Four Ways to Reinvigorate the Canadian Foreign Policy Debate

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June 20, 2011

Last fall, I participated in a workshop hosted by L'Idée Fédérale, a think tank in Montreal headed by one of our Roundtable bloggers, André Pratte.  The topic was modest - "A Bold New Vision for Canada" - and we were all tasked with presenting on an aspect of our changing federation, in my case foreign policy.  As we launch opencanada.org, which is seeking to reinvigorate the Canadian foreign policy debate, I thought I would open with a few comments from that session. Below are a few personal reflections on possible components of a 21st century foreign policy. I would very much value your thoughts, as this is part of a much wider conversation - one we hope to foster on this site.

1. We must base our foreign policy in the tools and tactics of a networked world.

It is one thing to say, as the CIC Open Canada report as well as The Liberal Party of Canada’s recent foreign policy report, titled "A Global Network Strategy", did, that the world is now interconnected.  It is quite another to map these networks and develop policies that take advantage of benefits and mitigate threats. The world is not simply multipolar, it is multiscalar.  States are still important, but they are subject to the actions of individuals and groups as never before. Although there are countless examples of networked international policy actors, groups and phenomena, such as al-Qaeda, microfinance organizations, do-it-yourself development theory, social entrepreneurial mergers of NGOs and for-profits, and so on, none more uniquely embodies the new global reality than the case of Wikileaks.

The recent Wikileaks release of thousands of diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies follows the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents containing operational information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These massive data leaks, while lauded by many, underline the tension between a government’s justifiable need for secrecy and the public’s demand for more open and transparent governance. There are both benefits and costs to this new phenomenon that together accentuate the complexity of the new foreign policy environment.

2. We must reform, dismantle or replace the institutions through which we conduct foreign policy

Most of the institutions through which we as a country engage with the world form a part of the modern social democratic state.  This institutional structure was developed in response to deep ideological divides between mercantilist capitalists and communists that existed at the turn of the last century.  It originated in the early 19th and early 20th centuries in response to a series of cascading global challenges. Like today, the pace of change was so rapid in 1912 that Americans, as Woodrow Wilson put it, were “coming to feel they had no control over the course of their affairs.” Consequently, as a movement composed of diverse interests a centrist progressive agenda sought to reconcile industrial capitalism with individual rights and democracy, diminish the religious and moralist tradition by integrating science and professional management into public policy and a professional bureaucracy, and confront international threats such as imperialism, fascism and expansionist communism with democracy and international stability.   From the late 19th century through the 1960s, three generations of leaders successfully built the national institutions and principles that define much of western world: liberal internationalism through the Bretton-Woods institutions and the League of Nations/United Nations, middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and the advancement of individual rights through the suffragist and civil rights movements.

These New Deal institutions are characterized by their hierarchical structure. At the heart of virtually all of them lies a centralized administration allocating resources. While command-and-control bureaucracies were a productive development in industrial economies, this organizational model is profoundly ill-suited for the globalized knowledge economy. New information technologies lower the costs of democratically affiliating, mobilizing and organizing people and co-creating and distributing ideas. More importantly, diversity and freedom — not control — drive innovation in a networked world.

There are both domestic and international examples of these out of date institutions.  Domestically, the role of DFAIT has in many ways been made redundant as other departments have taken on increasingly prominent international roles.  As domestic issues are become increasingly international, so too must the departments responsible.  As an example of DFAIT’s diminishing role, during the Afghan war, Canada implemented what they called a Whole-of-Government approach, which merged our development, diplomatic and military capacities into one central strategic command.  Incredibly, instead using DFAIT as the central coordinating body, which is after all its role, the integrated mission was run from an ad hoc PCO department.  A second example is the struggle of CIDA to evolve its development models.  Since CIDA is laden by bureaucracy, there are growing calls to disband or radically reform CIDA, including one from from the Open Canada report.  NGOs, donor countries, development contractors and individual employees are all increasingly frustrated with the CIDA development model.

The same challenge mires our international institutions.  The UN, World Bank and IMF were all built for a different word; one where nation states in general, and a select groups of states in particular, had a near universal monopoly on power.  This is clearly no longer the case.  The result is that small fixes, such as reforming the Security Council, will prove insufficient. We need to rethink what global governance looks like in a networked world.

3. We must meaningfully engage and incentivize the new foreign policy actors

If you were interested in international affairs in the 1970’s, your clear career choice was to join the foreign service. As a result, in what many see as the golden age of Canadian foreign policy, a small groups of diplomats guided our engagement in the world.  There were literally a handful of people responsible for our entire foreign policy.  It goes without saying that this is no longer the case.  If an engaged Gen Y’er wants to work on global issues, chances are he or she is not going to join the government.  In fact, the chances are pretty good that he or she is not going to even engage with the questions of Canadian foreign policy proper.

Instead, this group, my peers, start NGO’s, write books, work for multinationals, create social enterprises.  They are innovating.  They look at the government and see an institutional structure which does not appeal.  They see a bargain whereby they have to put in two decades of work to be in a position of authority and independence. What’s more, while some select few can have an impact within government, one can often make a far more significant impact from the outside.

And there may be a deeper shift in play.  This new generation of Canadians shaped by the internet and globalization have replaced a traditional desire for certainty (from their politicians, newspapers and teachers), for the probability of truth.  They understand that there are multiple perspectives that need to be balanced and understood. This is the basic fact of living in a network with access to an abundance of information. Have been presented with an online world centred around choice and freedom, made possible by decentralised authority, these people are increasingly interested in remaking the real world along those lines. In short, they are willing to trade the security of centralization and hierarchical institutions for something new.

4.  We desperately need innovation of ideas

The most significant thing lacking in the Canadian foreign policy discussion is innovation.  As the CIC's report, Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age states, “ideas are the new industry.”  But our debate feels out of date, the language is tired, and we simply do not have the institutions needed to spur innovation.

First, the language of the discussion is both tired and out of date.  You would be hard pressed to pick up a Canadian foreign policy book or essay without seeing such clichés as: Go for Gold, World Class, Energy Superpower, Getting Back in the Game, Size of the fight in the dog, or any number of tedious sports metaphors. More importantly, the theoretical frameworks used to describe the context of foreign policy, such as strategic studies, security studies, the values versus interests debate, national security, and power relations, simply seem ill-suited for the contemporary world.  The policy discourse would benefit from a broader array of theoretical constructs.

Second, at the moment we do not as a country have the capacity for an innovative foreign policy discussion. Where is the creative thinking on foreign policy happening?   What is the framework in which a new generation are viewing foreign policy? I see very few researchers or institutions pushing the boundaries of the Canadian foreign policy debate.  Think tanks struggle for resources, and academics are dis-incentivised from working on Canadian topics, as all of the big disciplinary journals are international.

Finally, and related to the first two points, we need to cease being afraid of bringing ideology into the foreign affairs conversation. As discussed above, there is a widespread belief in the ideal, centrist, moderate foreign policy.  I believe that this is mythology, and that using ideological lenses to develop and critique ideas and policies would be one way of advancing what is a stagnant discourse.  Take the Liberal Party of Canada as an example.  We need to rethink what a liberal internationalist foreign policy looks like in a post 9/11 world.  Some of the greatest thinkers of the left in both the US and UK have recently been bitterly divided between interventionists and isolationists.  With Michael Ignatieff as its leader, the Liberal Party was perhaps uniquely positioned internationally to rethink this ideological world view.  And yet they remained stuck in glorifying past accomplishments developed in and for a world that no longer exists. Similarly, I would be fascinated to hear a clear articulation of a morality-driven Conservative foreign policy platform.  The way in which the Harper government has navigated the Chinese rights versus market debate has been telling - and indicative of an emerging Canadian conservative ideological worldview- but all we have really heard are piecemeal, disjointed and often contradictory policy ideas. We sense that there is not an overarching ideological lens. These are the types of ideological arguments and tensions that should be present in a vibrant policy debate.

So there are four thoughts to get the conversation going.  We are going to do our part here to foster these and other debates.  Here's hoping you will join us.