Skip to main content
book review

Canada's former ambassador to China David Mulroney laments the state of our country's foreign policy in Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know About China in the 21st Century

It was October, 2006, and along Beijing's Wangfujing Street, billboards transformed the ancient Chinese city into a portal. Elephants on the Serengeti Plain, Maasai tribesmen brandishing spears, Victoria Falls in full roar. Everywhere one turned, Africa.

The posters announced the third triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC, a key objective in China's zouchuqu zhanlue, or "Go Out," strategy. Inaugurated in 1999 to help grease the wheels of a burgeoning economic phenomenon, by 2006 FOCAC had become the primary multilateral body shaping the Sino-African relationship. Forty-eight African countries had signed trade agreements with Beijing, and all 48 heads of state were coming for the party. Beijing had spared no expense: FOCAC 2006 was seen as a dry run for the looming Olympic Games, and as no less an important confirmation of China's new superpower status.

The pageantry exceeded anything African dignitaries had come to expect from trips abroad. In Beijing, pariahs were treated like leaders, like major statesmen, like players. Western diplomats, watching the ubiquitous black Audi A6s zoom in from the airport, cabled their unease back home. Some of the more sharp-eyed wonks couldn't help but chuckle at a glossy poster depicting a war-painted Papua New Guinean with a bone through his nose. Did the Chinese know anything about Africa? Did they have any idea with whom they were dealing?

As it happened, they did. FOCAC 2006 was masterminded by a career diplomat named Liu Guijin, a former ambassador to Pretoria and Harare, and at the time China's special envoy to Africa. His BlackBerry contained the numbers of some of the less salutary figures on the world stage, but Liu understood diplomacy as an occasionally dark art that, when practised with skill and sensitivity, resulted in a profoundly altered geopolitical landscape. His forum literally reshaped the world during the brain freeze that was the global "war on terror," when Canada was prosecuting an endless conflict in a distant land it couldn't possibly fathom, and when a new prime minister was pursuing a détente with Beijing that left old China hands staring into empty rice-wine bottles with a mixture of exasperation and shame.

One such hand was David Mulroney (no relation), Canada's ambassador to China between 2009 and 2013 and, like Liu, a lifelong diplomat. Although he doesn't mention FOCAC in his timely and essential primer on Canadian geopolitical dysfunction, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, Liu's forum represented exactly the sort of visionary gambit Mulroney believes the Canadian government is no longer capable of pulling off.

And he'd know. He's currently serving hard time as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, trying to explain what's gone wrong to Canadians who, for almost a generation, have not known anything to go right. "I would like to be able to say that I left government service confident that the country is on the right track in terms of its approach to foreign policy, that we have a clear vision for Canada in the world, and the will and expertise to pursue it," he writes of his retirement last year. "But over the 30-plus years of my career I have witnessed a national loss of focus, a lack of seriousness and ambition when it comes to making our way in the world."

This is one of many headshots that Ottawa sustains over the course of Mulroney's bracing narrative. According to the blurb, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom is a sort of self-help manual for Canadians looking to understand our relationship with China, and how to leverage that relationship into a lasting conduit for national prosperity. But it's almost as if Mulroney is cribbing from the timeless Ethiopian diplomatic tradition of "wax and gold" – wax being the surface meaning, and gold forming the truth of the argument, its essence. Indeed, this book is not so much about a surging China as it is about a sinking Canada. Mulroney hardly hides this fact: The final chapters trace his tenure as the deputy minister responsible for the Afghanistan Task Force, "overseeing interdepartmental co-ordination of all aspects of Canada's engagement in Afghanistan" during perhaps the most miserably ill-conceived chapter in this country's history.

China, then, is the McGuffin. But the country also teaches a vital, once-in-an-epoch lesson – one that Ottawa has, for the most part, ignored. How do we define the Chinese miracle? Here's one way: In three decades, 300 million Chinese rose from absolute poverty; 200 million moved from farms to industry; 100 million joined the middle class; and half a million became millionaires. Here's another: Canada's population is roughly equivalent to that of the municipality of Chongqing – stomping ground of the fallen Bo Xilai, Toronto's sister city, and a place almost no one in this country has heard of.

(Think about this mixed blessing for a moment: Toronto's allegedly business-centric former head honcho Rob Ford never visited Chongqing once – never pitched his city's financial services industry, its mining-heavy stock exchange or its claptrap condominiums. As for so many politicians, Dalton McGuinty included, China was barely an afterthought for Ford.)

That's China taken care of. But what about Canada? Mulroney describes the country as "a middle power in middle age," a rather terrifying summation of a country that is barely 150 years old by the official tally. Geography, always a joker, has shaped a gigantic, scarcely populated repository of natural bounty and plonked it alongside the richest, most powerful republic in the history of the planet. The distorting effects of this relationship have led to all sorts of misconceptions of what Canada is – a country defined by what it is not – and confusion about how best to exercise limited power in the face of unlimited might.

Traditionally, Canada dealt with this vast misalignment by hitching its national interests to those of its neighbour, while adhering to the party line at United Nations and other multilateral organizations. But in a world that is becoming increasingly diffuse, one in which Brazil is inarguably more important to our future than Italy, Mulroney argues that long-term foreign-policy vision is suddenly an existential necessity, rather than something left to the caprice of the UN Security Council. But – and here's Mulroney's central thesis and his primary lament – the systematic degradation of the axis that informs foreign policy at a ministerial level, and enacts it at the bureaucratic level, has made that virtually impossible.

As ambassador to China, Mulroney presided over 60 personnel from 10 federal departments and three provinces, an agglomeration of competing satrapies that could only degenerate into bun fights and turf wars. When the book segues into Afghanistan, we learn that this dysfunction wasn't restricted to the Beijing file. The war against the Taliban, or whatever the Afghanistan adventure represented, wasn't an example of mission creep so much as mission dissolution – a morally coruscating instance of hewers of wood and drawers of water donning Call of Duty battle gear and killing/dying in the mountains until someone told them to stop.

Although Mulroney is polite about it, the Harper government's foreign-policy objectives – steered successively by Peter MacKay, Maxime Bernier, Lawrence Cannon and John Baird – have evolved into something both less and more than foreign policy. "At our worst moment," he writes, "we infantilize foreign policy, thinking we should form relationships with countries because we like them." In a related observation, he correctly claims that Canada's international objectives increasingly dovetail with local political concerns – an unwelcome development in a country that has become increasingly tribal just as it has become more "diverse."

"The most obvious manifestation of our lack of seriousness," Mulroney writes, "is the tendency to use regional travel as a form of outreach to politically important ethnic communities in Canada." He provides examples that are eye-wateringly embarrassing, proof that our slide downward is not going unnoticed by policy makers and world leaders who should be considered partners, not photo ops for the ethnic papers.

It's time to grow up, insists Mulroney, and our engagement with China can help us do so. The book includes dozens of anecdotes about the craft of diplomacy – and although these lack the urgency of his larger cri de coeur, they are fascinating insights into how modern embassies and missions actually function. But the book becomes truly important when it reminds Canadians that if the country hopes to sell natural resources, financial services and technologies to new and emerging markets, Ottawa will have to grasp the nuances of the new world order. This means streamlining the foreign service, refocusing on truly national objectives and acting like hardened pragmatists in our dealings with both old and new friends.

The foreign service traditionally functioned as the link between a parochial, inward-looking Ottawa and the wider world – it's time it did so again. Just as FOCAC reshaped the world, the Chinese have recently committed to creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a sort of rejoinder to the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in shaping global economic policy. The United States is lobbying its allies not to join (for the most part unsuccessfully) and Canada has, dutifully, yet to sign up. Are we a North American country, or are we a Pacific country, or are we both?

I can almost hear Mulroney screaming the answer from his padded cell in the Munk Centre.

Richard Poplak has just finished co-authoring a book interrogating the notion of "Africa Rising."

Like Globe Books on Facebook.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct