Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy 40 Years On: Realism and Idealism in Canadian Foreign Policy

By Nossal, Kim Richard | International Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy 40 Years On: Realism and Idealism in Canadian Foreign Policy

Nossal, Kim Richard, International Journal

In 1965, James G. Eayrs was asked to give the Alan B. Plaunt memorial lectures.1 The lectures had been inaugurated in 1958, and were intended to focus on broad issues in Canadian political life. Eayrs would have been a logical person to invite to give the 1965 lectures. A well-known academic in the department of political economy at the University of Toronto, he had published a number of works on Canadian foreign policy, including a volume in the Canada in World Affairs series published by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, and The Art of the Possible, a pioneering exploration of the foreign policymaking process in Canada.2 Since 1959 he had been the co-editor of the International Journal. He was also well-known outside the university as an accomplished essayist whose commentaries on world affairs appeared in the popular press and were heard on CBC radio. Perhaps most importantly, in 1965 he had just won the governor general's literary award for non-fiction for In Defence of Canada: From the Great War to the Great Depression, a work that turned out to be the first volume of his magisterial five-volume exploration of Canadian defence policy in the 20th century.1

The two lectures were delivered at Carleton University in November 1965, and were published in 1966 as a slim 57-page volume-Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy.* As the title he selected suggests, Eayrs took the opportunity to explore the question of morality in world politics, particularly in contemporary statecraft.

The first lecture, "The ways of statecraft," began by reminding us of the widespread deception, treachery, and cruelty that is so much a mark of contemporary foreign policy. Eayrs provided a quick cook's tour of some of the most egregious examples of these essential characteristics of foreign policy, ending with a discussion of the cruelty-and immorality-of using the threat of the destructive power of nuclear weapons as a means of advancing national interests. The lecture concluded by looking at different ways of treating morality in statecraft.

The second lecture, "The ways of keeping faith," was a discussion of the difficulties faced by those who seek to be moral in world politics, and looking at how to keep the practitioners of statecraft moral. Examining the role of both the bureaucracy and the general public, Eayrs concluded that "neither the public service nor the public at large is specially equipped...to confront statesmen with their wrong-doing." Rather, in his view, that task was best left to intellectuals-particularly university professors. Indeed, the conclusion of the lecture was a spirited admonition to the intellectual to "keep faith" by refusing to enter the service of the state or consulting for government. Rather, he should maintain "his distance from those who want to buy his thoughts." The intellectual's obligation was thus to embrace the "intellect of commitment" and engage in "detached analysis and informed condemnation" of foreign policy.5

Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy, written at a time when the United States was dramatically increasing its military commitment to fight against an externally supported insurgency in Vietnam, reflects the degree to which normative issues were looming larger in Eayrs's work, reflected most clearly in the "informed condemnation" that marked his popular, more journalistic writings in the late 19605 and early 19705.'' Read four decades later, Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy still resonates, and not just because another American administration is enmeshed in another military campaign against an externally supported insurgency in Iraq. It resonates also because Eayrs's reflections on morality in foreign policy provide us with a useful framework for the assessment of Canadian statecraft over the last 40 years.


Eayrs's lectures reflected the common view in the academic discipline of international relations at the time that there were two broad historical approaches to the issue of morality in international politics- the realist and the idealist.

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Right and Wrong in Foreign Policy 40 Years On: Realism and Idealism in Canadian Foreign Policy


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