Immature Design

Canadian foreign policy has become a mishmash of conflicting priorities and half-baked initiatives. Can it be fixed?

When Harper attended the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009, he had little to contribute to discussions on regional development or energy partnership — subjects on which Canada, by virtue of its wealth and resources, should in theory have a lot to say. Instead, the prime minister spent much of his time railing against protectionism — an unpopular topic in most of the region, given past failures to reach a hemispheric free trade agreement, and Canada’s own record of subsidizing and protecting its homegrown industries. Hester describes Harper’s approach at the summit as a “solo turn,” and suggests that he was out of tune with the zeitgeist. As a result, she believes, Mexico and Chile overshadowed Canada, wooing the Obama administration with interesting ideas such as a hemisphere-wide electrical grid, a regional biofuel transportation network, and a research institute on renewable energy.

The challenges posed by our democratic structure are formidable, but they do not necessarily condemn our government to the whims of public opinion and lobby groups. To see the possibilities, consider a country such as Norway, which has staked out a clear identity for itself as a mediator and peacemaker, and which dedicates substantial resources to that identity, whether through the direct activities of its diplomats or the indirect backing of ngos. The usual retort here is “But Canada isn’t Norway.” We are a G8 country, with wider-ranging interests and responsibilities. Furthermore, we have two other features that, while crucial to our identity, make it more difficult to craft a focused foreign policy: our federal structure and our multicultural population.

Scholars have long noted the problematic nature of foreign policy–making in federal systems, where there is a tension between divided internal sovereignty and undivided external sovereignty. Internally, the responsibilities of different levels of government tend to expand over time until they begin to overlap. At the sub-state level, foreign policy tends to become a lever, used to achieve the maximum degree of autonomy possible. Officials at the top level, meanwhile, have a natural tendency to resist these attempts, since the management of relations with other countries constitutes a defining characteristic of sovereign statehood.

Canada’s version of federalism has made it especially difficult to articulate a “national interest.” The provinces share power with the federal government in a host of areas with international implications, including immigration and the environment, which means their interests and expertise must be incorporated into national foreign policy. And, of course, one province’s international objectives can sometimes conflict with others’, or with the federal government’s. Recall, for instance, Alberta’s clash with Ottawa concerning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and Quebec’s fights with Ottawa over international cultural policy. Quebec in particular raises a unique set of issues, since it has its own Minister of International Relations, who can establish and maintain relations with foreign states and international organizations.

The second defining feature of Canada, its multiculturalism, may be contributing to one of the most frequently criticized aspects of our foreign policy: our fragmented approach to development assistance. Influenced in part by the need to placate various diaspora and interest groups, Canada has developed one of the world’s most dispersed aid budgets. To illustrate, compare Canada and the Netherlands, each of which gave about 2 percent of the world’s direct aid in 2008. While the Netherlands donated to sixty-five countries, Canada spread its contribution among more than a hundred recipients. Such a spread makes it difficult to develop local knowledge and contacts, and so to use aid dollars effectively. Small-scale programming also places a heavy coordination and cost burden on the very countries we are trying to help, and increases the costs and management requirements for Canada. And the contribution we make is often so tiny that it cannot make a difference in even the poorest countries. Take Angola, which received 0.1 percent of its aid from Canada in 2008, essentially little more than a rounding error from both countries’ perspectives. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd) has estimated that during that year, sixty-seven of Canada’s 109 aid relationships were similarly futile — a greater number and higher ratio of “non-significant” relationships than for any other member.

Governments have been trying to remedy this problem for some time now. In its 2005 International Policy Statement, the Martin government stated its intention to focus on twenty-five so-called core development partners, fourteen of which were in Africa. The criteria for selection seemed sensible enough: the recipient’s level of need, its capacity to use the aid effectively, and a Canadian presence sufficient to manage the disbursement. But even given these intentions, only about a quarter of Canada’s net official development assistance budget was earmarked for the twenty-five recipients. The rest went through multilateral channels like the United Nations, and to a category of “other” bilateral partners defined largely by security concerns. The top five recipients of Canadian bilateral aid in the wake of the Martin initiative included Afghanistan and Sudan, neither of which was on the 2005 list of core partners. What intervened? Events, dear boy, events.

Attempts by the Tories to focus Canada’s development assistance budget have been no more successful. During the first years of the Harper government, concentration actually got worse rather than better. In 2004–05, the top thirty countries received 65 percent of bilateral aid, and the top twenty received 54 percent; by 2006–07, the top thirty were receiving a total of 59 percent and the top twenty 51 percent. The government’s own commentary on the numbers insists that there has been concentration, but the oecd’s independent study, which goes up to 2008, confirms that this is not the case.

The Harper government quietly incorporated the Martin list of twenty-five core partners into cida’s official plan for 2007, but during the 2007–08 fiscal year those countries received just over a third of bilateral aid dispersed via cida. In 2009, the government adjusted course again, announcing as part of its Aid Effectiveness Agenda a new list of twenty “countries of focus” that seemed to direct Canada’s aid policy toward areas where our national interests — particularly those related to trade and investment — were more obviously at stake. Significantly, the Americas are better represented on the new list, while Africa, where the need for development assistance is greatest, has been downgraded as a Liberal idea, leaving a number of unfinished Chrétien and Martin initiatives to languish. Among these are pledges to simplify the export of low-cost drugs to Africa, and to support an investment fund for the continent.

The final problem with the promise to shift aid toward the Americas is that it has been accompanied by the passage of Bill C-293, the Development Assistance Accountability Act. This legislation, a private member’s bill tabled by a Liberal MP and originally opposed by the Conservatives, commits Canada to pursuing the goal of poverty reduction in its aid disbursements. With its passage in March 2008, we are left with the awkward situation of a Parliament committed to reducing absolute levels of poverty around the world, but a government that believes other objectives, such as investment and private sector development, should be driving the aid agenda. None of this bodes well for aspirations to make our aid policy more focused, or more effective.

The story of Bill C-293 brings us to a final complicating factor in Canadian foreign policy: our minority government. If, as de Tocqueville warned, democratic governments are lousy at foreign policy–making, how much lousier are minority governments, which understand all too well that international policy is rarely, if ever, a vote-getter? The precarious position of the Tory government has led it to avoid foreign or defence policies that might lock Harper in to long-term commitments, particularly if they involve substantial expenditures. Given the backdrop of the global recession, the government has calculated that it will be judged on how well it manages the economic recovery, not on how much money it spends on saving the world.

According to this line of thinking, we should put all hopes of an international strategy on the back burner and wait for the next majority. But minority Parliaments can rise above day-to-day jockeying, avoid votes of non-confidence, and bring forth substantive legislation. While presiding over two minority Parliaments, Lester Pearson managed to lay the cornerstones of Canada’s welfare state, including the Canada Pension Plan, the student loan scheme, and universal health care. So maybe we don’t have to settle for policy on a case-by-case basis.

Derek Burney, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, would seem to agree. Commenting in an essay on the difference between the American presidential system, with its constraining checks and balances, and the Canadian parliamentary system, he writes, “A Canadian prime minister has real power, day in and day out, even with a minority government and without much military prowess. He can make decisions and set directions for domestic or foreign policy if and as he chooses to exercise this power. The prime minister can also lead and set the tone for managing our most vital foreign relationship[s].” Above all, the prime minister can also help create the culture of choice that lies at the heart of any good strategy.

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1 comment(s)

June 15, 2010 20:01 EST

After the sound.

In the air,
with the voice
of a clarinet,
I hear a luminous
sound that tries
to discover a
little emotion,
a charming behaviour
and the tender

Francesco Sinibaldi

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