Taking Conrad Black Seriously [Reply to Black's Taking Canada Seriously Article in Winter 1997-1998 Issue]

By Cohen, Andrew | International Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Taking Conrad Black Seriously [Reply to Black's Taking Canada Seriously Article in Winter 1997-1998 Issue]


Cohen, Andrew, International Journal


What is most refreshing about Conrad Black's vision of Canada in the world (winter 1997-8) is that he has a vision at all. This alone sets him apart from the political class. Our parochial internationalism imagines Canada abroad as little more than a trader and investor, convinced that foreign policy is only trade policy. To project a sense of self beyond our shores -- or, more boldly, to declare a projet de societe -- strikes these Little Canadians as rising above their station.

Thinking big makes them feel as insecure as an arriviste among aristocrats, and in a nation of nay-sayers and life-insurers, we cannot abide that. Thankfully, Black rejects such stifling reserve. He proposes that Canada become a 'substantial positive force in the world in its own right.' To remain a middle power -- in league with Holland, Scandinavia, and Australia -- simply isn't good enough for a people blessed with geography and history. Black truly wants Canada to be more than that, which is reason enough to cheer.

How to take our place as 'a first level power?' To begin, Black urges Canada to put its house in order by resolving the enduring question of Quebec, largely by showing firmness toward the separatists, and stopping the brain drain to the United States, largely by creating a society that rewards initiative. He also wants to make the governor general into a head of state, renewing an antiquated monarchy which is long overdue.

In Canada, Black sees the elements of greatness: a bountiful land, an unburdened past, a people with 'a less complicated sociology' than the United States, which seems to refer to the absence of racial tension. Now, he says, Canada must put its manifold advantages to work 'to build a system of civilized individualism.' One hopes his individualism is less harsh than the American kind and that it acknowledges Canada's sense of collectivity, too.

In the world according to Black, the United States is the sun and Canada the earth. That would have been heresy a generation ago; today, free trade and economic integration make it the orthodoxy. Canada should be a 'supportive ally in all major issues external to North America, unless the United States takes leave of all its senses, which happens occasionally.' At the same time, 'Canada would be within its rights to encourage the administration ... to indicate where it thought the vital interests of the continent and hemisphere are.' To that end, Canada could be helpful 'in advising' the United States on certain international questions. Well, maybe. But if Black argues that the United States doesn't much care what Canada does (Lyndon Johnson certainly did when Lester Pearson questioned the bombing of Vietnam) nor does it care what Canada says. That is unlikely to change. Canada's influence in Washington will always be limited. A voice of moderation, perhaps, but advice? Unlikely.

Black is also quixotic in suggesting that Canada and the United States should blunt Britain's integration into Europe by binding it to North America through free trade. A bold idea, this union of English-speaking peoples, but it is too late. Britain has cast its lot with Europe, whatever its misgivings over the dictates of Brussels. If there is to be free trade across the Atlantic -- which Canada should explore -- let it be with the European Union. Indeed, joining Britain and Europe in a grand transatlantic union would seem a more worthy endeavour than detaching Britain from it.

In other regions Black finds other prospects. Latin America, he says, offers an opportunity for creative diplomacy beyond playing to the 'leftist gallery,' a charge he levels against Pierre Trudeau. (Trudeau, out of power for 14 years, merits mention a dozen times, usually unfavourably.) Black thinks Canada could profit from nations uncomfortable with the United States. But the field of opportunity doesn't include Cuba, although here Canada might usefully act as a conciliator. If 40 years of isolation has not dislodged Fidel Castro, the spread of liberating enterprise might. …

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