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Michael Bell teaches at Carleton University and advised Justin Trudeau on foreign policy before the last federal election. He has served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.


The determination of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion to restore Canada as a world player with a real voice at the international table deserves commendation. The Russia-U.S. invitation for Mr. Dion to join the International Syria Support Group is recognition of the government's resolve to play a significant role on the world scene.

Throughout last year's election campaign, the Liberal Party promised a return to the multilateral diplomacy of Nobel Prize-winner Lester Pearson, whose work during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis led to the creation of UN peacekeeping as the era's premier conflict-management mechanism.

During the campaign, the Liberals promised a return to vigorous and interventionist multilateralism. They were accused of either being out of touch with current realities or simply posturing. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. More than ever, the need for constructive intervention begs our involvement. The international community has embraced the tone and substance of a return to Canada's well-honed role. We were missed.

Now, we will squarely face the murky world of international relations, not back away in protest. This requires working relationships with regimes whose records are questionable and practices often abhorrent. This has to be done in a world riddled by authoritarianism, violence, ethno-nationalism and extremist ideology. One has to get one's hands dirty and engage with, and persuade, those whose power and influence determine outcomes. Sometimes, one has to treat with the brutalizers, no matter how distasteful.

This does not mean the abandonment of principle. Canadian values will continue to play a prominent role, but they will play out in the context of reaity. One example was Canada's little-known role in facilitating the emigration of Syrian Jews in the 1980s; this would have been impossible without an ongoing dialogue with the flawed regime of Hafez al-Assad (late father of the current dictator). The result was a real contribution to human rights.

Such pragmatism does not negate the concerns of many that, in an effort to cultivate the Russians (and hence get the invitation to join the Syria group), we have backed off from sanctions against corrupt Russian officials and human-rights violators. We may have, but in this case, such a stand would keep us from the table where like-minded countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, are trying to bring about real change. Our absence would do no one any good. The Russians are not going to reinvent their culture, practices or attitudes because Canada decides to "punish" Moscow further.

Suspicion also lurks that the Canadian government may have been so determined to get into the club on Syria that it is going ahead with the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia to buy its acquiescence. Such speculation is really reaching, although the Canadian government's case may have seemed muddled in its initial stages.

Canadian human-rights groups were on the attack with noble objectives, which I share, but ignored on-the-ground realities in the region and at home, including the thousands of LAV jobs in London, Ont.; the breaking of a two-decade Canadian supply of such weapons; the fact that France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, the United States and even neutral Switzerland trade in arms with Saudi Arabia; and, most important, the consequences, in a world of political hardball, for the Arabian peninsula of undermining the House of Saud, no matter how repellent its tribal practices.

We do not need another anarchic breakdown in the Middle East. The goals should be – and now again are, with Canada's new government – a preparedness to work and deal with a highly flawed international community, to be able to contribute in real ways to the greater good. In the present case, the only way to work toward resolution of the Syrian imbroglio, to stop the human suffering there, to facilitate a long-term solution to the refugee problem, to stabilize neighbouring states at risk, is through active interventionist diplomacy.

In our world there are, unhappily, no straight lines, no black-and-white issues, no 20/20 vision. If the choice for Canada is self-imposed isolation or involvement in the discomforting nitty-gritty of reality, the responsible choice is the latter.

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