Clark Talks Old Days of Canadian Diplomacy, Looks to the Future

Former PM calls for new Canadian partnerships in trade and innovation.
By: /
July 3, 2014

Joe Clark may not have spent as much time as he wanted in the Prime Minister’s chair, but Canada’s youngest prime minister can still channel the statesman inside him when he wants to. His detractors didn’t get the last word when he left politics a decade ago. He is as eloquent as ever, as he showed guests of the Canadian International Council’s National Capital branch on June 17, 2014.

“We are, in this country, inescapably international,” Clark told a packed room at Ottawa’s Sheraton Hotel. “And what’s interesting is that we are becoming more so, through trade, through the transforming force of immigration, through the very nature of the modern world.”

Building on Canada’s fabled diplomatic past, he outlined his prescription for a stronger Canadian presence on the international stage.

“We are in the middle of a new world,” said Clark, “[and] in this new world, Canada has to assess with clear eyes what exactly our assets are, what will make us strong, what can allow us to contribute more than we might have in the past.”

Clark is an unapologetic member of the old guard of Canadian international relations. He recalls a country that punched far above its weight in the world, one that held significant influence in matters of global importance in the past. He extolls early Canadian emissaries who contributed to the creation of NATO, spurred on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But Canada faces a very different world today.

“For a long time, we were able to ride on the strength of [our] hard power assets,” said Clark. “We became a member of the Group of Seven for one principal reason: at the time (after WWII), we had the seventh largest GDP in the world, and that was our ticket into a cockpit that allowed us to have an influence over a wide range of international issues, economic and otherwise.”

“We will never have the seventh largest GDP in the world ever again.”

This is not the end however, but a chance to remake Canada’s international presence anew, according to Clark.

First and foremost, Canada will need to reexamine its international relationships.

“[We have to recognize] that the world has changed, and the people with whom we speak regularly should consequently change, so it affects our capacity to understand and respond to, and lead, small-l lead, in international affairs,” said Clark.

Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Mexico: all fast-growing economies with which Canada has yet to engage seriously in terms of trade. To Clark, this is but a precursor of the full list of countries Canada should be approaching for closer relations.

“We have to balance our natural pull to traditional allies. We have to keep our traditional alliances in place, but not be confined by them, and reach beyond them,” said Clark.

The former prime minister also called for increased Canadian cooperation with non-state actors. While evolving technologies brought on a significant decrease in deference towards traditional bulwarks of influence and truth, civil society may yet hold the key to Canada’s international aspirations.

“We all know that power is shifting in the world, and what is interesting about it is that power is not only shifting among states, but between states and non-state actors,” sais Clark.

“The Gates Foundation is far more innovative than most governments. Greenpeace has more influence on public policy than many national governments do. Non-governmental organizations of all kinds play an increasing role in the way the world works and is shaped.”

And Canada, he said, would do well to consult them in future partnerships, if not heed their advice.

Climate change, Africa, ASEAN and Iran; there is no subject to which Clark does not apply his insights on international affairs. His wisdom touches on every subject, and never ceases to impress critics and supporters alike.

One thing is certain: Joe Clark may yet have the last word.

Watch Joe Clark’s address to the Canadian International Council, An Evening With Joe Clark.