Knowing Our Limits, Playing To Our Strengths

Canada needs to respect its place as a middle power says Jennifer Jeffs.
By: /
September 17, 2012

Last Friday’s speech in Montreal by Foreign Minister Baird was his first public speaking engagement since the closing of Canada’s embassy in Tehran. The decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran provoked a storm of opinion, revealing a public divided over the direction of Harper’s foreign policy.

On the decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran, two groups emerged: on one hand were those who condemned the decision, questioning Baird’s reasoning, and warning against ideologically-driven policy. One the other were those who favoured Baird’s “tough” approach, arguing that Canada’s condemnation is right and necessary.

Baird’s speech was aimed at Quebecers in the first group. The foreign minister is clearly aware of the doubts expressed by the incoming minority PQ government. Pauline Marois has declared there is little congruency between Quebec’s policy goals and the federal government’s foreign policy. Baird’s speech carried a unambiguous message: the Harper government’s decision to close the embassy in Tehran was entirely consistent with its principled stand on human rights and individual freedoms.

Baird’s emphasis on rights and freedoms is in line with the steps Harper has taken to put his stamp on Canada’s foreign policy. The prime minister made his priorities clear from the beginning: increased military spending, public support for the Canadian defence community, a strong stance on Arctic sovereignty, firm backing of the democratic state of Israel, and pressure on the Chinese government to respect human rights and religious freedom. Following Harper’s lead, Minister Baird has made numerous visits to China and is leaving his own stamp by focusing on individual rights and freedoms such as forced marriage and the persecution of homosexuals abroad. Foreign ownership and investment in various natural resources has recently complicated the government’s efforts to pressure China to uphold human rights, and will likely provide the Quebec government with plenty of fodder for claims of hypocrisy.

Standing up for the values Canadians believe in, and that they believe others have the right to enjoy, is sound policy. Believing we can do so by preserving our unique middle-power strengths – a respected diplomatic presence around the globe, a moderate and fair voice in world debates, and a reputation for successfully negotiating multilateral partnerships with major powers – is not. In the global context, powers of different sizes of influence take on different roles. Small powers without the ability to form or change the system adjust to circumstances created by large powers. Medium-sized, or ‘middle power’ countries, use diplomacy and multilateral channels to help them achieve their goals. Only the most powerful countries have the ability to shape the system and bring about system-wide change.

The Harper government’s foreign policy strategy increasingly appears to be one of bold statements and lofty rhetoric, of claiming the moral high ground. But Canada is delivering judgment from a shaky platform of limited material power and diminishing soft power. The consequences of trading diplomacy for bellicosity may prove costly. Harper’s current path will likely have the reverse effect of what he desires, making Canada a lesser middle power rather than a major player.

Harper’s aspiration for Canada to move from middle power to system-altering power status – revealed by specific policies, such as the embassy closure, and more general agenda items, such as his and Minister Baird’s focus on human rights – carries a clear risk. Canada could find itself in a position where the only choice it has is to react to the actions of the more powerful. This will be because we overreached, even as we under-invest in resources we need to maintain our current status. The first step to overcoming our limitations should be to respect them and the complexity of navigating the contemporary global context as a middle power.

Photo courtesy of Reuters