American statesman Dean Acheson once acidly quipped that Canadians discussing foreign affairs reminded him of listening to the “stern daughter of the voice of God.” Canadians, he implied, were pious moralists, ready to give free and often unwanted advice, based on the assumption that Canadians possessed a rare insight into good and proper conduct.
Today, watching the Harper government, foreigners might conclude that Canadians have evolved from pious finger-pointers to truculent finger-pointers, with poses based on presumptive moral superiority toward others.
Almost everything the Harper government does internationally is rooted in impressing domestic audiences, so the truculence that now characterizes Canada’s foreign policy has domestic politics in mind. Judging by polling data, this aggressive in-your-face lecturing of others (save for China) appears to be winning some domestic favour, while, naturally, eroding our credibility abroad.
The latest egregious example of truculent morality was this week’s visit by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to the West Bank. At a meeting with the most moderate leadership in Palestinian Authority history, the Canadians lectured the Palestinians on the terrible mistake they’d made in seeking United Nations membership, a bid that won strong support in the General Assembly.
This unwanted lecture from visitors from afar came from a government whose ministers bragged in Israel that “Canada” is the most pro-Israeli country in the world. This statement is completely wrong. The Harper government may be the most pro-Israeli government in the world, but the population is not. Various polls taken in recent years have shown the reverse: Israel is one of the least popular countries among Canadians, a perception that deeply worries many Canadian Jews. (A poll did note this week that nearly half of Canadians surveyed believe Ottawa’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “strikes the right balance.”)
The Harper government insists it favours a two-state solution, but everyone knows it will do or say nothing to nudge Israel in that direction, or to chastise Israel for doing next to nothing to move in that direction. As a result of this attitude, manifested by the ministers’ trip, Canada’s reputation has sunk in the Arab world.
The week before the West Bank lecture, the Prime Minister was telling Europeans how they should deal with their economic crisis during a speech in Davos. This likely impressed Canadians, but not Europeans. The last thing they need is gratuitous advice from a North American country that, frankly, doesn’t count for much in Europe, as anyone who’s lived there knows. And the advice is especially unwelcome when it’s layered with self-applause by Canadians about how well their economy has done.
In climate-change negotiations, the government’s attitude of palpable disdain for the Kyoto Protocol, coupled with its own deplorable record of inaction against greenhouse-gas emissions, shredded whatever credibility Canada might have aspired to enjoy.
Truculent moralizing also is being directed at Sri Lanka, which the Harperites accuse of turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses. This criticism delights Toronto’s Tamil community (the largest Tamil diaspora outside southern Asia), whose members the Harper government is striving to mould into a Conservative bloc.
There was a time when Canadian governments tried to take an even-handed stand in that troubled country, urging reconciliation and offering help. But now Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated government gets lectures – and a threat that Canada will boycott the next Commonwealth conference there. That possibility so alarmed Britain and Australia that their leaders implored Mr. Harper not to make that threat at the last Commonwealth conference in Perth.
When your closest friends react badly to this proclivity for truculent moralizing, imagine what the rest of the world thinks.
Under the Harper government, Canada lost its bid for a Security Council seat – the first time it had ever been defeated. Were a vote held today, chances are Canada would get even fewer votes.