Canada's Bush?

By: /
July 22, 2011
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Roland is correct to question just what constitutes the “threat out there” that Stephen Harper seems so preoccupied with. The stark view of the world that the prime minister offers – between the good guys and the bad guys – is not only based on flimsy evidence (at least, in terms of what he told the interviewer), but also on a set of convictions that are ominously George W. Bush-like. The former U.S. president’s memoir clearly revealed that he was motivated, throughout his tenure, by an “us versus them” view of the world. Of course, the events of Sept. 11 contributed to this, and, indeed, dominated his presidency – but so, too, did the struggle (within American foreign-policy circles after 1990) to find a single, unifying theme that could compete with the epic battle between capitalism and communism that dominated the Cold War.

Canadians and Canadian policy-makers shared that overall desire for the forces of freedom to win out over tyranny during the Cold War years. But, at the same time, we seemed to appreciate the shades of grey that existed then. Think, for example, of our policy on Cuba, or Lester B. Pearson’s famous questioning of the Vietnam War, which sparked outrage from L.B. Johnson. As Roland’s piece suggests, there are grey patches in the world today, too, and they can’t be wished away by the prime minister’s term “complexity.” The Canadian public, evidence suggests, seems to appreciate this. Indeed, when I was working on the 2005 foreign-policy review, I was interested to discover that, when asked about the greatest threats to their security, Canadians’ answers diverged from those of their American neighbours. Yes, terrorism was on the list. But the threat of pandemic disease was actually at the top (no doubt, a function of the SARS crisis).

Stephen Harper may be out of sync with his own population in trying to portray Canada’s history as inextricably linked with conflict, and our future as bound up with a struggle between good and evil. But it is clear that he has always been uneasy with what he perceives as the wishy-washy diplomacy of his predecessors – particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It remains to be seen whether the prime minister will leverage his new majority in Parliament to try to position Canada more defiantly on the side of “right,” and whether Canadians will agree with him.

Photo courtesy Reuters.