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By Taylor, J. H. | International Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

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Taylor, J. H., International Journal


DAVID MALONE'S EXCELLENT ARTICLE, 'Foreign policy reviews reconsidered' (International Journal, autumn 2001), raises the question of why these reviews have apparently become rooted in Canadian practice. There have now been foreign policy reviews in each of the last three decades. While there are important differences between them - in the part played by parliament, for example - the experiments of 1968-70, 1985, and 1994-5 all belong in a single category. In particular, to judge from the comments of David Malone's informants, they all seem to have involved a great deal of work for modest results.

How many democracies try to make policy in this way? David Malone does not say. The suspicion, however, is few, if any. That, even if it were true, might not matter so long as the process worked for Canada. Evidently this is not the case. Not only do Canadians seem to be almost the only people in the world to use such a process, but even they seem to have a hard time making it produce useful results. Why do they persist?

Perhaps they are attached to reviewing foreign policy because they can afford it. It is hard to imagine other countries with the time and patience for this quasi-academic approach. Policy-making in the manner of Israel's Ariel Sharon seems to be at the opposite pole. In Britain, says David Malone's British counterpart: 'We don't review foreign policy, we do it.' In a similar vein, an American expert once observed that whereas Americans talked about their country's interests, Canadians talked about the role Canada should play in international affairs. Helmut Schmidt, who liked Canada and who liked its prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, used sometimes to speak as if he envied Trudeau the possibility of playing the dilettante leader of a country without problems, whereas, for him, as chancellor in a divided Germany, foreign policy problems were as real and menacing as the muzzle of the nearest Soviet gun. The implication of all these observations is that foreigners tend to see Canadians as carefree people for whom foreign policy is not real, but is instead a kind of theatre in which their country is free to play whatever part it chooses.

How fair is this? David Malone refers to a concept of foreign policy making that was part of the intellectual background to all of the reviews he considers, namely that foreign policy springs from domestic interests and should be framed accordingly. Another version of this idea holds that interests a country shares on an undifferentiated basis with any other - a general interest in peace or prosperity for example - are too vague and ill-defined to qualify as a guide to policy-making in the national interest. To determine where a country's real interests lie, it is necessary to start from the domestic base and trace the extension abroad of domestic interests.

Applied to Canada, this approach can be helpful and enlightening in critical areas. National unity, for example, was obviously a supremely important domestic preoccupation throughout the past generation. It had significant and obvious implications for Canada's international relations. Defining these implications was a way to set foreign policy priorities.

Similarly the tens of thousands of domestic interests projected upon Canada's relations with the United States defined a massive, often overriding, set of foreign policy priorities. So much was this the case that the authors of the 1968-70 review found it impossible to incorporate Canada's relations with the United States in a single framework with the rest of foreign policy and, consequently, had to leave that subject to a separate examination several years later.

Evidently there are large areas of foreign policy where interests are clear, substantial, and compelling and where choice is correspondingly constrained. Unfortunately for logical tidiness, however, there also appear to be large areas that are the product of the random accidents of history. …

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