Are Interests Really Value Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations.

The recent summer season witnessed an important development in the post–Cold War history of Canadian democracy. Whereas much of the political theatre in our country over the past two decades has been dominated by the themes of national unity, the state of our healthcare system or resource sharing between the feds and the provinces, international affairs has at best played a supporting role. In fact, the old adage that “all politics is local” seems tailor-made for Canada.

Not so in July and August of 2006. Whether it was the war in Lebanon, Iran’s defiance of the United Nations Security Council, the Harper government’s stance on Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, or the Canadian military’s deployment to Afghanistan, the printing presses and airwaves were inundated by things foreign. Many Canadians, taking time away from their barbeques to participate in call-in shows, demonstrated just how hot and bothered they were by these events. More significantly, the popularity of Prime Minister Harper’s minority government was directly linked to his perceived shift away from Canada’s “traditional stand” on global issues—so much so that on the day after Labour Day, the Bloc Québécois called for an emergency debate on the direction of Canada’s foreign policy.

Given the prime minister’s relative lack of exposure to international affairs, it is worth asking what kind of strategy on Canada’s role in the world is driving his office and his government. Roy Rempel’s Dreamland: How Canada’s Pretend Foreign Policy Has Undermined Sovereignty provides us with one of the first glimpses into Conservative thinking on how Canada should set and implement its priorities in the fields of diplomacy, defence and development. As a former foreign and defence policy advisor to the Leader of the Opposition (namely, Harper) and lecturer at both Memorial University and Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies, Rempel is now part of the policy brain trust for the Conservative government, offering counsel on security issues.

It seems that Canadians have a penchant for defining things—and indeed themselves—in reference to what they are not. Rempel’s program for reinvigorating our foreign policy begins in much the same negative fashion. Lamenting that others have for too long been dreaming about Canada’s role in the world (or, in military his- torian J.L. Granatstein’s sharp words from the book’s back jacket, “living in a cloud cuckoo land”), Rempel argues that the romantic streak in Canadian foreign policy must be promptly and thoroughly quashed.

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that Canada’s aspirations to “play a role” or “make a difference” are delusional and reveal an alarming gap between intended and real capacity. While policy makers talked about preventing famine and protecting civilians in armed conflict, they allowed the country’s strategic airlift capacity to age and deteriorate—leaving Canada with virtually no capability to move troops, heavy vehicles or large quantities of supplies.

We have heard this complaint before, most eloquently in Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. However, Rempel provides a detailed and compelling account of the deterioration of Canada’s hardware, along with potent examples of the implications. His recounting of the Chrétien government’s plan to lead a mission to address the humanitarian crisis in eastern Zaire in —a scheme that was quickly aborted when it was realized that Canada lacked the political clout and military muscle to carry it through—is particularly sobering.

If it were only credibility that was at stake, things would not be so bad. But Rempel has a much deeper concern with romanticism: its impact on Canadian sovereignty. His central message is that, due to the values-based pursuit of Canadian foreign policy, “Canada is in the process of becoming little more than a de facto protectorate, rather than an independent partner, of the United States.” Here, Rempel’s warnings are worth heeding, and it is clear—through Harper’s recent emphasis on Arctic sovereignty—that the prime minister is also keen to invest in asserting and protecting Canada’s territorial integrity. In particular, Rempel criticizes Canada’s less-than-skillful handling of the decision not to participate in the U.S. ballistic missile defence scheme, and the costs of that policy choice.

Having pointed out the problem, Rempel calls for a restoration of “realism” as the first step in Canada’s salvation. “Clearly defined national interests,” he tells us, “are the only foundation for credible international policy.”

Champions of the national interest have a long and distinguished pedigree. The writer often heralded as the founding father of the academic discipline of international relations, Hans Morgenthau, made the pursuit of the national interest one of his six core principles of political realism. In the United States, one of the most influential neo-conservative journals on international affairs and diplomacy, which features contributions from figures such as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, is titled The National Interest.

Within Canada, the last three years have seen a chorus of national interest supporters condemning the utopianism that they believe has contaminated Canadian foreign policy. The participants include academic heavyweights such as Denis Stairs and J.L. Granatstein, as well as diplomatic luminaries such as Allan Gotlieb and Derek Burney. Rempel quotes extensively from this lineup, agreeing with their assessment that a values-based approach to international policy has squandered what little political and diplomatic capital Canada has left and failed to advance the real interests of the Canadian people.

Although the interests-before-values mantra appears simple enough, the juxtaposition between the two is artificial. In reality, values and interests work much more in tandem. Just ask the crafters of U.S. foreign policy, who have made the pursuit of freedom and democracy core components of the country’s national security strategy. It is curious that Rempel and other national interest advocates, who are sympathetic to many tenets of the current U.S approach to international affairs, overlook the central role of values and ideas in American foreign policy.

The so-called realist school of international relations, with which Rempel appears to have great sympathy, has frequently been misunderstood as denying any link between values and interests. But Morgenthau himself—the consummate realist—illuminated the possibilities for marrying a concern for morality with a dedication to the national interest. He warned his readers that any understanding of international politics would be incomplete without considering both, since the global environment that confronted states was composed of not only the distribution of capabilities—hard power—but also “the climate of ideas.”

Moreover, while Morgenthau believed that a nation’s survival—its territory, political institutions and culture—was the irreducible core of the national interest, he also recognized the multiplicity of goals that lie beyond this triad of concerns, in the realm of diplomatic choice. In formulating these goals, statesmen would consider the moral values of the people they represented, for to do otherwise “would be to undermine the national culture that was central to the unchanging core of national interest.”1

Rempel’s understanding of the national interest is much more barren and one-dimensional. In fact, for a book that purports to be all about the national interest, there is a surprising level of complacency about the concept. First, it is not clear who defines it and how it gets defined. While he is extremely persuasive when suggesting that Parliament has been too marginalized in the formulation of foreign policy (particularly when compared with other countries), this does not help us to understand the highly political process through which Canadian interests are articulated. The minister of foreign affairs does not arrive in his or her office on the first day on the job, only to be presented with a simple handbook laying out the core features of Canada’s national interest. Rather, these interests are under constant construction, and it is analytically problematic to assume that this is a neutral and uncontroversial process.

Second, we are told that a foreign policy driven by the national interest is by definition more coherent than one driven by values: “Values and value systems often differ, but interests unite.” Is it really so simple? How do Canadian policy makers manage a situation where Quebec’s interests might lie in protection from foreign imports in the dairy industry while western farmers have an interest in trade liberalization? What is the Canadian national interest in this case, and how is it determined?

Third, although Rempel claims that a shift toward the national interest will lead to a new foreign policy, it is hard to see how, in practical terms, his recommendations really differ so dramatically from those set out in the International Policy Statement, a document on which this reviewer collaborated and the bête noire of Rempel’s critique in Dreamland. By the time I reached the chapter entitled “Canada’s National Interests,” I was eagerly anticipating a list of priorities that would chart a different course for the country.

Rempel begins with the uncontroversial statement that the “fundamental national interest of the government of Canada is to protect and promote the well-being of Canadians.” But the IPS also claims that “ensuring continued prosperity and security for Canadians” is the “enduring” interest driving our foreign policy.

Both Rempel and the IPS elaborate on how the primary goals of security and prosperity would play out. And both begin with the task of building a stronger partnership with the United States. But here the similarities cease. While Rempel claims the IPS is mired in moralistic generalities, the document articulates clear priorities for that partnership, along with a specific set of policy initiatives. You may disagree with the policy, but there is real meat to contend with—in contrast to Rempel’s general statement that Canada’s core objective in North America is “to ensure that the country is inside the North American trade and security perimeter.”

There is a similar lack of specificity when Rempel discusses the national interests that rank below our vital or primary ones. These are presented geographically: Europe, the Pacific Rim, Mexico and Broader North America. But where is the articulation of the interest? Is it, for example, to ensure that Europe remains democratic and stable, or is it to foster a closer economic relationship with Europe? What exactly are our objectives in these geographic areas? Labelling a region of the world with the tag “interest” does not tell us enough about what our goals are or how to prioritize.

The area where Rempel offers fresh (if controversial) ideas is Canadian development policy. He rightly notes the declining resources and focus in Canada’s foreign aid approach during the s. A reading of the IPS makes clear that of all the aspects of Canadian foreign policy discussed, development policy is the most in need of and the most susceptible to real transformation. Thus, as policy makers at the Canadian International Development Agency and elsewhere institute reforms, they might consider Rempel’s alternative, national interest framework.

For my part, I struggled to see how the national interest could be productively used to drive foreign aid decisions. By all means, have trade missions and diplomatic initiatives take their cue from Canadian strategic and economic interests. But development assistance? While Rempel believes that expanded trade will “lift all boats,” the evidence shows that for too many countries, market-led growth has simply proved insufficient.

This brings me to a final point about the book: its alleged neutrality. The first part of Dreamland is a damning attack on “ideological” approaches to foreign policy. As with many conservatives, Rempel insists that his own approach is free of values or grand visions and rooted in the facts. In a section entitled “Toward a Hard-Headed International Policy,” he proclaims that Canadian foreign policy “must be based on the realities of the international system as it is, not as some might wish it to be.” But it is worth asking whether the realities that Rempel chooses to focus on are necessarily the only contenders out there.

Consider one example of a “reality” that Rempel asks us to accept without question. “As a North American power, Canada is effectively shielded from many of the most serious ill effects of international instability. A really effective Canada-U.S. relationship is the only thing necessary for Canadian prosperity and security.” But how would a foreign policy focused primarily on the Canada-U.S. relationship protect Canadians from what they cited (in a Dominion Institute poll) as the greatest threat to their security—namely infectious disease?

There is also dogmatism in Rempel’s reality discourse that will make some readers suspicious. The historian E.H. Carr, who was certainly no friend to idealism in foreign policy, once wrote that so-called realism turns out in practice to be just as influenced by particular preferences as any other mode of analysis: “Even if it uses realist weapons to dissolve other values, it still believes in the absolute character of its own.”2 We live in a social world, not just a material one. While there are certain unalterable facts out there, there is inevitably contestation when we begin to interpret them, choose to emphasize some over others, and tease out the implications for policy.

In the last chapter of the book, Rempel writes that “there are absolutely no alternatives to the Canada-U.S. relationship. There are no alternatives in a political sense. There are no alternatives in a strategic sense. And there are certainly no alternatives in an economic sense.” One does not have to be a rabid anti-American to express some doubt about this breathless certainty. Such a steadfast commitment to the status quo, and unwillingness to consider how the international system might change, or how American power is being or might be challenged, feels rather ideological to me. I seem to recall a time when people said there was no alternative to dynastic rule either—and then came popular democracy.

There is a telling statement on page that gives Rempel’s hand away and reveals some of the values and preferences guiding his realism. When writing of Canada-U.S. relations, he says: “The closer that relationship is, the more seriously Canada will be taken by other states in the international system.”

This raises two critical questions. First, how is the desire “to be taken seriously” any less normatively controversial than wanting to “make a difference”? In my view, the Government of Canada should be in the business of striving for impact in its foreign policy—to achieve real results. That is the best form of accountability to taxpayers. Whether it is taken seriously is a nice-to-have, but not the core objective.

But the second question is even more pointed: Is a Canadian foreign policy defined by its relationship to the United States the only way to be taken seriously in global politics today? The evidence seems to be in the negative. In fact, Tony Blair’s government in the United Kingdom has been taken less seriously on certain issues because of the perception that it is not pursuing independent objectives in its foreign policy. In the diplomatic manoeuvring within the United Nations Security Council to achieve a ceasefire in Lebanon, the UK was completely shut out and dismissed by its European partners. It was France—certainly not a country we would describe as being guided by its partnership with the United States—that was viewed as one of the linchpins to the agreement, and by no less than John Bolton, the neo-conservative U.S. ambassador to the UN. And why was France taken so seriously? Because of its strong understanding of the region and its years of engagement in diplomatic, trade and development with various actors in the Middle East.

I am not claiming that France is the model for Canadian foreign policy, or that the Canada-U.S. partnership is not of paramount concern. But to dare to consider other relationships or institutions, or to invest resources in cultivating or building them, is not dreaming in cuckoo land. It is prudent long-term planning. And it is in the national interest. In this regard, Canadian Conservatives might learn a few lessons from the new Tory leader in Britain, David Cameron, who has recently questioned Blair’s myopia with the United States and called on the United Kingdom to develop a long-term strategy for India.

In his foreword to Dreamland, the ever-wise Hugh Segal writes that the ideas in this book are an important part of the ongoing debate in Canada about what the country is and does in the world. I wholeheartedly agree. But that debate should begin with an admission on all sides that particular views and—yes—particular values are behind many of the recommendations. Most of all, those observing the debate—Canada’s citizens—need to regard with special care and more than a little skepticism those claiming to have a monopoly on reality.


  1. See the foreword by Kenneth W. Thompson and W. David Clinton in Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 7th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006).  

  2. E.H. Carr, The Thirty Years Crisis, 1919–1939, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1984), page 92.