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Where is the debate?

Canada has important foreign policy choices to make; even no policy is in fact a kind of policy. Is it too much to hope that the election in this country will include debate on the major international issues facing Canada? Probably. Is it because there are no issues on which the choice of Canadian policy really matters? Definitely not. Is it because most Canadians simply are not interested? Maybe.

The Canadian election overlaps the American election. There are differences of view between the two presidential candidates that are already apparent. They will be debated. This is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have made clear that climate change will be a major priority for them. Canada will no longer be able to hide behind the differences amongst the major economies of the world. We need to hear in more detail how the political parties in Canada intend to deal with this challenge globally.

Senator McCain has argued for the creation of a “League of Democracies.” Senator Obama has been much more inclined towards bringing the leaders of the key countries to deal with an issue – in particular that of climate change – together, regardless of their political system. It is not sufficient just to include in the inner sanctum leaders of those countries with whom one is most ideologically comfortable.

The world’s largest democracy – India – has made clear it wants no part of such a group. India is not alone as a democracy in rejecting this idea. Who decides which countries are democracies, or when a country has stopped behaving democratically? Where should Canada stand?

The Olympics have underlined the tremendous strides being made by China. China must be engaged in the world and its governance. The neglect of China by Canada is a huge mistake. As a country strongly committed to a multilateral rules-based system, we are working against ourselves. Where should Canada stand?

Russia is back. U.S. Vice-President Cheney calls for Georgia to be in NATO (complete with the Article 5 commitments to come to its defence if attacked) – are we OK with this?

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were indeed extraordinary events that few could foresee. How did Canada and its NATO allies respond? Through the reunification of Germany and the enlargement of NATO.

The Russians have always been very close to the Serbs, but had to swallow major NATO involvement that ultimately led to the break-up of Serbia and the creation of Kosovo. Over the last few months, debate has turned as to whether the time has come to admit the Ukraine (and Georgia) into NATO, and install a missile defence system in Poland. Where should Canada stand?

Afghanistan is, of course, very much in the news. The Conservatives and the Liberals seem, however, to have found a modus vivendi actually to avoid debating Canadian policy. There is a vague sense that by 2011 Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan will be very substantially, if not entirely, ended. In fact, the number of Taliban attacks, the number of allied forces killed, the number of Afghan civilians killed, the slow pace of economic progress, and the location of Taliban attacks all point to a strengthening of the insurgency.

There is little question that the Taliban has rebuilt itself, using the sanctuary provided by the tribal areas in Pakistan. More foreign-born jihadists are present, and their ambitions go well beyond the reassertion of Sharia law in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly becoming (again) a base from which attacks can be launched anywhere in the world.

If NATO and its allies withdraw, it would be a grave error to think the consequences will be limited to the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. Moreover, what does Canada say to those Afghans who have worked with us (interpreters, for example) and the people we have helped (young girls entering school) as we leave? Good bye and good luck?

It seems clear that the next U.S. president will be making a strong call for additional efforts in Afghanistan. It is far from clear the war can be “won.” Today we are where we are. Where should Canada now stand?

For the public debate to occur, there will need to be a demand for it. Voters would then have a much better basis for deciding how they will cast their ballot. There is a great deal happening in the world. Our security and our prosperity are at stake.

Dr. Gordon Smith, following a distinguished career with the Department of Foreign Affairs, is now director of the Centre for Global Studies, and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria. He is also a senior research fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute.

Author: Gordon Smith from the Sept/Oct 2008 issue published

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1 Comment

  1. First off, thank you Dave for encouraging this kind of dicsssuion. It’s unfortunately lacking.To better understand Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, I’d recommend separating it into 3 questions:-Does Canada and NATO have the moral right to be in Afghanistan?-Is our mission effective and can we be successful in the long-term?-Given the immense opportunity cost of this mission, was it the best use of resources?1. Moral right. The simple answer is “yes”. When Karzai asked NATO to intervene to save the fragile Afghani government and its people from Taliban overthrow, it not only gave Canada the moral license to intervene, I would argue it gave us the responsibility to do so. 2. Effectiveness. Is our huge investment of blood and money helping the Afghan people. Again, yes, but slowly and with less certainty. In areas where troop levels have been sufficient to ensure stability and reconstruction, the mission is effective. Against this, however, is our disastrous effort at poppy eradication, the insufficient care by some NATO allies for civilian casualties and areas where insufficient troop levels have led to fighting and instability. While our strategy is yielding positive results, I am far from convinced that it is the optimal strategy. The mission is effective but could be more so.3. Opportunity cost. This question is the hardest of the three and was pointed out to my by earlier commenter, J. English. This mission is very expensive in both funds and personnel, costing over $20b to date and tying up the Armed Forces for a decade or more. Even if we successfully build a democratic Afghan state that can fend for itself, what else could we have done with that investment? Haiti? Darfur? Despite being an ardent supporter of the mission in Afghanistan, this is a question to which I don’t know the answer. I’d love to see other people’s thoughts on this. Thanks.

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