Skip to content

From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Diplomats-in-Chief

Foreign policy from the top down

J.D.M. Stewart

Statesmen, Strategists, and Diplomats: Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Making of Foreign Policy

Edited by Patrice Dutil

UBC Press

408 pages, hardcover and ebook

One has to admire Patrice Dutil and his body of work about prime ministers. Over the past decade or so, he has written or edited Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies (with Roger Hall), Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden, and The Unexpected Louis St‑Laurent: Politics and Policies for a Modern Canada. These are in addition to two books, edited with David MacKenzie, on the 1911 and 1917 federal elections. Dutil has now edited another readable and important contribution to prime ministerial history. This collection of scholarly essays is significant because, as Dutil notes in his introduction, no book before has been “devoted to a systematic analysis of the personal role of Canadian prime ministers in fashioning this country’s foreign policy.” That’s been the case even though, as in almost all aspects of governing, “the prime ministers of Canada have the greatest single influence on the foreign policy agenda and in determining how policy will be implemented or evaluated; no other single player in the policy arena compares.” Heck, every prime minister after Robert Borden, who took over External Affairs ex officio in April 1912, handled his own foreign policy until Mackenzie King finally appointed Louis St‑Laurent to the post in 1946.

While Statesmen, Strategists, and Diplomats makes clear the integral role played by prime ministers in foreign affairs, it is noteworthy just how much of what crosses their desk is thrust upon them: Borden and the First World War, King and the Second World War, or, to choose a more recent and less bellicose example, the challenges of climate change that have touched every leader from Brian Mulroney to Justin Trudeau. The dominance of the files can be a surprise. “The thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectation — I don’t even know what my expectations were,” Stephen Harper is quoted as saying, “is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but in fact that it’s become almost everything.” As the British prime minister Harold Macmillan is reputed to have said, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference, in August 1943.

The Canadian Press; National Archives of Canada

Politics at home is never too far removed from foreign policy. Lester Pearson once quipped of the latter that it was just domestic policy with its hat on. The connection is evident in small and large actions, including those taken by Jean Chrétien: he twice served George W. Bush potatoes from Prince Edward Island while lobbying the president to lift his country’s ban on the famous spuds. The culinary diplomacy coincided with the 2001 Summit of the Americas, in Quebec City. The venue was chosen deliberately by the Chrétien government to reflect its desire to showcase the benefits of federalism to that province. The prime minister’s decision not to join the United States invasion of Iraq two years later was also driven by domestic politics to a large degree, underscoring the role played by Quebec.

Taken together, these essays demonstrate the arc of our foreign policy as it has developed from its integral relationship with the United Kingdom (and the British Empire) to the inescapable influence of the United States. Along the way, Canada has had to figure out how to articulate its distinct point of view. The analyst Graeme Thompson argues adroitly that the template for such expression began with Wilfrid Laurier. As the country’s first francophone prime minister, Laurier navigated several tricky issues — the South African War and naval policy, to cite two examples — that pitted imperialism and national autonomy against each other. As prime minister and later as leader of the opposition, Laurier “focused on four key priorities that remain cornerstones of Canadian foreign policy: upholding national unity, carving out a distinctly Canadian voice in international affairs, cultivating relations with the United States, and contributing to international security through multilateral collaboration.”

In Laurier’s days, “upholding national unity” meant balancing French- and English-speaking parts of the country, which saw Canada’s ties to Great Britain in manifestly different ways. It was a challenging act best captured by a comment, part lament and part declaration, that Laurier made in 1911: “I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French, and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Quebec I am branded as a jingoist, and in Ontario as a separatist. In Quebec I am attacked as an imperialist, and in Ontario as an anti-imperialist. I am neither. I am a Canadian.”

In his elucidating essay on St‑Laurent, the historian Robert Bothwell reminds us that an imperial connection was still significant to foreign policy midway through the twentieth century, despite ongoing efforts to express the country’s voice:

From the vantage point of seventy-five years later, it is hard to come to terms with the very different monarchical Canada of the 1950s. The British connection was much more than a strategic link; for many Canadians, it was integral to their perception of their national identity. And among those Canadians for whom it was not, it was something they were prepared to put up with. . . . We might even call the British connection Canada’s unconscious foreign policy, so axiomatic and automatic did it seem.

British failures during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and St‑Laurent’s unsympathetic reaction were the beginning of the end for this “monarchical Canada.” The Cold War, already a decade old at that point, would dominate the ensuing years, as would relations with Washington.

It comes as no surprise that the United States was and remains a dominant force in our foreign relations. From Macdonald and the 1871 Treaty of Washington to Justin Trudeau’s dealings with Donald Trump, sleeping next to an elephant remains a concern. What is surprising here, however, is the relatively scant attention paid to this reality by the historian Robert Teigrob, in his essay on Mackenzie King. Franklin Roosevelt and King had the most important relationship of any president and prime minister, yet Teigrob barely touches upon it and their signature accomplishments: the Ogdensburg Agreement of 1940 and the Hyde Park Declaration a year later.

The bilateral partnership between the two leaders — they met eighteen times over ten years — marked a fundamental shift in Canada’s economic and defence policy and certainly deserves far greater analysis. Teigrob, however, focuses on the role the prime minister and the president played in the poorly handled question of Jewish refugees during the late 1930s and on their later positions on colonialism. Admittedly, he acknowledges that because of King’s twenty-one years in office, “any attempt at synthesis is bound to provoke profound debate, passion, and controversy.”

This book includes some useful design features that supplement the well-researched individual contributions. These include tidy summaries at the end of most of the collection’s fourteen essays, highlighting in digestible bullet points each prime minister’s strengths in structure, policy, and style in foreign affairs. The comprehensive footnotes, which contain myriad references for further reading, are quite valuable for students of Canadian history. There will be rich dividends for those willing to read the fine print.

Another intriguing aspect is a summing‑up chapter, in which the essayists rank the success of prime ministers in various aspects of foreign policy using a points system. “How effective were the prime ministers in engaging Parliament?” one prompt asks. “How effective were the prime ministers in winning the support of the public on foreign policy issues?” asks another. The rankings help to crystallize the achievements noted throughout the book and, without giving the game away, provide superb fodder for discussion. After all, who are the top three prime ministers when it comes to foreign policy? (A quibble, though: a numeric table of the scores would have made this fascinating information a lot easier to digest.)

All in all, Statesmen, Strategists, and Diplomats brings together insightful analysis of Canadian foreign policy from the top down. This approach has regrettably fallen out of fashion in recent times, but Dutil and his collaborators remind us how our most senior decision makers influence the direction of the country on the global stage. Whether it is Brian Mulroney leading the charge against South African apartheid or Joe Clark welcoming 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, what happens inside the Office of the Prime Minister is paramount.

J.D.M. Stewart is the author of Being Prime Minister. He lives in Toronto, where he’s writing a new history of Canadian prime ministers.

Advertisement

Advertisement