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Andrew Cohen believes Canada has sleepwalked its way to global irrelevance, squandering a proud tradition and turning us into a nation of hypocrites. Most Canadians probably agree with him. The question is whether they care.

Mr. Cohen is the author of While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, a new analysis of the decline of Canada's foreign policy and its military. Like almost all single-issue rants, it lacks perspective, failing to acknowledge that there were good reasons for the federal government to neglect its diplomatic, military and foreign-aid obligations.

But, nonetheless, those obligations have been neglected, and Canadians need to ask themselves whether the time has come to repair the damage.

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Mr. Cohen, a former Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail who teaches journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, reminds us of the days following the Second World War, when Canada punched far above its weight in international affairs.

We helped craft the institutions that shaped the postwar world order; we played key roles in defusing international crises; we were present at the creation of the foreign-aid system; our military machine was impressive and other countries considered our foreign service the best in the world.

Maybe it started with John Diefenbaker. Certainly, Pierre Trudeau was a major culprit, and Brian Mulroney probably did more harm than good. Under Jean Chrétien, we have reached a nadir: Diplomats picket the Foreign Affairs Department, we give less in foreign aid than almost any other developed nation, and our military is either a disgrace or a joke, depending on your mood.

Mr. Cohen wants a comprehensive national review of foreign policy and defence, followed by massive increases in defence (ideally from $12-billion to $20-billion) and foreign-aid spending (optimally from 0.25 per cent of GDP to 0.7 per cent) accompanied by an aggressive foreign policy that, while retaining close ties with the United States, expands our involvement and influence with other nations and institutions (the New Third Way). He also wishes students would learn more history.

All highly desirable, but Mr. Cohen is reluctant to confront an elemental truth: Canada made a series of choices in the 1980s and '90s that made our diminished international stature inevitable.

First, we decided in 1988 to sign a free-trade agreement with the United Strates. The economic benefits have been substantial, but it has made it more difficult for Canada to chart a separate course in international trade, defence or foreign policy. Simply put, if we get too far from the Americans, we get punished.

Second, all Canadian governments decided in the '90s that they were reaching intolerable levels of deficit and debt. Retrenchment was painful; everyone suffered. Opening an embassy in Lithuania while waiting lists for cancer treatment lengthened at home would have been not only wrong, but immoral.

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With our fiscal problems solved, federal and provincial governments have concentrated on repairing the health-care and education systems. Improving the environment is also a priority.

And, lately, so is defence and foreign affairs. The recent increases in military and foreign-aid spending reflect unease among Canadians over the deteriorating state of both. Ottawa has also boosted the pay of foreign service officers, and is opening new missions abroad. The strains in Canada-U.S. relations that emerged over the Iraq war have all Canadians talking to each other about how close we have got to the United States, and what alternatives there might be.

So yes, Mr. Cohen's call for a national review and debate over Canada's role in the world is timely. But that review must not take place in a vacuum. If we are going to spend more money on defence, then we must spend it on defence instead of on something else. If the federal government is going to greatly increase its commitment to foreign aid, then it must also declare its determination to reduce subsidies for agriculture or culture. Or if we are to fund these increases out of surpluses, we must acknowledge that the money is not going to health care or education.

This is a good time for the publication of While Canada Slept. The Canadian Alliance released a white paper on defence yesterday. The Liberal and Conservative leadership candidates have debates this weekend.

They should all read Mr. Cohen's book. And they should be ready to tell us what they would do on foreign policy, foreign aid and defence, and what oxen they are willing to gore to do it.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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