Ethical Values and Canadian Foreign Policy: Two Case Studies

By Pratt, Cranford | International Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Ethical Values and Canadian Foreign Policy: Two Case Studies


Pratt, Cranford, International Journal


IT IS WIDELY EXPECTED THAT SOMETIME IN 2001 there will be a review of Canadian foreign aid policies. In anticipation, Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) are mobilizing to do what they can to ensure that there is no substantial retreat from the putative humanitarian objectives of Canadian aid. Now is perhaps a good time to ask how much success civil society groups have had in the past in promoting a more ethically responsible Canadian foreign policy. A partial answer can be found by looking at their sustained efforts over several decades to influence Canadian policies on two major foreign policy issues in which one might expect that ethical considerations would play a significant role - Canadian policies toward apartheid South Africa and toward foreign aid.

In recent years, two theoretical approaches have dominated the scholarly literature on Canadian foreign policy: statist and dominant class.(f.1) Neither approach suggests that ethical considerations have been a significant component of the dominant world view of senior Canadian foreign policy decision-makers or that lobbying from within Canadian civil society has forced the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to become more engaged with issues such as sustained oppression and severe poverty beyond Canada's borders. Both approaches reckon that such 'soft' policy objectives as promoting human rights or helping the world's poorest peoples are filtered out within the decision-making process. Dominant class theorists emphasize the role of the dominant ideology within Canadian decision-making circles in sifting out such objectives, while statist theorists identify the interests that act as the sieve in less ideological and more narrowly bureaucratic terms. However, both clearly imply that civil society efforts to promote more ethical foreign policies have had little impact.

A closer look at the development of Canadian foreign aid policies and Canadian policy towards apartheid South Africa, two policies that have long been the focus of sustained ethical lobbying by the Canadian churches, the NGO community, and many other civil society public interest groups, indicates a need for a more nuanced reading of civil society efforts to secure a more ethically responsive Canadian foreign policy.

ETHICAL VALUES AND CANADIAN FOREIGN AID(f.2)

The literature on the determinants of Canadian aid policies mentions a surprisingly wide range of influences, including, among others, the politics of the cold war, the example and influence of other major donors, the importance attached by the Canadian government to Canada's primary alliances, Canada's historic links with the Commonwealth and la francophonie, bureaucratic politics within the Canadian government, and the government's particular responsiveness to Canadian trade and investment interests. Canadian ethical values, in contrast, are rarely emphasized.(f.3)

At its inception, Canadian development assistance was very much a product of cold war alliance politics. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, only the United States, France, and Britain had significant foreign aid programmes. Because the purpose of the aid was to counter the expansion of Soviet influence, the United States pressed its allies to assume part of the burden. Canadian aid thus began, timidly and somewhat begrudgingly, as an obligation arising from its major alliances rather than directly from the ethical values of Canadian society.

An exceptional confluence of factors and events over the next ten years, at most, produced a rapid expansion of the aid programme and a sustained effort to ensure that it reached and helped the poorest people and countries. The most fundamental factor was the upsurge of deep rooted public support for strong social welfare programmes in Canada.(f.4) This essentially ethical development within Canadian public philosophy created an intellectual and ideological environment in Canada that made foreign aid seem a particularly appropriate way to contain communism. …

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