Myths, Morals, and Reality in Canadian Foreign Policy

By Stairs, Denis | International Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Myths, Morals, and Reality in Canadian Foreign Policy


Stairs, Denis, International Journal


Denis Stairs is McCulloch Professor in Political Science at Dalhousie University and a Faculty Fellow in its Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. This article is a slightly modified version of a lecture delivered at Concordia University in Montreal on 14 March 2003

INTRODUCTION

The discussion in this article is premised on a series of unabashedly subjective assertions with which other observers are almost certain to disagree. If, however, there is even a grain of truth in them, they may give cause for concern.

The assertions begin with the observation that Canadians have grown alarmingly smug, complacent, and self-deluded in their approach to international affairs. The fault is largely their own. But they have succumbed to it with the active encouragement of their leaders. More specifically, they have come to think of themselves not as others are, but as morally superior. They believe, in particular, that they subscribe to a distinctive set of values - 'Canadian' values - and that those values are special in the sense of being unusually virtuous. A prominent effect of that belief is that it has put them in serious danger of misunderstanding the true origins of their behaviour, on the one hand, and of doing significant damage to the effectiveness of their diplomacy, both next door and overseas, on the other.

The shamelessly didactic conclusion that flows from this analysis is that Canadians need to get a grip on themselves. They may need, as well, to consider the possibility that their rhetorical displays - delivered in a style at once tiresome and self-serving - may actually reflect their declining influence and growing incapacity in the world at large. For in foreign policy, as in some other dimensions of life, an ostentatious claim to superior virtue can be the last refuge of the impotent.

Since my argument is to have the flavour more of a sermon than of an academic disquisition, it is appropriate to begin with a text. It comes from the booklet recently released by the minister for foreign affairs, Bill Graham, as a stimulus to what he has described as 'A Dialogue on Foreign Policy.'(1) In encouraging Canadians to chat the government up on foreign policy issues, the booklet reminds us of the three pillars that Ottawa, ever since it last reviewed the subject in 1994-5, has been insisting are central to the conduct of Canadian foreign policy.(2) Those pillars are security, prosperity, and values and culture. We want, in other words, to be safe and rich, and we want to be seen as virtuous.

This is not a bad list of aspirations, as these things go, but for present purposes it may be useful to focus on two brief passages from the document's discussion of pillar number three: 'Canada's foreign policy agenda,' Graham and his staff assert, 'must reflect the nation we are: a multicultural, bilingual society that is free, open, prosperous, and democratic. The experiences of immigrants from around the world and the cultures of Aboriginal peoples are woven into the fabric of our national identity. Respect for equality and diversity runs through the religious, racial, cultural and linguistic strands forming our communities.' 'Whatever our shortcomings in meeting the standards and goals we set for ourselves', we are then told, 'Canada is seen abroad as a highly successful society'. This asset makes our values and culture a true pillar of our foreign policy, and a vital complement to the other two pillars of security and prosperity. In using our position to champion Canadian values abroad, we are advancing humanitarian concerns that Canadians have long cherished, and are promoting social models endorsed by many of our allies. At the same time, we are helping to foster global conditions conducive to our own security and prosperity. As we try to realize our social and political values more fully at home, we can benefit ourselves by also promoting these values abroad.'

There is no need to clutter the premises by reciting a lot of other disquisitions of similar import. …

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