Foreign Policy Reviews Reconsidered

By Malone, David | International Journal, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy Reviews Reconsidered

Malone, David, International Journal

President of the International Peace Academy (IPA) in New York. David Malone was Director General of the Policy Staff, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa, 1994-5, and co-ordinated preparation of the 1995 government foreign policy statement, Canada in the World. He is grateful to Robert Bothwell, Kenneth Calder, Chris Cooter, Nicolas Dimic, Alain Hauser, George Haynal, John Higginbotham, Steven Lee, Gordon Smith, Vernon Turner, and Patrick Wittmann for their suggestions. The views are his own, not those of the Canadian government or of IPA.

THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THE USEFULNESS of the foreign policy review as a mechanism for re-calibrating Canadian foreign policy. It focuses on the most recent major review, arising from the defeat of the Progressive Conservative government in 1993 and the advent to power of a Liberal majority government that year.

The process set in place by the new minister of foreign affairs (a title that replaced secretary of state for external affairs - SSEA) involved public consultations, an examination of Canadian foreign policy by a joint parliamentary committee that produced a raft of recommendations, and the government's response thereto. The response took two forms: a relatively short presentation of the government's foreign and aid policies and an accompanying volume of detailed (but repetitive) responses to the parliamentary committee's recommendations, the vast majority of which were accepted.

The review thus involved a dialogue between parliament (heavily dominated by the party in power) and government. It occasioned significant effort by the joint parliamentary committee and its staff. The efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to codify an approach to foreign policy purporting to be substantially different from that of the previous government also engaged significant resources, involving inter-departmental consultation on attempts to forge a foreign policy more meaningful than the lowest common denominator of respective departmental positions. The foreign policy elements of the Liberal party's election platform, the so-called 'Red Book,' played an important role in the review, guiding both parliament and government up to a point.

The outcome can be interpreted in a variety of lights. However, the review clearly failed to alter the essential thrust of foreign policy under previous governments and, to some degree, involved smoke and mirrors, particularly on policy initiatives reliant on financial resources (which the government was busy constraining in a successful attempt to eliminate the federal deficit). Not surprisingly, it failed to live up to high expectations in the rare quarters where they existed.

The experience calls into question the usefulness of such elaborate reviews, which can create expectations of change in foreign policy they are unlikely to satisfy. The following draws on personal experience in the preparation of Canada in the World, a limited number of scholarly sources, and practice elsewhere in the world.


Foreign policy reviews are nothing new to the Canadian government, although their form has varied considerably. The fist comprehensive overview of Canadian foreign policy appeared in a speech given by Louis St Laurent, the SSEA, in Toronto in January 1947. Thereafter, it was a question of amendments and redefinition, although some historians claim that the original formulation has never been bettered. At various times, ministers and senior officials asked for a re-examination of particular aspects of Canadian policy. Perhaps the most important early attempt was in 1951 when Professor Frederic Soward was given extensive access to departmental files (with the apparent exception of documents relating to discussions with the United States on free trade in 1947-8) and produced a high quality (if orthodox) essay on foreign policy. …

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