar policy has "any relevance or importance for the overwhelming majority of Canadians," and to ask further, "If so, what is it, and how can Canadians be convinced?

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