Civil Society, Foreign Policy, and Canadian Interests

By Copeland, Daryl | Behind the Headlines, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Civil Society, Foreign Policy, and Canadian Interests

Copeland, Daryl, Behind the Headlines

The notion of civil society has in recent years become a pervasive theme in the contemporary discourse on international relations. It has also come to occupy a prominent place in discussions of Canadian foreign and aid policy. I was recently asked to comment on Canada's efforts to promote civil society in Asia, and on reflection realized, with some discomfort, that I would first have to refine and focus my own thinking.

For starters, what does `civil society' mean? I had always conceived of it in somewhat ambiguous terms as the intermediating space between the state, the private sector, and the individual. Universities, labour unions, church groups... I attached to civil society vaguely admirable affiliations and connotations, as a kind of measure of the general health of a society. That was fine as far as it went - not very. To get a better handle on the literature and current research, I went to the Institute's John Holmes library and conducted a keyword search cross-referencing civil society and Asia Pacific.

I was astonished at the results. Not unlike other catch-all terms - such as human security and sustainable development, both of which, by the way, are thought to be elements of civil society - I discovered that civil society has been associated with a staggering variety of political, economic, social, and other qualities: these include democratic development, pluralism, the protection of human rights and minorities, rule of law, public safety, basic freedoms, citizenship rights, institutional integrity and legitimacy, an absence of conflict and violence; plus environmental stewardship, welfare programmes, cultural inclusion, social mobility, religious tolerance; liberal economy, marketization, and free enterprise.

Clearly, a widely shared and precise definition of civil society has proven elusive. If we were to choose among the attributes set out above as selection criteria, only unabashedly authoritarian, military, or totalitarian states, or countries dominated utterly by special interests would fail to meet at least some of the requirements. Few countries, however, emerge unscathed when their performance is measured up against the complete set. Moreover, the overall fit of these civil society indicators, especially when sized against reality in much of the developing world, is far from comfortable.

In addition to significant problems in conceptualization and application, it is not necessary to wade into the debate over universality to note how profoundly Western many of these qualities appear, in terms of both historical, cultural, and intellectual origin and of their contemporary currency. I do not subscribe to the self-serving `Asian values' arguments popularized by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, elements of the Singaporean and Chinese leadership, and others. Yet many of these ideas run counter to certain cultural characteristics which, it is fair to say, seem demonstrably more evident on the other side of the pond. Though none is uniquely Asian, I am thinking particularly of the prominence of community over the individual, the primacy of social stability and public order, the paramountcy of notions of duty and responsibility, and a deeply rooted disinclination to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.

In short, you don't need to buy into arguments for cultural or economic rights, or the right to develop, or to accuse non-Western political leaders of duplicity to observe that civil society is going to be a tough sell in many Third World markets even on a good day ... and there have not been a lot of those, especially in Asia, over the past eight months. Many, even most of Canada's partners outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) qualify to varying degrees as uncivil by this calculation.

Looking across Asia, for example - with Japan, Taiwan, and, to some extent, Korea excepted - real evidence of civil society process or progress is scant. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Civil Society, Foreign Policy, and Canadian Interests


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.