My difficulties have been twofold:
First, I have worked with two of the authors and have the deepest respect for them.
Mr. Charest is one of the best guests ever to appear in my strategic decision-making course. His presentations are inspiring, and I always find myself agreeing with the general tenor of his message.
Professor Chouinard is a rising star at the Royal Military College in Kingston, and she too impressed me deeply when we participated on a panel together a couple of months ago.
Second, I could not agree more with the first half of their argument:
“Canada’s place on the world stage … depends on us embracing our bilingual history and character.”
As they suggest, Canada’s diplomatic corps must be, at minimum, fully bilingual.
Indeed, I would hope that the majority of our senior diplomats learn a third language as they progress in their careers.
Understanding other languages and cultures is one of the most reliable ways of developing empathy, intercultural awareness, and the ability to think flexibly and creatively.
And that is in addition to the well-documented cognitive and neurological benefits.
What’s more, seeing as over half the world now speaks more than one language, it is hard to imagine how any state, other than perhaps a superpower, could function effectively on the global stage without a multilingual diplomatic corps.
My problem, then, is with the rest of what the article has to say.
The authors maintain that Canada has a “growing reputation” as a “vassal state” of the United States.
The choice of words is shocking, seeing as for the last three years they have been invoked regularly by the Canadian commentator Irvin Studin in support of his opposition to NAFTA – an agreement that Mr. Charest in particular has actively supported.
Charest, Paikin, and Chouinard suggest that emphasizing Canadian bilingualism would draw international attention to Canada’s independence from the United States, and that such independence would promote the national interest.
“Canada requires a more independent foreign policy” they say.
I see things differently.
On its own, Canadian bilingualism hardly differentiates this country on the world stage. Rather, it’s American monolingualism, and indeed the monolingualism of the rest of the Five Eyes alliance, that stands out.
Put differently, Canadian bilingualism derives much of its meaning from of our close relations with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
Our capacity to negotiate with French-speaking countries that do business with the Five Eyes in their language of choice is part of what has always made us disproportionately relevant internationally.
The weaker our Five Eyes relations, and especially our relations with the United States, the less relevant our bilingualism becomes to our diplomatic toolkit.
A deep and durable relationship with the Americans is therefore not only critical to our continental interests, it also enhances our international influence.
So by all means, let’s increase the linguistic proficiency of our diplomatic corps, but to advance the national interest and benefit fully from these skills, we must also strengthen and promote our close ties to the United States.
A number of years ago, I wrote a book chapter about why independence in Canadian foreign policy was over-rated. You can find it here. That collection of essays served to update and reflect on the late Stephen Clarkson’s edited book on independence in Canadian foreign policy, first published in 1968.
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