Fantasy Foreign Policy

A new book on Canada in the world is deemed more therapeutic than realistic.

Michael Byers’s Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? is not a serious attempt to outline a Canadian foreign policy. It is a form of therapy, a personal diary of Byers’s feelings, mainly his antipathy for the United States, with plenty of self-congratulating anecdotes thrown in for good measure.

Come to think of it, that actually does sum up Canadian foreign policy pretty neatly for most of the last 40 years.

The book’s subtitle is “What Is Canada for?” but the book is more about what Byers is against. More pages are devoted to attacking the U.S., or at least Byers’s cartoonish caricature of the U.S., than articulating a positive Canadian position. The book is a fantasy where terrorism is a fake problem exaggerated by the Republican Party, where Iran can be trusted not to weaponize its nuclear program, where the UK and the U.S. are greater threats to human rights than China is, and where the United Nations is the arbiter of morality and justice.

Needless to say, the book will be a bestseller.

The book is unserious, but pretends to be idealistic. In his chapter on nuclear weapons, for example, Byers proposes that Canada declare itself a nuclear weapons–free zone, as Vancouver’s city council did in 1983. “Whenever I drive into my adopted city, I feel encouraged by the sight of a sign that informs motorists they are entering a nuclear-weapons-free zone,” he writes. The words “I” and “feel” are staples in this work of political therapy, and there is scarcely a page in this book where they do not appear. “Although Vancouver City Council does not have any formal powers in foreign affairs,” Byers concedes, “it is the thought that counts,” and for Canada to do the same would be a “wonderful, cost-free opportunity! Just by being frank about our nuclear-free status, we could enhance our credibility and exercise leadership on the world stage.”

He is more Oprah Winfrey than Otto von Bismarck.

Byers acknowledges that Vancouver’s declaration was a meaningless public relations exercise, a statement of self-righteousness that nobody paid attention to besides ourselves. But it was less than that. The year 1983 was the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union conducted major military exercises in Poland, shot down a civilian Korean Airlines jet and deepened its colonization of Afghanistan. For a Canadian city near the border to enjoy the protection of the American nuclear shield while noisily declaring itself holier than the Yanks who were defending them was hypocrisy and ungratefulness, not just political masturbation.

Which pretty much sums up Byers’s approach to all foreign affairs: “cost-free” actions that “could enhance our credibility.” Foreign affairs is not about accomplishing anything. It’s about feeling good.

Not surprisingly, Byers’s political mentor is Lloyd Axworthy, who perfected the Canadian stance of doing very little on the world stage, but doing it very loudly. Byers praises Axworthy, and singles out the 1997 landmines treaty as a great achievement. Of course it was—it meets the test of smug impotence. Canada does not actually have any landmines to dig up, so we can comfortably hector our friends who need them, such as India (which uses mines along its border with Pakistan to stop infiltrating terrorists) and South Korea (whose capital city lies only 56 kilometres from North Korea’s million-strong army).

Neither Russia nor China signed the landmines treaty; curiously, neither of those thuggish regimes receives a word of criticism from Byers. Princess Diana, however, gets a mention for having been a supporter of the treaty. Of course that is more important, when your foreign policy is all about appearances.

But, like Vancouver’s nuclear resolution, Axworthy’s landmines treaty has an extra layer of hypocrisy. When Canada ratified the treaty, it gave notice that Canadian troops would still use the protection of landmines if they were laid by our allies. While Axworthy was pontificating about the evils of American landmines, his bureaucrats were ensuring that Canada would still benefit from American landmines.

Byers asked Axworthy about that in 2003. “What are you talking about?” was the laughable response. Axworthy “expressed his disapproval of what the civil servants had done to his convention.” Those pesky clerks, always tampering with foreign treaties!

One of the reasons why anti-Americanism is a psychological therapy is that it is a way of dealing with a feeling of inferiority or impotence. There is no way Canada could defend South Korea. So it is easier to criticize America’s reliance on landmines in the demilitarized zone than to acknowledge America’s role as the world’s guarantor of freedom. And although 24 Canadians were killed on September 11, 2001, there was no way Canada could have struck back meaningfully at al Qaeda. It is easier to reap the benefits of America’s security shield while explaining our inaction with exquisitely sophisticated reasons, than to admit an inability or unwillingness to pull our weight.

Byers’s chapter on terrorism is subtitled “Get a Grip”: he thinks the threat has been trumped up by the White House and, in any event, it has nothing to do with us. Byers flatly asserts that “we have no sworn enemies,” and builds from there.

But what about Osama bin Laden’s 2002 audio tape threatening Canada by name? Or Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling Canadians “second-rate crusaders” and threatening us with an attack? Or Hossam Abdul Raouf, another al Qaeda strategist, warning of terrorist attacks against Canada like those in London and Madrid?1 This spring, an al Qaeda cell published a call to “strike petroleum interests in all areas which supply the United States … like Canada.”2 And in June, a Taliban video showed 300 terrorists at a training camp, some of them specifically earmarked for Canada. No sworn enemies?

When a scholar finds a fact—or dozens of facts—that clashes with his theory, he discards or revises his theory. Not Byers; when he was confronted with the landmines loophole, he chose to keep his belief in Canada’s do-goodery, rather than to see Axworthy as just another politician. And rather than accept that Islamic terrorism threatens Canada, Byers just closes his eyes.

Focusing on Muslim violence is not fair—we are to blame. “Violence is constantly celebrated in our society,” Byers writes, “in music and movies, on TV and on countless Web sites, most of which are not Islamic.” Pay no attention to the 17 men in Toronto arrested for buying explosives last spring; the real threat is video games. And, if there are terrorists out there, the answer is not “a security-focussed approach,” but addressing “the root causes of anger” and “adopting policies that foster inclusion and understanding, including by providing the right to vote in democratic elections.”

But the root cause of radical Islamic anger is precisely that we do foster inclusion and understanding. A multicultural society, where all religions are equal before the law, is contrary to Islamic sharia law, which demotes all other religions to a subordinate status. Western ideas of inclusion, especially about gay rights, women’s rights and artistic expression, are precisely the libertinism that Islamic fascists rail against. And, obviously, Canada and the U.S. do provide Muslim citizens with the right to vote in free and meaningful elections—something that no Arab country except Iraq and Lebanon can boast. Liberal democracy is not what terrorists want; it is what they loathe. They want to re-establish the Caliphate, a Muslim theocracy of the sort the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan, where women were not allowed to go to school or work outside the home, to name just one fascist law.

When it was just an academic abstraction, opposing the Taliban was a fashionable cause. Mavis Leno, comedian Jay Leno’s wife, chaired the Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan from 1997 on, and she did not get any opposition from Hollywood liberals. But when the U.S. actually liberated Afghanistan from its national burka in 2001, the left made a choice: their visceral hatred for President Bush exceeded their pious concern for Afghan women. Byers is the same. He says it is “time to talk with the Taliban.” What exactly would he like to negotiate? Would Byers split the difference with them on, say, honour killings?

Byers calls the West’s fight against Muslim fascism a “nihilistic struggle,” but he is wrong. The fight isn’t about nothing; it is about two very clear somethings—fundamentalist Muslim theocracy versus western liberalism. The blurriness of moral equivalence is rampant in Intent for a Nation. Byers tips his hat to the horrors of September 11, but immediately writes that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib “scars the psyche almost as deeply as the image of the two skyscrapers collapsing in Manhattan.”

There is no equating the deliberate mass murder of 3,000 civilians by terrorists with an isolated, rogue act of abuse by a handful of U.S. soldiers—who were charged and convicted. September 11 was the signature moment for al Qaeda, an evil act central to its mission. Abu Ghraib was an anomaly for the U.S. military, a small but shameful aberration, universally denounced in America and punished by its courts.

Byers is not against all military missions, though. He is positively giddy about a Canadian invasion of Sudan to liberate Darfur. “Neither the Janjaweed [militia] nor the Sudanese military constitute a serious fighting force,” he claims. “One or two thousand highly trained infantry, a few CF-18 fighter aircraft and the Canadian Forces’ fleet of Griffin helicopters” should do the trick, writes Byers, enjoying the frisson of naughtiness that any peacenik would feel when daydreaming about being a military commander. Proposing a unilateral invasion, unsanctioned by the UN, must be twice as exciting.

Byers doesn’t get his hands dirty with any operational questions, of course, for this is fantasy. Sending “one or two thousand” troops (which is it?) would require several times that number of support personnel, from engineers to cooks. In Afghanistan, our troops are there at the invitation of the Afghan government, with NATO cooperation on everything from airlifts to communications to laying landmines for us; the Sudanese government specifically rejected Canadian troops offered by Paul Martin. How would General Byers even get the troops there? He scoffs at the primitive technology used to attack Darfur civilians, but he ignores Sudan’s increasingly modern army, replete with Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, Mi-24 attack helicopters and Chinese maintenance crews.

Darfur is like Afghanistan before September 11: a conflict with no Canadian national interest at stake, where leftists can talk about their fantasy wars. Canada taking on Darfur unilaterally is not only militarily unfeasible; it is also a complete contradiction of Byers’s angry reasons, outlined a few pages earlier, for opposing the Afghan mission. He rails against the Afghanistan war for being expensive, for taking away from other potential missions (he suggests an adventure in Lebanon, as well as Darfur), for straying from peacekeeping into real fighting, for potentially provoking terrorist attacks back in Canada, for violating “rules” of international law and, amazingly, for using rough language (he is upset that General Rick Hillier, Canada’s top soldier, called the Taliban “detestable murderers and scumbags”). Those are weak reasons for opposing any war; the Second World War violated each one, for example. But Byers’s Darfur fantasy fails his own checklist even more miserably than he claims Afghanistan does, because Canada is in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghanistan government.

Intent for a Nation is a litany of leftist myths and conventional wisdom that is factually inaccurate but reassuring to the left. An example is Byers’s throwaway line that the U.S. has “much higher rates of violent crime than Canada,” proof of our more moral society. But five minutes on Google shows that in 2005 the FBI reported a U.S. violent crime rate of 469 per 100,000 citizens. Statistics Canada’s numbers for the same year were 943 violent crimes per 100,000—more than double the U.S. figure.3

No book on leftist foreign policy would be complete without a chapter on global warming. Byers has a tougher job bashing the U.S. here, as China is now the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide, and none of the signatories to Kyoto—especially Canada—has reduced its emissions. Byers praises Germany, claiming it reduced its emissions to 18.5 percent below 1990 levels “mostly through conservation measures.” But that is just not true: after the fall of the Soviet Union, East Germany’s inefficient Stalin-era factories were shut down for economic reasons, a reduction done long before Kyoto was signed in 1997, but for which the united Germany—and all of the European Union—gets credit under Kyoto.

Byers’s science is as shaky as his history: “In August 2006, I crossed Greenland on a flight from London to Vancouver. Rivers and lakes of water were visible on the surface of the ice, and the turbulence—probably caused by the intense evaporation ten thousand metres below—was unsettling.” Even Al Gore’s 90-minute campaign ad, An Inconvenient Truth, acknowledges that summertime melting on ice packs is normal.

But the real point of that anecdote was not scientific; it was personal. Byers saw water in Greenland, and he felt unsettled. It is no different than his feelings-based Darfur or nuclear weapons policy—complete with the flourish of hypocrisy.

Because his book is written in the style of a personal diary, Byers lets us know that he is an avid jetsetter. Well, that one round-trip flight between Vancouver and London emits 3.4 tons of CO2 per passenger, but at that height it has a 10-ton warming effect. That is equivalent to an average Canadian’s personal household emissions for two full years. It’s a conservative guess that Byers flies once a month.

Byers quickly tells us that he sometimes bicycles to work, bought a Prius and is “now considering solar panels and a mini-windmill for our roof.”

“We have reduced our emissions by significantly more than the Kyoto Protocol requires of all Canadians,” he says. But driving a Prius to the airport to board a jet does not reduce the emissions of the jet. Byers’s explanation—that he outsources his responsibility to Africa by buying carbon credits—shows that, like being nuclear free or landmines free, Kyoto isn’t about actually doing anything difficult, but about appearing smug. “Of course, not all Canadians can afford to do all that Katharine and I have done, but everyone can—and should—do what they can to help.”

Axworthy would be proud.


  1. Stewart Bell (2006), “Al-Qaeda Warns Canada: Quit Afghan Mission or Endure Attack Like 9/11, Threat Says.” National Post, October 28, page A1.  

  2. Ian MacLeod (2007), “Canadian Oil Target of Terror: Al-Qaeda Group Calls for Attacks As Way to Disrupt U.S. Supply,” Ottawa Citizen, February 14, page A1.  

  3. Statistics on violent crime for 2005 for the U.S. are published by the FBI at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/offenses/violent_crime. The 2005 Canadian statistics are published by Statistics Canada at http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/060720/d060720b.htm.