“The findings are…sobering in that they portray a Canada whose international performance and…reputation have fallen over the last 15 years…and exciting in that they…sketch out a future in which Canada could make a tremendous difference, if we choose to and if we make our choices effective.”
– Robert Greenhill on interviews with non-Canadians about Canada’s international role for the External Voices Project, Canadian Institute for International Affairs, January 2005

Canada has been most effective internationally when we have pursued two priorities simultaneously: our friendship with the United States and our independent and innovative role in the wider world. Those are not opposite positions. They are the two sides of the Canadian coin.

Our access to Washington adds real clout to the standing we earn by our actions in other countries; we are thought to be able to influence our powerful neighbour. And our reputation in the developing world, and in the multilateral community, has traditionally been an asset to our neighbour. Often, where the U.S. might generate envy or fear, Canada has built partnerships and trust, and earned respect.

Canada’s “interests” are not narrowly a border or merely things within our sovereign control. We have a profound interest in a world that works – SARS strikes here, refugees come here, pollutants pollute here, and close relatives of Canadians die in virtually every conflict in the world.

What’s more, we have become more fortunate than most, so when famines or tsunamis or conflicts happen, or children continue to die or women continue to be trafficked, we have the obligation to ask: “If Canada won’t take an interest in these issues, who in the world will?”

This is part of who we are. These attitudes took us to Vimy Ridge. They led to Canada’s defining role in the creation of UN peacekeeping, the international trading system, the pioneering of official development assistance, the creation of NATO, the fight against apartheid, the RIO conference on the environment, the land mines treaty, the International Criminal Court, fighting the Gulf War under the UN.

But reputations need to be renewed.

I cannot help but notice the difference in speed between our response to a serious financial crisis which burst over Wall Street, and a serious food crisis which has, for fifteen years now, been steadily driving millions of the world’s poorest people over the edge of desperation and starvation.

That sharp disparity of response can’t continue; not just for moral reasons, but because power in the world is changing – moving away from what we know as the West, and towards what we thought of as the Rest. That was happening before the financial crisis, before Iraq, before 9/11.

As Fareed Zakaria has carefully noted, this shifting of global power is not about anyone’s decline, but rather the rise and assertion of new forces. This is more than an economic or business phenomenon. It is also about a change in political, military and diplomatic power. Perhaps most significant, it is about cultural power – the ability to define the future.

The U.S. understands this development. On November 20, deliberately prior to the Obama inauguration, the US Intelligence Commission issued a report called Global Trends 2025: “The international system…will be almost unrecognizable by 2025 owing to…an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to east, and the growing influence of nonstate actors….Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States’ relative strength – even in the military realm – will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained.”

Goldman Sachs has published a careful projection of the changes in the world economic standing by 2050 in which Canada ranks 16th – we will be a respectable economy, a little smaller than Vietnam, a little larger than the Philippines.

So, in this world of shifting power, how long would Canada have a place at the table of a G-8 summit? Would we make the cut of the G-20? Would we keep our seat in the inner circle of countries that define international trade and military and diplomatic policy?

Not if we focus narrowly on trade and economic policy, or define our international profile by military presence, or lock ourselves in our continent. But, were we to renew our trusted, activist diplomatic and development credentials, the odds are that we could remain an influential country.

Trade over diplomacy
The end of the Cold War changed the fundamental dynamics of foreign policy in western countries. Economics replaced politics. Our interests became much more mercantile.

Suddenly, the dominant agenda was no longer defence against an armed and dangerous enemy. And it did not become poverty or development or human rights. Instead, the priority became trade and economic growth. Governments chose to believe that trade would combat poverty, that market models would release energies that were inherently democratic.

Now, we recognize again that the world is not so simple or so safe. The centrality of trade and economic policy in a world serious about encouraging change and innovation, and fighting inequality, is not in dispute. But clearly – from Pakistan to Palestine to the Kivus to Sudan and beyond – economic policy is not enough. Military policy is not enough.

In Canada, two other factors reinforced that narrowing shift towards economic policy. The Free Trade Agreement brought great benefits but accelerated Canada’s deepening identification with the U.S. And if the Canadian symbol in earlier years had been peacekeeping or national unity or international campaigns about arms control, the symbol now became “Team Canada trade missions.”

Yet, as the world’s religious and cultural and economic divides grow deeper, the critical international skills – now and for the foreseeable future – are the ability to draw differences together, to form alliances and find common ground, to manage diversity, to generate trust – the traditional and genuine signature qualities of Canada.

That accords closely with the priorities enunciated by President Obama. In her first remarks as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton deliberately emphasized: “We will make clear…that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States.”

For all our growth and innovation, Canada can have relatively more influence in politics and diplomacy than we do in trade and economics.

Economic power reflects size; diplomacy depends more on imagination and agility and reputation. Canada’s political strengths have more currency again, if we choose to use them. And now Canada has additional assets. Consider just two.

The world still reveres the American ideal of equal opportunity, even if it is bruised or disappointed by what U.S. policy has actually been in practice. Canada is closest to the democratic reputation that is admired about the United States, and we are not yet subject to the negative stereotypes. We are the other North America, and we need to put that in our window.

Second, we have more capacity than most of the developed world to build and enlarge relations with the cultures and societies whose influence in the world is growing. That is for two reasons. First, so many of those cultures are dynamic parts of our own identity. Second, we have earned and kept the respect of the developing world, including critically many Islamic countries, who regard us as being respectful of their cultures.

So there is an unusual opportunity, and a clear need, to play a more active role in international affairs. Yet we are not.

Shirking our share
There are three departments with explicit international vocations – ranked according to the government’s published spending reports for 2008-09: National Defence, which accounts for 8.29 percent of federal program spending; CIDA, which accounts for 1.39 percent; and Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which currently accounts for 1.0 percent.

Compared with 2007-08, the DND budget increased by close to 8.4 percent; CIDA’s increased by 0.68 percent; while DFAIT dropped by 17.96 percent. DFAIT estimates that this decline will continue for at least the next two years, and that by 2010-2011 its budget will decrease by another 13.38 percent. In real terms, this would mean a loss of $700 million in just over three years, from a budget that is now approximately $2.4 billion.

That is perverse at a time when diplomacy is becoming more important than ever.

To the Harper government’s credit, Canada is now increasing its defence spending. The stated purpose is to repair the damage done during a long period when we gradually reduced our military spending because we could count on the United States and other countries to protect our vital interests. We let other countries carry an increasing share of our defence burden.

In effect, that is what Canada is doing now in diplomacy and development.

The needs have not decreased – on the contrary, they have increased. But Canada’s willingness to do its share has decreased. Our diplomatic resources are being run down now as steadily and certainly as our defence resources were run down in earlier decades. That erosion of our diplomatic capacity may cost Canada for years to come.

Why the double standard? Why are we more prepared to accept our share of the military burden than we are of the diplomatic?

Globalization means that, inevitably, international factors have more impact on national decisions. Strangely, the Canadian government’s response has been to disperse authority over those globalizing issues to a multitude of ministries, operating without a clear centre or a clear leader – or least no centre or leader anyone can identify.

Ask three separate questions: 1) who set the Harper government’s initial China policy?; 2) who is really running the so-called 3D/whole-of-government approach to Afghanistan; and 3) who decided to spike the spending on national defence, stall it on development and slash it on diplomacy?

How can Canada be coherent or effective in dealing with the transforming phenomena of globalization? It isn’t a “whole of government” process unless someone has the time and mandate to lead – and both the PCO and PMO have other preoccupations.

A dramatic change in the world has been the increased role and authority of NGOs and activists – individuals and organizations that, very often, are more nimble and less constrained than governments or large institutions like the UN. They help transform the way the world faces its problems.

These non-governmental agencies are trusted more than traditional actors, but even the reputation of NGOs has declined in recent years. That means there are new steeds in the stable but none is a white horse capable of miracles. And none has the authority to act for others.

These forces powerfully complement the work of governments and international institutions – but they don’t replace them.

This is still an institutional world. Sovereign states still make the critical decisions – to cut or increase budgets, respect or break treaties, send or withdraw troops, pay or withhold their membership contributions, confront or ignore crises.

That is in part because states and multilateral institutions – with all their weaknesses – have a mandate to serve the broad public interest. The mandate of corporations or NGOs is much more narrow or specific, and sometimes more short-term.

So the challenge and opportunity now is to marry mandate with imagination – combine the creativity of these independent forces with the capacity-to-act institutions. In Canadian experience, that is what happened in the fight against apartheid, in the signing of the land mines treaty, in the Kimberley Process to stop trade in blood diamonds, and in a wide range of less-publicized initiatives. We should make that a practice – a Canadian practice.

The Right Honourable Joe Clark served as Canada’s 16th Prime Minister and as Minister of External Affairs between 1984 and 1991. He is co-founder and executive chairman of Clark Sustainable Resource Developments. This article was adapted from a February presentation to the Rideau Institute in Ottawa.