Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Canadian foreign policy? The idea.

I knew a wonderful cynic long ago who loved politics and wrote like a high-strung angel. Hunched over a cigarillo and a martini, he once shrugged, “Policy is as cheap as paper and a typewriter.” 

Finally, I’ve got it: policy — without law, resources, or responsibly — is just talk, in text. And talk usually is cheap.

This thought is not welcome in modern government, especially in policy shops, in constrained circumstances. Many policy activists, in fact, have set forth the proposition that even if government can’t do anything well, it can at least do important thinking — elevating our aspirations and passing on our best practices to less fortunate societies elsewhere.

Pretentious nonsense.

Along with the regrettable squander of talent, the treatment of policy as art has a malign narcotic effect: it interferes with our proper and continuing obligation to discover how to be more effective in this challenging world.

The above musings weren’t inspired by my own lost causes as a policy writer. Rather, they crystalized as I read two high-minded essays on the esoteric topic of "Canadian foreign policy" by two eminent Canadian journalists: John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail and Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star. Their thesis is the same: captain Stephen Harper has fundamentally changed Canada’s foreign policy — and not for the better.

This is both an easy and extravagant argument to make.

It’s easy to research. Formal government speeches and grieving former diplomats baldly tell the story: Harper is less multilateral and more bilateral in pursuing trade and upholding alliance priorities with the US. He doesn’t nurture or use soft power and he doesn’t trim alliance rhetoric in order to advance what’s called Pearsonian diplomacy. He misses chances to offer a Canadian twist on other countries’ strategic difficulties.

However, what’s the big deal? What the original "Canadian foreign policy" was and what it’s becoming now is almost entirely a domestic Canadian affair. Indeed, it is entirely possible that — apart from NSA eavesdroppers — the outside world has no appreciation that Canada’s best minds are seized with alarm because they think Canada’s government is approaching the world with a new agenda.

This leads to a twist on that nauseating conundrum about not hearing that noble tree falling in the forest: if others haven’t noticed Harper’s “Big Break," was there actually a Canadian policy there in the first place?

Canada is an American ally, with no enemies or special friends of its own. On strategic issues in Washington and in the Middle East, for instance, it supports America and Israel’s strategic imperatives. And it has done so, unswervingly, since the St. Laurent government and its popular External Affairs Secretary Lester Pearson helped Eisenhower help France and Britain surrender their last imperial illusions in 1956. Pearson was awarded a Nobel Prize, and Canada started listening to the rest of the world on behalf of Washington rather than on behalf of London.

Canada’s self-regard in foreign relations was not earned by making independently shrewd, noble, strategic policy choices. It was born of the passive crafts of diplomat.

As the senior English-speaking colony of the greatest power of the 19th century, Canada’s bureaucracy-builders decided on their own that they could be the next superpower’s empathetic listeners. They could listen knowingly to the powerful and the powerless. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnston, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton (less so), and even Obama would benefit from timely gossip and nudges from Ottawa as they threw their weight around globally.

Talk in the Canadian federal government is often about policy, and talk about policy choices often leads to action. Trade policies lead to commercial initiatives; immigration policy changes affect workloads in embassies and the fates of thousands of individuals who want to live in Canada.

Talking geopolitics vicariously, however, isn’t doing strategic foreign policy. 

Have all those sophisticates in the Pearson Building in Ottawa essentially been talking to themselves? No. Tactically, Canada doesn’t send forces to every conflict or aid only to American priorities. However, Canadian foreign policy per se is pure words; their assembly and observation does little more than feed and clothe wordsmiths, who doggedly take themselves too seriously.

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