As the world watches in horror at the devastation wrought in Haiti by a massive earthquake, let's recall that some countries have fewer rights to casual observer status than others. Canada, in this respect, arguably has the fewest rights of all.
In 2007, the Harper government declared that Canada would become a leader in the Americas. The explicit goals of such leadership were to be security, prosperity and democratic governance for the region. Alas, we've heard little about this leadership since. Bilateral free-trade deals have been struck, yes, and development programs have been retorqued to privilege the region - but bona fide strategic leadership?
Strategically, the aspiration to regional leadership for Canada is astute. The Harper government borrowed heavily from the Australian model of leadership in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. But one is hard-pressed to find parallels between the two countries' strategic performance.
Since the 1999 Timor Leste emergency intervention, in which Australia, under John Howard, was clearly the lead player, Canberra has gone on to decisively deliver on its stated position that Australia must lead in its region - if for no other reason than Australian wealth comes with significant obligations for the betterment of the lot of Australia's less fortunate neighbours. In Timor, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and a host of other regional theatres, Australia has not shrunk from this posture. Massive national assets, political attention and civil service talent have all been put at the disposal of such Australian leadership.
(In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Australia mobilized $1-billion and very considerable government and human assets to unequivocally lead the international effort to assist Indonesia - hardest hit of the countries - with recovery in Banda Aceh. The current Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is the father of Australia's national Asian languages strategy, logically requisite to any meaningful engagement in the region.)
So far, there's been no such major alignment of Canadian strategic resources in support of credible leadership in the Americas. National assets deployed in the region for this purpose have been underwhelming (we have but a handful of Canadian Forces personnel in Haiti and about six dozen police officers as part of the United Nations mission to train Haiti's national police force, and we deliver modest aid moneys to the country chiefly through the UN), political attention fleeting at best, and strategic mobilization of the civil service questionable. (How many Spanish speakers, after all, are there in Ottawa?)
The earthquake in Haiti should be a decisive spur to long-overdue Canadian delivery on our commitment to provide leadership. It is a small, poor country (nine million people) with rich ties to Canada through the French language, the civil law, our large Haitian diaspora and, indeed, Canadians' touristic predilections for the island of Hispaniola.
What is more, the United States, which was decidedly first out of the gate in declaring that it would provide massive post-quake assistance for Haiti, is patently overstretched in its global commitments. And while President Barack Obama will be keen to put his stamp on Haitian relief in the short term, the reality of this American overstretch will soon redirect executive attention back to Afghanistan, Iraq and matters of basic national security.
So there's every likelihood that Mr. Obama would welcome an ambitious Canadian pitch to lead the international effort to bring short-term relief, and then drive longer-term quality-of-life transformations, to Haiti. The co-ordination burden for Canada, of course, would be considerable, and the cost to the federal treasury not insignificant. And, to be sure, short-term Canadian leadership should be tied to a 10-year, Canadian-led plan to turn Haiti's prospects around in a massive way, to transform Haiti into a stable society - secure, prosperous and democratic, as the 2007 undertaking requires - through the vector of Canadian toil and commitment.
Leadership doesn't come cheap. But it's time. Haiti's sorrowful plight should make this all too plain.
Irvin Studin is editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine.