Imagining a new foreign policy for Canada’s left

With an election on the horizon, challenging narratives around international issues will be an important task, writes Luke Savage, and one the left in Canada has yet to truly take up.

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July 11, 2019
Pins for New Democratic Party federal leader Jagmeet Singh are on display in Hamilton, Ontario, July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

It’s been over 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (first drafted by a Canadian named John Humphrey) sought to enshrine a future based on human rights and collective well-being.

Among the many lessons learned since its creation is that legalism, however well-intentioned and universalist in aspiration, cannot guarantee all people dignity and rights in a world still riddled with poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. The postwar order erected around the United Nations failed to actualize in several critical respects, first taking a back seat in a bipolar world of competing, nuclear-armed superpowers and then becoming even more marginal in the US-led global order that followed.

Given our continued reliance on the international system as a reference point, despite its glaring flaws and inadequacies, it’s clear that the left needs a somewhat renewed narrative of global affairs. The most pressing questions and challenges of the twenty-first century, from climate change to poverty to militarism, are global in scope and moral in character. As such, only the left is really equipped to offer answers that privilege democratic universalism over narrow nationalism and market fundamentalism — the two currents that tend to dominate the present moment.

Born of international cooperation and solidarity, the left’s ultimate purpose has always been to win human rights, dignity and material well-being for people regardless of borders; to institutionalize in practice what the UDHR does in theory. This begins with a recognition that every person is an end in themselves rather than a means to one, and that suffering, exploitation, prejudice, collective violence, and hierarchy all exist across borders, not just within them.

While we may ask what this looks like in the modern world, we do not, fortunately, have to begin from scratch. Here in Canada both the parliamentary left (as represented by the New Democratic Party) and the extra-parliamentary left (notably the labour movement) have at their best championed a foreign policy rooted in respect for universal human rights, solidarity, cooperative internationalism and an embrace of multilateralism. (Canadian liberalism’s relationship to these axioms has at best been somewhat intermittent.)

In many ways all of these values, and the diagnosis of injustice upon which they’re based, mirror the left’s general impetus at home in Canada. Here and abroad, the left favours democracy over the arbitrary exercise of power, seeks to support and defend the most vulnerable, opposes the tyranny of markets, and recognizes social hierarchies — both public and private — as the root of most injustice.

"The left’s ultimate purpose has always been to win human rights, dignity and material well-being for people regardless of borders."

Socialists and social democrats alike therefore understand that material inequalities within countries reflect rigged economic institutions and other problems that transcend national borders — from the destructive behaviour of large corporate actors to the exploitation of developing countries by developed ones. While addressing any of these things on an international scale is perhaps a more expansive and complicated task then tackling them at home, much the same analysis applies — albeit with a greater scope.

In an ever-more interconnected world, in fact, the two increasingly go hand-in-hand. Though we still live in a world of nation-states, capital has truly gone global. Perhaps more than ever before, this gives it the latitude to skirt domestic regulations and taxation, with consequences that risk exacerbating austerity policies and further cuts to badly-needed social programs. Some $353 billion of corporate Canada’s money now reportedly sits in tax havens like Luxembourg, Barbados and Bermuda, and the problem is far from ours alone. Amazon, a company headed by the wealthiest person in modern history, paid a farcical £4.5 million in British taxes in 2017 despite quarterly profits totalling £1.9 billion. Confronting these interests, mobilizing public opinion around these issues, and promoting cooperation between progressive national leaders (and non-state actors) are all critical tasks for an internationally-minded, twenty-first century left.

Much the same applies to related issues like labour, the environment and trade policy. Global markets increasingly bind producers and consumers across borders, with consequences that tend to be both unequal and unsustainable. Campaigns for ethical consumption and fair trade coffee are all well and good, but they’re no substitute for less exploitative trade agreements, more generous development policies, the guarantee of meaningful rights to migrant workers, or aggressive, binding international agreements for fighting climate change.

Each and every one of these objectives calls for a challenge to the supremacy of markets and the powerful actors invested in their most corrosive features. From a Canadian perspective, they will also require a measure of humility and critical historical reflection. While both the NDP and broader left have started to take up this work, there remains a deeper need to develop an alternative narrative of foreign affairs as a whole that fundamentally reimagines Canada and its role in the world. Without one, a left government (yet to ever be realized) will find itself incapable of meaningfully breaking with the status quo.

Despite both our international reputation and official identity as a peaceful, pluralistic society, Canadian federal governments have not always acted on the global stage the way many Canadians assume. Our general conception of Canada as a multilateral peacekeeping nation is in fact largely the product of a few moments in the 1960s and 1970s rather than a reflection of contemporary realities. According to recent United Nations figures, Canada currently supplies a mere 192 personnel to global peacekeeping efforts, ranking far behind many countries with much smaller populations in overall contribution. Under the present Liberal government, it is expanding rather than diminishing its role in the international arms trade, notably signing the export permits for the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country with an egregious human rights record that is currently engaged in the mass starvation of neighbouring Yemen. (As a major supplier of crude oil, the same could be said about Canada’s environmental policy. Here and elsewhere, tackling a global crisis often begins with transformative action at home.)

With an election on the horizon, challenging narratives like these holistically (as opposed to simply criticizing individual government policies) will be an important and necessary task, both for NDP candidates and for all of those who seek to reorient Canadian policies abroad in a more progressive direction — be they trade unionists, green and anticolonial activists, or other social justice groups. This is admittedly a complex task: Canada’s Liberals have long been adept at invoking the language of peacekeeping and multilateral engagement while in practice largely toeing a different line. Individual issues, like the Saudi arms deal, are often an opportunity for exactly this type of intervention, inside and outside of electoral politics. A laudable recent example is a grassroot effort inside the labour movement aimed at turning the Canadian Labour Congress firmly against the Saudi deal — a moral travesty that needs to be front and centre in the high stakes federal vote this fall. The even more recent NDP call for a boycott of the 2020 G20 summit in response to Saudi atrocities is another.

There remain, however, many opportunities for interventions from the left that have yet to be fully taken up. On every issue from Indigenous rights to feminism to the refugee crisis, an internationalist perspective can and must be brought to bear — far beyond what is currently being pursued by the Trudeau government. The NDP’s call for a suspension of the Safe Third Country agreement in response to Donald Trump’s despicable immigration policies is a good start, but should ultimately be advanced as part of a larger offensive against the Trudeau government’s often conciliatory relationship with the world’s most dangerous right-wing administration.

"On every issue from Indigenous rights to feminism to the refugee crisis, an internationalist perspective can and must be brought to bear."

A renewed left internationalism that goes beyond any single election is now all the more urgent given the emerging axis on the right. Indeed, it’s become all too clear that nationalist and ethnonationalist politics are both able and willing to work across borders to achieve their common goals and are now doing so to great effect. From Trump’s America to Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Orban’s Hungary to Modi’s India, right wing leaders are uniting to make cruelty and racial exclusion respectable, mainstream positions. All the more worrying is that many are doing so with either the tacit ambivalence or even outright endorsement of the global business establishment and its traditional intelligentsia. If present trends continue, we may even witness the emergence of a coherent, far-right geopolitical bloc — a terrifying but all-too real possibility.

Challenging this nascent, though potentially very dangerous force in global affairs will mean electing leaders committed to the defence and expansion of democracy. But it will also mean building new coalitions and even formal alliances between progressive forces and democratic constituencies across borders and continents. Both will entail a more independent style of foreign policy than Canada has typically practiced. Canadian governments, particularly of late, have been far too hesitant to substantively criticize authoritarian behaviour abroad, especially when the perpetrators are official allies (decrying specific human rights abuses while at the same time helping to enable the same regime through weapons sales simply doesn’t cut it). Condemning such behaviour and refusing to participate in anti-democratic conduct like the overthrow of elected governments the US State Department dislikes will be a minimum requirement of any reinvigorated left foreign policy.

But working within the official boundaries of national politics — whether state structures or federal elections — can of course only take us so far. Indeed, the challenges of the twenty-first century are too great to be left to imperfect and perpetually constrained political actors. While the left in power should certainly use every tool at its disposal to promote democracy and safeguard human rights, global peace and equality will never be achieved without the emergence of new solidarity movements working outside the parochial frameworks of the nation-state. If our ends are to be international in scope, the means by which we pursue them must necessarily be as well.

This century offers two radically different possibilities: a future of exclusion and scarcity in which the many are exploited by the few, or one of sustainable abundance, collective prosperity and global equality. The left’s task above all else is to realize the second and fight tooth and nail against the first, ultimately transforming an unequal world, in the words of Sweden’s late prime minister Olof Palme, quoting poet Ragnar Thoursie, into “an open city without fortifications...its light shining up against the loneliness of space.”