(Full disclosure: I have invited the MLI’s managing director, Brian Lee Crowley, to speak to students at the Canadian Forces College a couple of times, generally as part of a think tank panel.)
MLI Senior Fellow Balkan Devlen is responsible for the first of a series of commentaries focused on “Leading a community of democracies in the post-COVID world order.”
Devlen, or the institute as a whole (it is not entirely clear), advocates a “reorientation of foreign policy.” As we emerge from the pandemic, he argues, Canada must “take the lead in working with other democracies and like-minded states from Europe to the Indo-Pacific.”
While I will never understand the emphasis on foreign policy leadership that is so common among analysts from across the political spectrum, it is hard to find fault in the suggestion that Canada should work with natural allies to advance its national interests.
I begin to get less comfortable at Devlen’s next paragraph: “Such a reorientation of policy,” he claims, “is only sustainable if it reflects the views and priorities of everyday Canadians and not only the foreign policy elite.”
There are two ways to interpret the implications of this suggestion for practitioners.
One is that Ottawa should make foreign policy decisions based on what public opinion surveys say matter to Canadians.
The other is that when these same surveys suggest that Canadians do not agree with their government’s foreign policy posture, Ottawa should explain itself so convincingly that they come around.
You either follow the public, or you lead them.
My concern with Devlen’s analysis is that he seems to choose option one when public opinion aligns with the MLI’s views, and option two when it doesn’t.
The data provided (Figures 2 and 3 in the report) indicate that 73% of Canadians view China negatively. Seventy-two percent feel the same about Russia.
Devlen clearly agrees with the majority in these cases.
He quotes MLI Senior Fellow Charles Burton, who condemns the Government of Canada for being too lax, and therefore “out of sync” with public opinion on China.
Then he quotes another Senior Fellow, Marcus Kolga, who is similarly critical of Ottawa for failing to be hard enough on Russia.
And then things get awkward.
The MLI appears to have asked Canadians the same questions about their attitudes towards the United States, but the commentary does not provide a similarly detailed breakdown of the data.
We do learn, however, that 63% of Canadians “hold at least a moderately negative view of the U.S.”
Indeed, just 20% of Canadians have positive views of America. By way of comparison, 26% of Canadians have positive views of China, and 28% have positive views of Russia.
Yet there is no call from Devlen, nor are there quotations from other MLI fellows, to distance ourselves from Washington. Rather, we are reminded that the US is “Canada’s closest ally and trading partner.”
Moreover, according to another MLI Senior Fellow, Shuvaloy Majumdar, “the strategic relationship provides the bedrock for Canada’s national security and economy.”
In sum, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute clearly wants the Government of Canada to get tough on Russia and China, so it is jumping on opinion polling which suggests similarly and calling on Ottawa to respect the will of the people.
But when it comes to Canadian skepticism of the United States, the MLI fellows disagree with the public’s conclusion, and therefore demand that Ottawa find a way around it.
To be clear, I would not be so disappointed in this report if I didn’t generally agree with its conclusions.
China and Russia are seeking to undermine Canadian national interests, and we cannot defend those interests without cooperating with the United States.
Why Devlen and the MLI insist on framing their recommendations – unconvincingly – as reflective of a commitment to democratize the foreign policy process is therefore beyond me.
In other news, the Conservative finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, published an essay in Policy Options last week that caused me to do a double-take.
It’s called “The other lethal pandemic is worklessness,” and it claims that, since the outbreak of COVID-19, too many Canadians have lost “the purpose, pride, and place to go that comes from working.”
Work is not just about making money, Poilievre argues, it’s also about ensuring our “health and happiness.”
“Far from being a misery needed to pay the bills, work is a basic human need. It activates our brains and bodies in service of others. It makes us players not observers; powerful not powerless.”
Funny thing, that’s one of the key arguments raised by proponents of a basic income guarantee when critics (and I believe that Poilievre has generally been one of them) suggest that such a government program would inevitably lead to mass unemployment.
I look forward to hearing what the new leader of the Green Party, Annamie Paul, thinks of the essay. She’s been calling for a guaranteed livable income since well before she won the leadership.
To be notified of my next blog post, follow me on Twitter @achapnick.
You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://buttondown.email/achapnick