Canada’s About Face

Since 2003 Canada has departed from its historical policy-making prerogatives and hurts its soft power reputation, says Hanna Samir Kassab.
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July 10, 2014
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In June 2010, I wrote an article for the CIC entitled “Canada: the little superpower that should: a farewell address from a grateful international student.” In it, I describe Canada as a state that should encourage democratic norms whenever and wherever possible, making full use of its reputation abroad.

Just two years later, Andrew Nikiforuk wrote this in Foreign Policy:

With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country's most significant long-cherished environmental laws.
Maybe this analysis exaggerates; but other accounts corroborate it. In The Economist: The world in 2014, the esteemed publication provides a shocking account of Canada’s political context. The piece describes the tar sands’ scant environmental regulation, increased crimes against indigenous populations, tightening immigration policies, and increased defense spending. These illustrations hurt the distinctiveness of Canada as a state open to all in the spirit of freedom and diplomacy and its untamed wilderness.

In terms of international relations, these analyses do real damage to Canada’s soft power—defined as a state’s ability to lead based on charisma, overall trustworthiness, and integrity. Soft power is necessary for states, especially middle powers like Canada, to push its agenda on the international system—particularly given the lack of material capability (military, economic, etc.) to do so.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004) defines the concept as one that “…rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others” and is integral to “…shape the preferences of others.” It is the ability to influence and attract others so that they in turn would follow. It can be promoted through music and movies or through institutional examples such as American democracy or Scandinavian socialism. Nye cites Canadian Michael Ignattieff as he describes Canada’s sacred position in the international system as one to be envied by other powers: “[Canada’s] influence derives from three assets: moral authority as a good citizen which we have got some of, military capability which we have less of, and international assistance capability…we have something they [the United States] want. They need legitimacy.”

Indeed, when we talk about Canada’s reputation, we are really speaking about Canada’s ability to pursue its interests using its own comparative advantages.

Like any other state, Canada must use its own particular strengths to achieve goals within the anarchical international system. Let’s face it: Canada will probably never possess the military or economic capability of a country like the United States. Instead of becoming like the United States, Canada must remain true to itself. It must facilitate and nurture the growth of its soft power and pragmatically pursue its goals of economic growth and security. It also stands to gain considerably from its soft power in terms of investment and political power.

So, what happened between 2003 and the present? In terms of domestic and foreign policy, Canada has departed from its historical policy-making prerogatives. This about face has ultimately damaged the country’s soft power overall reputation. In all seriousness, the hijinks of Rob Ford, embarrassing as it may seem, remain the least of Canada’s worries.

Not to point any fingers, but it is the thrust of the Conservative policy in Ottawa that has led Canada to this juncture. Like Brian Mulroney before him, Stephen Harper has focused on liberalizing the economy, increasing military expenditures, dismantling the welfare state, and narrowing societal freedoms as described by Nikiforuk and The Economist. Under Harper, the conservative leadership aimed at altering the strategic way in which Canada pursues its interests politically and economically. On the international stage, Harper takes a tough stance on rogue actors as well as states with undemocratic leadership. The increased military spending has been used to increase military presence around the world in places like Afghanistan. In economic terms, it has meant decreases in the tax rate as well as social spending in an effort to become more competitive. However, with the mentioned rise in military expenditure, budget deficits have been the norm even as Ottawa attempts to balance its budget by 2015.

PM Harper’s strong tone is no doubt intended to defend Canadian values and interests in the world. For example, Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is meant to bolster its reputation as a defender of free and democratic peoples the world over. However, enforcing democracy in such a manner, as we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unproductive in the long-term. Instead of focusing on human security, a proud Canadian conception, this more traditional state centric notion actually erodes traditional, Canadian values.

These revolutionary policies, with their transformative military focus rather than the traditional, soft power, humanitarian core, are damaging to Canada’s most important asset: its hard built reputation.

In terms of recommendations, it is up to Canadians and their government to recognize the situation for what it is. Voters in the upcoming elections must discuss whether candidates will pursue Canada’s interests given the sacrosanct reputation of the country or whether we will continue down our current path. Any good student of foreign policy knows that policy is dictated only by interests and priorities, not ideology. Is it in Canada’s interest to damage its reputation; its very source of pride and strength? The answer has to be an emphatic no.

Let’s take a specific issue: should Canada continue to pursue the oil sands project? Canada’s environment remains a source of tourism and significant economic investment in the country. Given the situation in Europe however, with the bellicose nature of Russia as a petro-power, there’s clearly an opportunity for the country to responsibly produce oil for export to the beleaguered states of Eastern Europe. As Russia shuts off the taps, we must balance these environmental concerns with geopolitical realities and the potential that new alternative energy sources provides. Indeed, Canadian oil production could mean a new source of wealth and diplomatic prestige for Canada. However, based on current investigation, the project is seen as tremendously expensive with regard to its developmental, environmental and human costs and these would need to be lowered for the project to move forward.

Moreover, the project is often viewed as detrimental to economic development and diversification. Regarding diversification, government financial resources are shifting from other sectors, like fisheries, in support of oil production—making Canada vulnerable to the so-called resource curse. The resource curse undermines the development of so many other states. It creates mono-cultural economies dependent solely on market prices. To explain: if the price of oil drops, as it is expected due to increased production levels in the United States, then it will result, tragically, in huge losses of revenue for Canadian businesses, their employees, and the government.

Canada’s aspiration to be a petro-power is also environmentally destructive. Last year, a series of spills affected 52 acres of land. It “…polluted water and land at a site at Cold Lake, Alberta, run by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), killing birds, beavers, frogs and shrews and damaging habitats.” The extraction process is equally damaging as it uses vast amounts of energy (resulting in gargantuan carbon emissions) and clean water, while destroying forested lands through excavation. Furthermore, scientists have discovered increased levels of cancer causing toxins at, and around, digging sites. The Canadian government has drastically and irresponsibly underestimated these levels for the purpose of facilitating production.

Most shocking of such pandering is the way the government treats those in opposition to the oil sands project: by silencing them. According to Nature, “since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers…Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature.”

To fully extract the economic benefits from the oil sands, procedures must be environmentally responsible and economically efficient. If this cannot be achieved, then the project must be put on hold until further notice. The current strategy is damaging to Canada’s reputation. It must be preserved at the expense of the power, wealth and prestige generated by the oil deposits. Government regulation of the matter is also common sense. However, the trend is deregulation, an irresponsible and short-term policy that may lead to disaster. With regard to Canada’s energy policy, it is important to remember that there is no rush. After all, the resources aren’t going anywhere.

Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” and there is still hope for Canada that we are only three minutes in with the opportunity to change course. Canada does best when it sticks to its own identity. In the coming months, voters must decide what this identity entails for our policymakers. We must hope that they consider Canada’s international reputation as they do.