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Foreign policy is about words, attitudes, values and positioning. It is also about deeds and means. In the two most high-profile international crises of late – Ukraine and the Islamic State – the gap between Canadian words and deeds has been large.

Inflammatory rhetoric has poured forth from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government in both cases. Before the United Nations General Assembly, and elsewhere, Mr. Harper has bowed to no world leader in condemning the Russians and the militant movement. But what has actually been done?

In the case of the Islamic State, Canada is dispatching some humanitarian aid and 69 special forces members to the Kurdish area of Iraq, not to fight but to train. This effort is risible compared to the rhetoric about the IS threat to Canada, the region and the civilized world. U.S. President Barack Obama has made a formal request for Canada to do more, which the Prime Minister has agreed to consider. Given his own rhetoric and Washington's request, he can hardly not agree to an additional contribution that would close the gap between words and deeds.

Rhetoric is easier to communicate and digest than a thoughtful explanation of the difficulties in defining the mission's success, the uncertainties of knowing who our friends are, and the many implausible assumptions underpinning what has now been launched. Symbolic gestures, such as visits to Kiev and Baghdad by Canadian leaders, may be appreciated by their counterparts in those countries, but they're certainly politically useful at home.

The Islamic State is awful in every respect. Dislodging it will take a lot more than airstrikes, a ragtag Iraq army and "moderate" Syrian fighters, if any can be found. The movement is part of a Sunni-Shia fight of exceptional ferocity and confusing factionalism, overlaid with competing and slippery agendas from other states in the region. Explaining these complexities, and acknowledging that once launched, the fight will be long, is obviously less satisfying to the Harper government than hurling thunderbolts of rhetoric from faraway podiums.

As for the Iraqi Kurds, whom Canada is helping a little bit, their objective is an independent Kurdish state (see Dexter Filkins's recent long article in The New Yorker), whereas Washington's objective (and presumably Ottawa's) is a federated Iraq. It usually leads to misunderstandings and difficulties when the people you want to help have different ambitions than the those of the people trying to help them.

In the Ukrainian crisis, once again, no government has unleashed more angry rhetoric against Russia and lavished more praise on Ukraine than ours. But what has actually been offered?

Start with a $200-million, long-delayed loan. The delay was justifiable, given the rampant corruption in our now-favourite country – the money would have swallowed up had it been given early. The aid was so long delayed that the Ukrainian ambassador and Ukrainian organizations in Canada complained. Finally, the deal was done. Remember, however, that the money is a loan, not a gift. Canada is asking for repayment from a cash-strapped government.

The many other announcements of help were small contributions. There was $100,000 to help support the Ukrainian Economic Advisory Committee, $19.6-million to train horticultural farmers (!), $3.2-million for human-rights training; $8.1-million (over three years) to "strengthen democracy," $3.8-million (over five years) to help farming businesses; $3-million for cyberdefence.

Add it up, and the total is small – at least when placed against the government's rhetoric, and against Ukraine's real needs, which in the short term are military.

It could be argued that Canada has made other commitments that indirectly help Ukraine – sending six CF-18s and 20 staff officers to Romania, and offering help with a NATO forward defence force agreed to at the recent NATO summit in Wales. But as for direct, tangible help to Ukraine, an obvious gap exists.

Perhaps this has something to do with Canada's diminishing means. The government has slashed defence, frozen foreign aid and limited the Foreign Affairs department in the quest for a balanced budget. Major military purchases have been shelved or delayed. (Anyone heard about the F-35 fighter jet purchase recently?)

At an international "moment" that the government correctly describes as one of increasing threats and instability, and that it uses to persuade Canadians of the need for political strength and firmness, the country's ability to match words and means is limited, because words are cheap and means cost money.

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