Looking back to shape Canada’s foreign policy future

Sergio Marchi considers Canada's long legacy in the international sphere.
By: /
October 7, 2014
Former Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, Environment, and International Trade

We are all familiar with the truism that ‘all politics are local.’ It’s all about the immediate, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome. As such, international issues have barely registered a pulse during national election campaigns in Canada.

In a world that is getting smaller, this presents us with a significant and worrying dysfunction. After all, a single economic or political action in one corner of the world, can quickly send shock waves across the global village, compelling people, businesses, civil society, and governments to react accordingly.

Yet, despite the global tie-in, foreign policy does not come close to winning or losing elections in Canada, and for that matter, in most jurisdictions around the world — and I think it should.

In next year’s federal election, Canadians will be faced with a very clear foreign policy choice. Our fellow citizens could continue with four more years of the current doctrine, or opt for a re-set to a more familiar and traditional path.

From Where I Stand

When I bump into old Ambassadorial colleagues in Geneva, or attend dinners with their visiting Presidents and Ministers, they quickly ask two questions in relation to Canada.

First is, “What is going on with your Toronto Mayor?!”
And the second is, “What is happening with your country’s foreign policy?”

My standard response to the Rob Ford phenomenon is to plead complete dismay and embarrassment, while on the second inquiry, I try to offer their curiosity some context.

Their question on our foreign policy implies that we have taken a different path. After a little chatter, they overwhelmingly take polite exception with what strikes them as a relatively extreme, isolationist trajectory for Canada. It is unfamiliar to them. This is not what they have known and relied upon.

Moreover, I believe our current policy has made Canada less of a player on the international stage. It’s not that our Prime Minister does not ‘feel’ the global issues. But it is his approach to them that has changed, and people have clearly noticed.

Harper deserves credit, for example, on the trade policy front, where he has initiated and negotiated free trade agreements with the EU and Korea. But why not rally other causes, peoples and governments in the same vein?

Instead, our federal government has chartered a course that is intentionally and markedly different from those of preceding Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments. That is their choice, of course. And there is nothing sinister about opting for change.

The relevant question is: Is this new course working in the interests of Canada, and of the international community?

The Canadian Legacy: Our Four Pillars

If our friends are unsettled with our recent foreign leanings, what is it exactly that they miss? In other words, what was our legacy? 
From my standpoint, our foreign policy rested on four main pillars:


First and foremost, Canada used to firmly believe in multilateralism.

We saw the multilateral arena as an effective vehicle for dealing with global tensions. As a middle power, we engaged others in the hopes of finding common ground on issues that pitted people, countries and regions against one another. Accordingly, we were viewed as an ‘honest-broker’, as a country that could be trusted to advance the dialogue with balance and fairness.

We were ideally suited for such a role. Canada was never colonial in its history and outlook. We were seen as a country without much ‘baggage.’ We never led with lectures, and were always modest in our comportment. We were seen as fair, and prepared to listen to reasoned arguments. We were a developed nation with an affinity for the plight of developing societies, and had earned their respect.

True enough, we were not the indispensable nation. Instead, we sought to be the ‘value added’ nation.
As well, in our own national interest — which one cannot divorce from foreign policy — this reputation bought us much leverage, politically and economically.

However, our current government has pursued a very different form of diplomacy. They promote messages that seem to be rooted in different core values. They also have a regular habit of chastising people and institutions from the bully pulpit.

For example, when the PM does go before the UN, he never misses an opportunity to belittle and humiliate the UN. Why is that? What is the end game? And how does this advance Canadian interests?

To be sure, the UN is far from perfect. It cries out for reform, greater transparency and enhanced efficiency. But, as Churchill famously contextualized democracy in relation to other systems: what is the alternative? How else are we to deal with world problems?

It’s as if our government believes that working through international institutions like the UN is a sign of weakness. I think they are wrong. Without a forum where the family of nations are all present and equal, would any other option be seen as viable and legitimate?

Should we go back to days of the Wild West, when the big bullied the small, and where the powerful dictated the agenda? If we did, that would clearly work against our own ambitions as a middle power, as it would for so many other countries.

Rather than taking cheap shots, we should be trying to strengthen the UN and its governance. Our government should spend political capital and energies in building up the institution, rather than giving speeches that tear the UN down.

Further, the Harper regime seems to think that ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus’ are dirty words; concepts to be avoided at all costs.

And yet, successful diplomacy is built on the principle of compromise as a means to an end. The thrust of give-and-take is the very lifeblood of international relations. It is the process through which rapprochement and consensus is achieved.

During my time as Ambassador in Geneva, the Director General of the WTO or other heads of UN Agencies would regularly reach out to Canada for its assistance in trying to build agreement. We would be asked to reformulate a contentious paragraph. Or, be requested to confer with a country representative in an attempt to have them come around. Or, be placed on the list of speakers, without our asking, in order to make a timely intervention during a critical moment in the debate.

They did so because they valued and trusted Canada’s judgment, and thought that our leadership could help convince others. And because compromise is the essence of formulating agreement among contentious positions.

Another example of our changed international approach in this vein concerns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the past, on this incredibly delicate issue, Canada’s position was predicated on a balanced engagement, and a genuine respect for both parties to the dispute. We recognized Israel as a friend, and as a people deserving of secure and defined borders. At the same time, we sought and believed in a better, more prosperous future for the Palestinian people, where they could live in an independent State that they could call ‘home.’

Today, our policy is one sided. Consistently, Harper grants Israel a blank cheque, while the Palestinians get the back of his hand.

Any objective observer, interested in durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians — or between any other two peoples — would conclude that a one-sided policy is doomed to fail. It will never facilitate peace.

As a dependable friend, we owe the people of Israel our candor when it comes to their long terms interests, rather than blindly being a rubber stamp for their political leaders. And as it concerns the Palestinian people, they need to know that Hamas terrorist attacks are not the solution.

But both parties must be dealt with respect and dignity, if they are to one day find common ground.

International engagement

Second, we used to believe in vigorous international engagement.

It was a rather simple calculation. We assumed that by fully engaging and involving all the relevant partners and by considering all their respective views, one could best understand the problem at hand, and that this was the first, indispensable step towards finding a workable and lasting solution. Then, through continued engagement, constructive ideas and options would emerge.

Yes, this route took more time, energy and patience, but it produced better and more sustainable outcomes. We tried to avoid isolating people or countries, as that only breeds more tensions and misunderstandings. Plus, when a party is pushed into a corner and feels it has nothing to lose, that is when it is at its most dangerous; and that is when the circumstances become explosive.

Successful diplomacy means that we cannot be indifferent to people and their histories. We must work with them, regardless of the differences between us. This explains the rationale behind our long-standing policy on Cuba. Or, why Canada was one the first western nations to recognize China diplomatically.

Here again, our government today seems to enjoy swimming against this current. When it comes to Iran, for example, our PM’s preference is to give highly charged ideological lectures to his counterparts. He also closed our Embassy in Tehran. Now, I fully recognize that we have legitimate differences with Iran’s government, and that these issues are complex. However, all the more reason to stay engaged. How else are we going to bridge differences? We can’t delegate that task to others.

And more selfishly, as it regards Iran, if the nuclear negotiations succeed in November — as many officials and experts on both sides believe it will — and this opens a new era of openness and reform for the country, how do we position and advance our own national economic interests in the rebuilding of their society? And how do we further people to people contact without engagement?

Sadly, our current course serves only to have Iran harden its position. It also guarantees that Canada will not have a voice in the current dialogue. And when it comes to future business opportunities, our companies will start from a disadvantage in relation to resuming trade and investment with a country whose population of 80 million desperately want and require massive investments from the West.

And make no mistake, that time is coming. I was in Tehran several weeks ago, for the first time, and their people long for a re-engagement with the West, including Canada.

Our allies have taken a different road. President Obama has the same concerns as we do, but he has kept an open door with the Iranian government. Same thing with the EU, which is astutely nurturing its relationship with Iran’s new President. Even the British PM, who closed the British Embassy some two years ago, has seen the error of his ways. He recently announced the re-opening of their Mission in Tehran. Canada should follow suit.

Ditto with Harper’s treatment of Putin. The Russian President is clearly guilty of an illegal, and dangerous over-reach in Ukraine; one that already caused untold problems and bloodshed. No questions about that. But, as much as we are offended by Putin’s irresponsible campaign, what does it serve to cut off our links with him, as we have done? How does isolating him contribute to bringing Putin back to his senses? Again, despite huge differences, U.S., German, French, and Italian leaders, to name of few, have striven to keep their channels with their Russian counterpart open.

A similar orthodoxy was at play when Harper opted to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, over that country’s human-rights record.

Some would call me naïve. I would instead call it confronting and engaging your protagonist; keeping them close, where you can see them and talk to them.

By the way, this is also a cardinal rule of local, retail politics.
 However, Harper seems to also have a different approach domestically.
 Jeffrey Simpson, the celebrated columnist for the Globe and Mail, captured this well, when he wrote:

By identifying enemies or hostile institutions, or by picking fights with individuals or institutions, Mr. Harper can better galvanize his supporters. The idea of appealing to as many people as possible in the search for maximizing votes is not how he governs. Instead, he looks to his party’s core vote, tries to energize it as often as possible, then finds slices of the electorate to add to the core.

In a similar way, when Harper first came to power, confrontation was also his preferred choice for dealing with China. He questioned them publicly, and chose not to build a rapport with China’s Premier and President. He also initially refused to cooperate with the Canada China Business Council (CCBC), which is our country’s leading private sector entity for furthering trade and investment between our two peoples and countries. I know. I was CCBC President at the time.

And what did he achieve through this approach? Not only did it fail to persuade China to change its ways on the irritations that our PM would raise, but in the end, we were not seen as a reliable partner. This gives us less sway, and Canadian businesses have unfortunately paid the price of this mistrust.

The moral of this story is not to be indifferent to our legitimate concerns with China. On the contrary, Harper has the right and obligation to raise sensitive matters, and articulate a difference of opinion. However, he needs to address these matters in a way that is constructive and ultimately, successful.

Whenever I was in China with Prime Minister Chretien, for instance, the delicate matter of human rights was a regular item on the bilateral agenda. He would never miss an opportunity to raise these concerns, but he would do so in a respectful manner. And that is the only form of diplomacy that would move the Chinese. We resolved files and deepened the relationship at the same time.

Having them lose face in public is clearly not the way to go. Only more recently has Harper realized this, and I applaud him for this. In the past couple of years he has been back peddling, on account of our economic interests with the Asian giant.

Civil servant partnerships

Third, past governments sought out the creative energies and expertize of career diplomats, representatives of civil society, and opposition parties.

No government can develop effective and ongoing public policy without a true partnership with their civil servants. Political leaders are always in search of better ideas and more options. They also need honest policy assessments and analysis.

In turn, the political masters must support and express confidence in their bureaucrats. Loyalty and the art of governing is a two way street.

I recall my very first Cabinet meeting. Following the swearing in of the new government in 1993, we had a Cabinet meeting that afternoon. It was a quick affair. There were just three issues on the agenda, and it was more of an opportunity for Chretien to highlight the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of his administration. I found these ‘marching orders’ most helpful, especially if you wanted to stay in Cabinet for the long haul!

One of these items was his directive to work closely with our deputies and senior officials. He talked about them as “partners” for developing better ideas and policies. He also said that they were instrumental in helping us become successful Ministers and that in return, strong Ministers consolidate the position and prestige of their officials around Ottawa.

In other words, he wanted us to closely collaborate with them, and build a real, trusting partnership. Towards this end, he cut our budget for the hiring of political staff. It was a lesson that stayed with me throughout my years in Cabinet, and it proved to be absolutely true.

Contrast that with the Harper school of public service. His is more a “command and control” approach. Our Ambassadors, for example, cannot address a public audience without their remarks first being approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and then by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Talk about handcuffing our diplomatic troops, whose job it is to promote and defend Canadian interests, around the world, in real time.

When I approached one of my successors to the WTO and asked him how we worked by this rule, he flatly said: “I just don’t accept any more commitments for public speeches. Period.” He explained that on one occasion, hours before he was to address a conference, he received an email from the PMO denying clearance of his speech. He was compelled to cancel his appearance, and he was so embarrassed, that he vowed not to risk a repeat performance.

When I asked another Ambassador who had served in Asia, he had a different recipe. He carefully tailored his first speech to ensure the necessary approval and thereafter submitted similar texts, only to deliver a different message. Which was fine, as long as the PMO did not find out, otherwise there would be hell to pay!

Regrettably, this results in a deficit of ideas and perspectives, which only reinforces an inward, more ideological approach. When I talk to civil society leaders, they complain that their government does not treat them as genuine partners. That they are not valued for their expertise and influence, nationally and internationally.

The same is true for the government’s relationship with opposition MPs. Why did the PM, for example, exclude them when a government delegation visited Ukraine, in regards to the crisis created by Russian President Putin? Why be overly partisan in conducting international affairs and supporting an ally in need, when traditionally, you leave domestic politics at home? I suppose the PM sees no difference. He operates in one gear.

Think big

Finally, we used to think big.

In all modesty, we were good at public diplomacy. We were serious in weighing all sides of an issue. We were fair and balanced. We brought people together. We would come up with novel ideas. We would talk the ‘lingua franca’. And we tried to think big.

In return, we received respect from allies and the international community at large. We also leveraged this ‘soft’ power politically and economically. Think about some of Canada’s past, major diplomatic accomplishments:

  • PM Diefenbaker brought Canada into NORAD, and refused U.S. demands to stop shipping wheat to the Chinese, who were in desperate need in the early 1960s.He also refused America’s request that we isolate Cuba.At the 1961 Commonwealth conference, he was the only white leader to object to South African membership, on account of their apartheid system.

  • PM Pearson was our country’s foremost diplomat of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the Suez crisis. In 1945, he represented Canada at the founding conference of the UN, and his efforts were critical in us joining NATO in 1949. The UN Emergency Force was his creation, and Pearson is considered the father of the modern concept of peacekeeping.

  • PM Trudeau was one of Canada’s best international ‘salesmen’. He helped deepen Canada’s footprint in the world, and was regarded as a leading statesmen.He was ahead of his times when he was one of the first western Leaders to recognize China, including beating Nixon to the punch.When Mr. Trudeau passed away I was still Ambassador in Geneva. As is the custom, we invited the diplomatic community to sign an official condolence book that was placed inside our Embassy’s reception area.Well, I cannot tell you how many Ambassadors insisted on seeing me when they came, because they wanted to relay a personal story of what our former PM meant to them and to their country. I knew Mr. Trudeau had a far reach, but after listening to these accounts, that influence was much more profound that I could have ever imagined.

  • PM Mulroney, despite being political soul mates of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, fought both of them tooth and nail in relation to their positions on South Africa’s system of Apartheid. And he placed his political and diplomatic efforts behind the National African Congress’ quest for freedom and equality. Mulroney’s leadership was so instrumental that when Nelson Mandela was a free man, one of his first foreign trips was to Canada, to pay his personal thanks and appreciation to Mulroney and Canada. Mulroney also used diplomacy to good effect when it came to advancing environment policy, free trade with U.S., bringing Canada back into the OAS, and the creation of the Francophone Summit.

  • PM Chretien had the leadership and presence of mind to say “no” to President Bush, when he pushed hard for Canada to join his invasion of Iraq.Indeed, Jean tells me that wherever he travels, the first question he is asked is how he found the courage to hold his own with our neighbor, ally, largest trading partner, and super-power friend. Under Mr. Chretien, Canada also took the leadership in creating the International Landmine Convention,the International Court of Justice, the global ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principal, as well as signing the Kyoto Protocol.

  • PM Martin promoted the expansion of the G8 into a larger group of 20 nations, and forged a deeper rapport with China by announcing a “strategic partnership with President Hu in 2005.

None of these acts of leadership by Canada and her leaders were small. Nor were they easy. Indeed, they were gutsy and thoughtful. When you connect these individual diplomatic dots, they paint a very different portrait from the canvass of late. Indeed, they speak to another era.

When U.S. President Bill Clinton addressed a joint sitting of the Canadian Parliament in 1995, he saluted our country for its role on the world stage. He said:

We know that for Canada, the history of action is a matter of deep tradition and personal conviction. It says we must be engaged in the affairs of the world. You have always shown the wisdom of reaching out instead of retreating, of rising to new responsibilities instead of retrenching. Your tradition of engagement continues to this day, and believe you me, it earns respect all around the world from people of all races and political systems.

Quite the testimonial. But, if he were candid, I wonder what Clinton would say today?

Policies matter a great deal. But so do personalities. People of strength, experience and vision can make all the difference in the world.

I truly hope that international affairs will be a pivotal issue in next year’s election. And that Canadians provide their leaders with a compass for navigating these global waters. At the very least, very different policy approaches and personalities will be on public display during the campaign, for Canadians to judge.

In this regard, there will be no ambiguity.

This piece is an edited version of a talk Sergio Marchi is giving Oct. 7 at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, and also Oct. 9 at the University of Ottawa.