The First International Country: Canada Has Defined Its National Interest More Broadly, Less Selfishly, Than Many Others

By Clark, Joe | International Journal, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The First International Country: Canada Has Defined Its National Interest More Broadly, Less Selfishly, Than Many Others


Clark, Joe, International Journal


Frequently in Canada, foreign and trade policies have been developed in parallel rather than in harmony. They sometimes march to different drummers and when their rhythms clash, ministers make choices. Sometimes those choices place political goals ahead of trade advantages. For example, despite the clear economic costs, the government in which I was foreign minister in the 1980s chose to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa and, again, chose to decline Canadian government participation in research for the United States Strategic Defence Initiative, known as Star Wars. On other occasions, trade purposes could only be accomplished politically. That was clearly the case with the free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, a trade issue which became a foreign policy priority. I was often the minister making the political case, the argument that more than money was at stake. That was my job, and my belief, but it also reflected my interpretation of Canada's tradition in international affairs.

Most of Canada's major international decisions were not driven by economic or commercial considerations - for example, the decisions to fight in two world wars and in Korea; the leading role in establishing the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in drafting the international declaration of human rights; the opposition to Suez interventionism and the virtual invention of peacekeeping; the active role in the Colombo Plan and the establishment of the Canadian International Development Agency; the renewal of the Commonwealth in the fight against apartheid and the creation of la francophonie; and the commitment of successive governments to multilateral agencies and international agreements. Put simply, if trade activities fed Canada, those political activities defined Canada as a distinct community.

That trade and economics are of central importance to modern Canada is self evident. But the habit that has developed recently, as we face fiscal realities and celebrate economics, of denigrating politics and diplomacy is a mistake. In this complex and turbulent modern world, political skills are at least as critical as economic skills; diplomacy is at least as important as trade. Canada's diplomatic skills and reputation are unique; its trade and economic attributes are not. We should promote those unique Canadian advantages and make the most of our reputation.

Trade policy is not a substitute for foreign policy - it is, rather, a tributary of foreign policy. The 'make or break' issues in international affairs are political, not commercial. More specifically, the impact of market forces depends on the way the international community deals with international political and security issues. If those issues are managed, the marker system will do well; if they are not, it will not.

The salience of foreign policy can be demonstrated with reference to Asia, which has come to be seen so emphatically in economic terms. The economic growth in Asia, of course, has been dramatic and has had profound social, economic, and political consequences. Yet the most troublesome questions in most of Asia are political, not economic. Canada's first ministers encountered that reality starkly when they visited the area in November 1994. In South Korea, the undisputed economic miracle has neither reconciled students and workers to the regime nor stopped the attempts at armed infiltration by the North.

Similarly, larger political and security issues are at the base of current concern about China and Hong Kong. The really serious issues facing India are less about its economic relations with the West than about intercommunal tensions, regionalism, and unresolved conflicts with its neighbours. As it goes in much of Asia, the economic powerhouse, so it goes in much of the rest of the world. Extraordinary economic figures sometimes conceal profound poverty. One need only look at Asia once again: for all its growth it also contains the largest - concentration of people who are poor, often desperately so. …

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The First International Country: Canada Has Defined Its National Interest More Broadly, Less Selfishly, Than Many Others
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