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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Allan Gotlieb

Not just another foreign-policy review Add to ...

In recent months, Canada has been standing taller on the international stage. Taller than what? Well, taller than before. And taller than a number of countries whose profile has been shrinking of late, thanks to their economic profligacy.

But there are a number of factors contributing to our enlarged image, including our Prime Minister's disciplined stewardship of two international summits and the performance of our economy, our banks and our currency. At home, Stephen Harper is seen as a leader who is introducing significant shifts in our foreign policy. Relations with China and India, marked by important state visits, have become a high priority. Canadian leadership is being shown in favour of international fiscal sobriety, global initiatives have been undertaken on behalf of women and children and a free-trade agreement with Europe has been launched.

So what's unusual about this?

It's that these shifts were not preceded by the conducting of a foreign-policy review. In power for several years, the Harper government still has not conducted one.

Conducting such reviews has been one of Canada's bad habits. We have had more than half a dozen, all in pursuit of the restoration of the "golden age" of Canadian diplomacy. We may be mediocre in conducting it, but we excel in reviewing it.

Since Pierre Trudeau's examination of our foreign policy, the mother of all reviews, similar exercises have been carried out by the governments of Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien (twice) and Paul Martin.

Foreign policy reviews are products of long and cumbersome consultations, involving competing bureaucracies, activist groups and special-interest lobbyists, commercial interests, organized labour and so on. As consultation slowly unfolds and consensus is sought, the world moves on, driven by events that make reviews obsolete. Neither of the Chrétien government's two major foreign initiatives - the Team Canada campaign and Lloyd Axworthy's human security agenda - were the products of foreign policy reviews, nor was Brian Mulroney's Canada-U.S. free trade initiatives. The Harper government deserves credit for resisting such narcissistic exercises.

But into the void has now stepped a private organization, the newly created Canadian International Council, which put together a team of accomplished young Canadians under the leadership of former Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon. It christened its task the "GPS Project," and recently released its report, Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age.

My reaction on picking up the document was "Yikes, not another foreign-policy review," "Ugh, what a pretentious title" and "Oy, not another attempt to project our values on the unwilling of the world." Then I read the 88-page document and realized I was wrong.

I don't mean to suggest that its plethora of recommendations are likely to have much direct influence on Canada's diplomacy. It won't. I was wrong because I failed to anticipate that the panel would produce a highly intelligent and exceptionally well-written study of our foreign policy. Its real significance lies in a refreshingly grown-up attitude. If it contributes to the demise of inflated ideas about Canada's mission in the world, our governments will be better placed to ground their policies on intelligent self-interest.

In every area of our foreign policy, the report provides a clarity of outlook based on realism and the need for effectiveness. Gone are outdated notions of sovereignty, nationalism and Canadian values as lodestars to guide our policies. It says, for example, that "The prime objective of our diplomacy must be the well-being of Canadians." Other notable statements:

  • "Canadians display an unusual reticence to think in terms of national interests. We often seem to prefer the gauzy candescence of 'value discussions' to the hard reality of producing a more prosperous and secure future."
  • "Moralism is not a policy."
  • "We must not fall into the trap of confusing policies that merely allow us to feel good from those that actively do good."
  • "Our diplomatic core sometimes treats the multilateral system - the UN in particular - in quasi-religious terms where fealty and process matter more than results."

At the core of its analysis, the report identifies three great "game changers" - the rise of China, India and other players in the global economy, the entry of the United States into a period of relative economic decline and the hardening of the border between our two countries since 9/11.

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