Oh Canada, Where Art Thou?

Daryl Copeland of how Canada's reputation in the world has suffered.
By: /
July 1, 2013

Amidst breaking news of convulsions shaking Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil, the election of a moderate president in Iran, the dispatch of a UN “intervention force” to the DRC, and revelations of massive cyber-surveillance, Canadians are understandably distracted.  Few seem to be paying much attention to an issue of longer-term, yet potentially much larger domestic consequence – this country’s changing place in the world. When it comes to foreign perceptions of Canada, a fundamental shift has occurred. 

This country and its people, although certainly not reviled, are no longer accorded the admiration and esteem that, until recently, was the norm. The red maple leaf, once a widely recognized and even revered as symbol of Canadian internationalism, does not evoke the enthusiastic response that once made it the envy of backpackers everywhere. The magic is gone.

Pearson’s ghost

I have some experience with the assessment of Canada’s global image and reputation.  As a wandering student in the 1970s and 80s, I delighted in the warm reception that was extended most everywhere. I attributed that hospitality in large part to my nationality.

Similarly, over the course of a 30-year diplomatic career, I found that contact-making and relationship-building was achieved easily. Doors opened, conversations flowed, and the development of interpersonal networks based on confidence, trust, and respect – the bedrock of diplomatic practice – was neither complicated nor difficult. I encountered a strongly positive predisposition towards Canada and Canadians which, at the most visceral and immediate level, evoked a smile rather than a scowl.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not this favourable dispensation was associated with decades of peacekeeping, or generous development assistance, or Canada’s association with innovative and unthreatening approaches to international policy more generally. What counts is that the accumulated goodwill, or national brand equity, was there. It was tangible. It existed mainly in the eyes of the beholder, but it paid real economic and political dividends.

Fast forward to the present. Canada’s erstwhile power brand, popularized until recently by everyone from brewers to booksellers, has been appreciably degraded. The helpful fixer, honest broker and Boy Scout to the world is today no more than a fading memory.

A long way down

I have never been convinced of the existence of a “golden age” of Canadian diplomacy. Nevertheless, looking back 30 years, the record of progressive international activism is indelible. Think, for instance, of Canada’s central role as a champion of the North-South dialogue, or in the organization of the Rio Summit on Environment and Development. Canadian leadership in the negotiation of agreements to control ozone layer depletion and acid rain, or within the Commonwealth to end apartheid in South Africa, fits in the same category.  

A generation later, these sorts of achievements seem almost impossibly distant. More recent Canadian initiatives - the campaigns to ban land mines or dry up the trade in conflict diamonds,  or the effort to establish an International Criminal Court or to orchestrate an awareness of the plight of child soldiers – were less ambitious. Still, in hindsight they loom large. 

Countries can coast on their laurels for only so long, and the reality content which underpinned Canada’s familiar reputation as a middle power had all but disappeared by the turn of the century.  Canadian advocacy of the Responsibility to Protectdoctrine was the last gasp.

What has been substituted? 

Trade and investment are front and centre. The government promotes heavy oil extraction and pipeline construction, has introduced a raft of deregulatory policies on energy, mining, and the environment, and obstructs progress on climate change. Until less than a year ago it actively supported asbestos exports.

A smorgasbord of free trade agreements form the core of commercial policy, although the most important of those efforts, a comprehensive pact with the EU, is stalled.

Strategically crucial relations with the Asia-Pacific region have been strained, those with Africa downgraded, and those with Israel, the U.S. and “the hemisphere” burnished. Multilateralism has been disdained, the aid budget cut and military solutions pursued in Afghanistan and Libya, with at best uncertain results.

Religious freedom has emerged as a central theme.

Taken together, this ideologically-laden agenda represents a radical departure. With the sea change in international policy direction, Canada’s place in the world is shrinking. So, too, is its standing. Canada has fallen from first (for much of the 1990s) to sixth (2011) to eleventh place (2013) on the UN Human Development Index, and the slide continues.

All of this is finally being noticed. Canada’s spectacular failure in late 2010 to win an elected seat on the UN Security Council – losing to Portugal – illuminated the country’s diminished stature with devastating clarity.

Capacity reduction

The absence of anything resembling a grand strategy, and the policy incoherence and missteps which have resulted, explain in part Canada’s failing reputation and faltering performance. Yet Canada would almost certainly have fared better were it not for what amounts to an assault on diplomacy as a primary instrument of statecraft. 

A perfect storm has been unleashed, and this has afflicted all three elements of the diplomatic ecosystem – the foreign ministry, the foreign service, and the diplomatic business model.

DFAIT’s resources have been severely slashed – over $300 million by 2014-15 – and the department is struggling under the burden of accommodating its unanticipated merger with CIDA.

The Foreign Service, without a contract for several years, has been backed into a corner and is facing a protracted struggle to restore equitable terms and conditions of employment.

The government’s unprecedented insistence on centralized control over all communications has virtually eliminated Canadian public and digital diplomacy, the very tools which would otherwise constitute this country’s comparative advantage vis-a-vis the competition. 

It may be that roiling markets, the unending eurozone crisis, and a preoccupation with threats and challenges lurking perilously close to the front door have distracted Canadians from any sustained reflection on shifts in world order. But, make no mistake. For Canada, the global game has changed, and not for the better.