In Conversation on Libya

By: /
August 25, 2011
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

André has provocatively questioned whether Canada's involvement in the NATO-led air campaign in Libya really represents a new departure in our country's foreign policy. Like him, I find it hard to believe that a Liberal government would really have responded differently to the circumstances that faced the international community in March 2011.

To begin, the no-fly zone was pushed by the UK and France, and backed up by Lebanon. The U.S. came on side much later in the game. Indeed, a White House official was over-heard to say wryly that the U.S. was 'leading from behind'. Given the origins of the impetus for action, the Canadian government did not have to worry about being portrayed as a blind follower of U.S. policy. Liberal governments have been known to take this perception seriously (just think of Paul Martin's decision on ballistic missile defence). So here is one factor that suggests they would have been supportive of action in Libya.

Second, the framing of the no-fly zone used the language of civilian protection. As André notes, former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy was a strong proponent of the principle of the 'responsibility to protect' (or R2P, as it has become known). In fact, it was a Canadian-sponsored Commission, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which in 2001 coined the terminology and pushed the notion of R2P within the United Nations. (Michael Ignatieff - at that time an academic in human rights - was a prominent member of the Commission). Other key Liberals, such as Allan Rock and Paul Martin, were equally supportive of the principle. So it is difficult to imagine that a Liberal government would have been opposed to an action framed in terms of R2P.

Third, the no-fly zone was authorized by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1973. Liberals have been long-standing supporters of multilateral processes. It was the lack of multilateral backing - i.e., the failure to get the so-called second resolution on Iraq in 2003 - that largely determined the Chrétien government's refusal to back the Iraq War. So the campaign in Libya ticked all of the boxes in terms of having 'proper authority' within the international community.

Finally, the Security Council delegated implementation of the Resolution to NATO: a body in which Canada has historically had a huge part to play. One of the arguments that motivated Canada's participation in Afghanistan - an involvement that, as André notes, began under a Liberal government - was that Canada needed to honour its commitments to its allies, and 'pull its weight'. In addition, it was under a NATO umbrella that Canada participated in the Kosovo air campaign in 1999 (interestingly, without Security Council authorization). So again, it seems unlikely that a Liberal government would have opted out of an action taken by the NATO alliance.

All of these cases demonstrate that the notion of 'honest broker' needs careful definition. It most certainly does not mean non-involvement, i.e., Switzerland-style neutrality. Our country has been far from neutral in a variety of international crises. To suggest otherwise is to air-brush away some key instances in Canadian history - some of them integral parts of the process of building our nation. What is true, however, is that our country has tried to maintain a stance of impartiality in a number of conflicts. By impartiality, I mean the policy of trying to treat two sides even-handedly in political terms.

In the case of Libya, impartiality would have meant sticking judiciously to the mandate of no-fly zone, designed only to protect civilians, and avoiding the temptation to sponsor one political outcome. NATO and its allies were most certainly exceeding that mandate in many of their actions, particularly during the assault on Tripoli. After all, it was Qatar's Special Forces, and not the rebels, who made the storming of Qaddafi's compound possible. Some Western leaders also went beyond the fragile consensus that supported the no-fly zone; by proclaiming (as Obama, Sarkozy, and Cameron did) that Libya's future could not include Qaddafi, they were most certainly choosing sides.

I'm not a defender of the current government's foreign policy, but the criticism leveled needs to be fair. So what is behind these suggestions that the Harper government's policy on Libya represents a new departure for Canada in foreign affairs? It is not involvement in the NATO-led effort that seems new. Rather, it is the strong rhetoric of 'right and wrong', as we have discussed previously in these pages, and the clear support for one winner in Libya's political struggle.

But as André suggests, modern conflict is becoming more complex. When the goal is to protect civilians, it is extremely difficult not to pick sides. Resolution 1973, if read very narrowly, represented a possible path for protecting the vulnerable without dictating a political outcome. But it was liberally interpreted by some as allowing for partiality and 'muscular diplomacy'. That is the charge we can level at Harper. Some Liberals might not have followed him down that road, but others might well have.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.