Pulpit Diplomacy: A Critical Assessment of the Axworthy Doctrine

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A recent public opinion poll underscores the point that Canadians are assertive internationalists who want Canada to 'make waves internationally.'(f.1) They are proud of Canada's diplomatic record, especially its peacekeeping legacy, and show considerable enthusiasm for the foreign policy of Jean Chretien's government. Several initiatives championed by the foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy -- the campaigns to ban anti-personnel landmines, control the international trade in light weapons, and prohibit the use of child soldiers in combat -- particularly reflect core Canadian values. 'Our biggest finding' noted Conrad Winn, president of COMPAS, in reference to the poll of 15-18 April 1998, 'was the powerful streak of democratic moralism that pervades almost all of Canadians' thinking about international affairs.' A stunning 82 per cent of the poll's 500 respondents believe Canada has more influence now than in the 1960s while 64 per cent are prouder now than they were a decade ago. Indeed, at the dawn of a new millennium, Canada is once again a significant player on the world stage whose voice is heard on a wide range of pressing international issues. Not since the so-called 'golden age' of Canadian diplomacy in the 1950s have Canadians appeared so self conscious of their global role or so assertively and overtly 'internationalist.'

Much of the credit for this welcome state of affairs must go to Axworthy whose vigorous personal commitment to human rights, disarmament, and other causes has energized both his department and, frequently, his government. In continuing to make headlines, whether for banning landmines or visiting Cuba, he has brought foreign policy to the attention of Canadians, and the world, during his period as minister. 'Low-key Canada these days is enjoying a strut in the world spotlight,' noted the Boston Globes Colin Nickerson approvingly in December 1997 during the Ottawa signing conference on landmines. The Toronto Star echoed this sentiment more recently: 'Not since the days of Lester Pearson has Canada played such a visible and effective role on the world stage.'(f.2) While Canadians have traditionally eschewed the American practice of naming foreign policy 'doctrines' after presidents or foreign secretaries, historians might well refer to the 'Axworthy doctrine' in their writings on the Canadian foreign policy of the late 1990s.

Drawing from the minister's statements, speeches, and recent actions, his foreign policy appears to rest on a number of core principles or propositions which might be summarized as follows:

- the end of the cold war has fundamentally changed the nature of international politics;

- security goals should be focused around human security and not state security;

- soft power is the new currency of international politics;

- military force is of declining utility in international politics;

- public diplomacy is increasingly effective in a wired world; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in the vanguard of the 'new diplomacy';

- Canada can lead 'coalitions of the willing'; and

- international change will come through the promulgation of new norms of which the key priorities for Canada are small arms, children's rights, international human rights, and peacebuilding.(f.3)

Axworthy has not, of course, single-handedly invented, or even reinvented, Canada's commitment to human rights, peacekeeping, or international institutions, all of which have informed Canadian foreign policy for decades. Not without reason, after all, was Canada once referred to by a United States secretary of state, Dean Acheson, as the 'stern daughter of the voice of God.'(f.4) Nevertheless, Axworthy's careful articulation of foreign policy principles into a more or less cogent statement of goals is a striking departure from the often muddled and cautious musings of his predecessors. In journals like this one, on newspaper editorial pages, and in various speeches and policy statements, he has developed a complex, interlocking set of assumptions and foreign policy objectives to guide Canada into the next century. …