This 107-page report from Canada25 reaches us, on gusts of puffery from Michael Ignatieff, Jennifer Welsh and The Walrus’s Ken Alexander, as a communiqué from a terrific initiative.
Four years ago, a number of young Canadians, including three working at the McKinsey consulting firm, concerned about the brain drain from Canada to (mainly) the United States and having concluded that working through political parties was slow and not always a satisfactory way of achieving either impact or fulfillment, sought to generate a much larger community of similarly minded compatriots in Canada and abroad, to discuss and eventually influence Canadian foreign policy. They have been at it ever since, now drawing on 400 or so contributors and participants in regional and thematic roundtables that have unfolded in Canada, the U.S. and in London, England. They are fans of Andrew Cohen (as am I) and subscribe to his view of Canada’s decline in international relations (with which I also largely agree, although, like Cohen, I think it is reversible with more ideas and resources).
The title of the report—From Middle to Model Power: Recharging Canada’s Role in the World—is provocative in several ways. While a number of scholars, notably Kim Nossal, have defined Canada as a “middle power,” others have demurred, seeing Canada as something greater than that or well on its way to being something lesser. But if we assume that describing Canada as one of the more independent and potent middle powers could represent a median position among interested Canadians, what is one to make of the notion of a model power?
The proposition of Canada as a model power (never very satisfactorily explained in the report) sufficiently perplexed me that I called its simpatico principal author, David Eaves, a former consultant, currently volunteering with Canada25 for a year on the strength of his savings. He explained that Canada25 advocates a country in which individuals are empowered largely through networking, and in which newly generated ideas are applied to ourselves for others to admire or not, borrow or not. In effect, we would try to be the best we can be. Collaboration and cross-border innovation also play key roles:
We submit that Canada should cease assessing its influence on the basis of its size or position within an obsolete global hierarchy. Instead, Canada25 calls on Canadians to look at the world as a network, where influence is based on the capacity of an individual, company, non-governmental organization (NGO) or country to innovate and collaborate. Building on this perspective, we propose that Canada become a Model Power—a country whose influence is linked to its ability to innovate, experiment, and partner; a country that, by presenting itself as a model, invites the world to assess, challenge, borrow from, and contribute to, its efforts.
These are fine aspirations and, as the authors suggest, we are partway there. That said, for one having lived abroad for many years and now back home, the notion of Canada setting itself up as a model to the world strikes dread in my heart. In other words, the title may be a misnomer or worse. Eaves, intelligent, entrepreneurial and self-deprecating, admitted that there is a tension between model as type and model as exemplar. But this semantic issue clearly did not long detain him or his Canada25 colleagues.
Canada can indeed present itself as having much to offer other countries in its makeup (increasingly multiethnic and multicultural while remaining surprisingly cohesive across a broad range of issues and values if polls are to be believed): its governance (with a matrix of several levels and realms of government—federal, provincial and territorial, municipal; executive, legislative, judiciary—in constant, more or less civil dialogue with each other on issues requiring both tough choices and compromise) and its openness to the world (with immigration, relative to our population size, second to none). We are envied by many and rightly so. But there have been and continue to be mistakes in economic management and the achievement of rights for a number of groups and communities. Thus, to set ourselves up as a model overall would be to set ourselves up for a fall.
What does Canada25 see as Canadian priorities for the 21st century? Its report recommends a “model relationship” with the U.S., more open and better functioning international markets, environmental sustainability and a more globally alert set of health policies (doubtless influenced by the 2003 SARS epidemic). When one reads the report, the broad socioeconomic, political and ideological demography of Canada25 comes into focus: essentially, these are enthusiastic readers of the Economist and the Financial Times, economically liberal and socially progressive.
Also (dare one say it?—because the authors really are excellent company), they are a tad narcissistic and perhaps not yet fully acquainted with those rougher corners of the globe where networking gets one thrown into prison and attempts at political and even economic innovation can result in a death sentence. They like their own outlook, think that Canada and the world would benefit from it, and have the guts to put themselves out there and say so. Good on them, as my Australian relatives would say.
The report, which includes summaries from a variety of consultations among the eminently multiethnic participants in the Canada25 process, is driven in part by the preoccupations of young Canadian professionals abroad, keen on their country of origin and wishing to remain involved with it, and in a position to contribute to it. But, according to Eaves, they find that, like new immigrants, they have trouble following what is going on in the country and then inserting themselves into national life. Fair enough. But I am at best ambivalent about their suggestion that seats be created within the Canadian Parliament elected by and to represent nationals residing abroad. Would most of us wish our political arrangements with the United States to be significantly influenced by the million-plus Canadians living in the United States?
Fortunately, the Internet and the globalization of cultural distribution make staying in touch much easier than it was 30 years ago (when some of us, in remote parts of Africa, would await with pleasurable anticipation the arrival of batches of Canadian newspapers and magazines six or eight weeks after their publication). Canadian newspaper websites are instantly accessible the world over, as is some Canadian broadcasting on the web. CBC Newsworld International is available 24 hours a day in Manhattan on digital cable, and such is the often highly partisan drivel offered up by the network and cable programmers in the U.S. that many of my friends there alternate their quest for moderately objective news between Newsworld and BBC World. The globe is indeed networked, most admirably so even in its most inaccessible quarters, such as Canada’s far North and mid-sized townships in Botswana. But is networking an end or simply a means? Canada25 is not terribly clear in this regard.
Canada25 is dead keen on cities. By cities, it seems to mean London, New York and Boston, in which its members meet. It does not necessarily have in mind those other teeming metropolises, Lagos, Lima, Calcutta and Tashkent. The cosmopolitan outlook of Canada25 is optimistic, forward-looking and devoid of the arrières pensées of the comfortably-off toward the less fortunate developing world. I am a big city boy myself, but there is an underside to cosmopolitan life about which Canadians tethered to their country may be more aware and skeptical than are these authors. Those living it up in interchangeable world-leading cities are often obsessed with taxes and legal regulation, attempting to maximize personal gain and minimize personal cost. Thus chat among slightly more middle-aged internationally networked corporate types often turns to tax shelters, trusts in Jersey and the like. It is also sometimes depressing to witness those who amassed their pile in Canada spending their philanthropic dollars in the leading cities of the world where naming opportunities flatter the ego more than they do in smaller Canadian centres. It is precisely because the Canada25 authors are not part of that crowd that they might benefit from a recognition of this downside of globalization.
Many of the recommendations in the Canada25 report, including those addressed to government, not least to my own Department of Foreign Affairs, are sensible. The report advocates a role for Foreign Affairs as “a central agency with three principal functions: coordinator, consultant, and educator.” Foreign Affairs, however, principally needs to shape overall foreign policy by contributing its knowledge of global trends, the specifics of country and regional situations, the complex and ever-shifting realities of international institutional architecture, and a good sense of where and how substantive initiatives (often developed elsewhere in government) might best fit and succeed internationally. Furthermore, Canada25’s recommendations have been largely anticipated and the slow wheels of bureaucracy are grinding on a set of reforms very much in line with its suggestions whenever the management crises generated by machinery of government experiments originating elsewhere permit. And it would be a mistake to believe that Foreign Affairs claims to implement most Canadian foreign policy. Such implementation is a much broader-based process, involving Parliament (on appropriations and orientations), many other departments and a number of contracted NGOs, academics and companies. But the Foreign Affairs network of embassies and consulates abroad is a vital asset for the government as a whole.
The authors see Canadian embassies as lacking in pizzazz and glamour (downscale Internet cafés at best) and in need of both a style makeover and rebranding. While the Canadian embassies in Washington and Tokyo (and in its own Edwardian way, Canada House on Trafalgar Square) somewhat live up to Canada25’s vision for embassies as showplaces for the best of Canada’s innovation and networking enthusiasm, it is hard to see how this would be relevant or helpful in, say, Khartoum, where the small Canadian embassy office I recently visited operates out of a dilapidated villa—perhaps appropriate in a country where poverty and violent conflict stalk most communities.
The advice for the Canadian defence establishment, in essence to create more flexible, interoperable armed forces, is also dead right. It is depressing to note that the splendid Canada21 report of 1994 made all of the same points, and more, with little impact. (“Canada 21: Canada and Common Security in the Twenty-First Century,” a report produced by the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto in 1994, remains the best I have read over the years produced by independent experts and scholars on a broad range of foreign policy challenges.)
Curiously, the report has little to say about the role of the prime minister, who, in all recent incarnations, has been the principal shaper of Canadian foreign policy and certainly its primary spokesperson. Likewise, the role of the Finance Department, which shapes foreign policy through budgeting and through its own spending on international financial institutions and the conduct of its own G7 and other diplomacy on key international economic issues, is also ignored.
There is so much in the report to like—its confidence in Canada and Canadians, its dislike of borders, its focus on entrepreneurship, globally accessible education, corporate social responsibility, environmentalism—that it seems small-minded to quibble. Nevertheless, some of the recommendations are questionable.
The Canada25 report rightly focuses on education, particularly higher education, and advocates open borders so that Canadians can grow abroad and applicants the world over can benefit from Canadian universities. It goes a step further and advocates that all foreign graduates of Canadian universities be granted five-year visas to contribute professionally and personally to our country. This is curious coming from a group concerned about the brain drain from Canada to other countries. In truth, the brain drain is dramatically more serious in, say, Africa. One of that continent’s greatest problems is that circumstances at home are sufficiently challenging economically and otherwise that many students fortunate enough to enroll abroad never return. Is this a process we wish to encourage?
The workshops organized by Canada25 in the run-up to its national forum in early 2004 produced interesting and, as one would expect, often contradictory suggestions. Their deliberations are perhaps the most stimulating part of the text. To quote Hercule Poirot, they give one furiously to think!
While some participants focus on Canada living up to its international development assistance targets (like other industrialized countries we claim fealty to the goal of 0.7 percent of gross national product in foreign aid—a goal we are so far below that one hesitates to consult the latest tables from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for fear of seeing the country has dropped a few more points), others focus on the type and quality of that aid. Quite right, too. I was delighted to see, yet again, the recommendation that Canadian aid be untied from Canadian procurement. As a taxpayer, I want the best value for money from my already greatly diminished aid dollar, and tied aid produces the reverse, although it is nice business for those Canadian firms and exporters who can get it.
There is a concern with transparency and accountability, all quite commendable. But might we not be, in Canada, thanks in part to the sponsorship scandal, in the midst of accountability fixation? Some days it seems as if the only respectable soul in Ottawa is the Auditor General (until the tumbrels of righteousness claim her too). While government and its many components need to be accountable (and transparency helps a lot in that), ultimately they are elected and appointed to get a job done, to formulate and implement policies, reforms and programs. Very little of this is possible if the focus on accountability induces overwhelming risk aversion and bureaucratic apathy.
Canada25 advocates a more streamlined Canadian aid program, concentrated on fewer countries where prospects for Canada’s efforts may be best. This is precisely what the Canadian International Development Agency is attempting to do, when not blown off course by humanitarian disasters both natural (tsunamis) and human-made (Darfur). There is no discussion of how humanitarian concern, heightened by the CNN effect of selective but intensive coverage of a few such disasters, distorts development-driven assistance programs.
I was delighted that Canada25 focuses on Canadian federalism (with all of its shortcomings) as of interest to the world. While Canadians scrape, often very unpleasantly, over the division of the national pie and other issues of high policy, they don’t exterminate each other in the process. Indeed, as I travelled the world these past six years studying conflict, I was struck repeatedly by the “winner takes all” politics at the root of so many civil wars that ultimately break out when severely marginalized communities rise up in desperation (only to be manipulated in turn by self-interested individuals and elites). For several years now, Bob Rae has been running a little-known but admirable NGO, The Forum of Federations, willing and able to proffer advice to those emerging from civil war or those threatened by it (countries such as Iraq and Sudan). It is not that the Canadian system is perfect, or an absolute model; it is simply that our system, for all its imperfections, has greatly reduced the compulsion to violent conflict, not least through the genius of our parliamentary system, which is, in essence, to throw the bums out at regular intervals. (Politicians in the West are no less eager to cling to power forever than are the dictators of more tropical climes, viz. Margaret Thatcher, increasingly disconnected and shrill in her sad final months at Number Ten, or Helmut Kohl, experiencing ever greater difficulty distinguishing between the clever and the unlawful when it came to party financing. I forebear to cite Canadian examples that spring to mind.)
By now, you are probably wondering who is paying for this intellectual venture. As a veteran of the non-profit world, I remembered to ask. I was pleased to find that the modest John Holmes Fund of my own department parted with a contribution, and was informed that certain corporations have done likewise and a number are named in the acknowledgements as “partners.” Clearly, this initiative runs overwhelmingly on the volunteered time and enthusiasm of its participants, so I am not unduly distressed by a less than feverish transparency on this score in the pages of the report.
As I concluded my reading, my thoughts turned to the recently deceased Ivan Head. How he would have loved this initiative! As Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s foreign policy advisor, he led an insurgency against received wisdom (received largely from Pearsonites in my department). Those who objected to his healthy ego generally did so because it cramped their often less justifiably inflated sense of self-worth. While he would have been distressed by the accommodating view of Canada25 toward the United States (in truth, a sometimes unreasonable anti-American streak was Ivan’s sole intellectual blind spot), he would have loved the questioning not just of policy priorities but also of the way foreign policy business is done. Like John Holmes, Ivan ultimately exerted influence as much through his students as through his direct impact on policy, and he will be much missed by them and many others.
As I write these lines, colleagues elsewhere in Ottawa are putting finishing touches to the government’s International Policy Statement. As I was heavily involved in the last one, “Canada in the World,” in 1995, my greatest contribution will have been to remain disengaged and to refrain from joining the kibitzing on the draft. But I am hopeful that the authors of the statement, as well as any in government and beyond who are interested in Canada’s international relations, will absorb the message from the confident, committed, self-starting and forward-looking young compatriots who comprise Canada25. Good on them indeed.
David M. Malone is a former Canadian high commissioner to India and a former rector of the United Nations University, headquartered in Tokyo.