(Disclosure: In the late 1990s, I took one of Carment’s classes. More recently, he contributed to my book with Chris Kukucha on the Harper government’s approach to world affairs).
The article is called “Why Trudeau can afford to fail on foreign policy,” and the pull-quote reads:
“Foreign policy rarely, if ever, decides elections, and the Trudeau government should be thankful for this.”
The authors use the essay to promote their Foreign Policy Report Card, an annual summary of the thinking of some of NPSIA’s experts on international affairs.
You are welcome to read the 68-page document in full (spoiler: the government got its worst overall grade yet, a ‘C’), but it is the argument about accountability in foreign policy that intrigues me here.
Carment and his students seem to be suggesting that Canadians should express their pleasure and disappointment with the government’s foreign policy through the ballot box.
I have three concerns with this line of thinking.
First, it assumes that individual governments exercise sufficient control over Canadian foreign policy so as to justify holding them exclusively accountable for its outcomes.
I’m not so sure: From where I sit, the constraints facing our practitioners are overwhelming.
No matter the government, the primacy of Canada’s relationship with the United States endures. Foreign policy is simply easier under certain administrations.
Add to that the benefits we accrue by the persistence of a liberal world order, and the room for manoeuvre becomes even more limited.
Significant deviations from the Canadian foreign policy norm will often amount to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Indeed, Carment himself was just as critical of the previous Conservative government’s foreign policy as he is of the approach today.
Which leads to my second concern: Opposition parties are poorly positioned to offer plausible foreign policy alternatives.
In Canada, the government has a virtual monopoly on top-secret level security briefings. Without them, opposition proposals inevitably lack credibility.
For example, the third-party Trudeau Liberals might have articulated their 2015 peacekeeping promises less boldly had they been able to run them by our diplomatic corps and the Department of National Defence.
Third, Canadians shouldn’t be the exclusive assessors of Ottawa’s international conduct.
Surely, the Latvians’ views on Operation Reassurance should play a role in evaluating the effectiveness of our contribution. Recipients of Canadian international assistance should be consulted about the quality of our development programming. And to gage the acuity of our trade negotiators, their counterparts on the other side of the table should be consulted.
I don’t mean to suggest that a Canadian government’s foreign policy should get a free pass.
I, too, am critical of the Trudeau Liberals’ approach to global affairs, but my criticisms tend to focus on issues that are within Ottawa’s control.
For example, I am disappointed by the appointment of four foreign ministers in less than six years.
Mastering the international file takes time. Minister Champagne was only beginning to find his way when he was so abruptly replaced.
I also find the number of senior officials in Global Affairs Canada who have never taken the foreign service exam discomforting.
Morale is better when diplomats can legitimately envision themselves ascending to the most influential policy roles in their department.
When I vote, however, these concerns (among others) will form only a small part of my decision.
I see more harm that good in single-issue voting, especially when the issue offers limited potential for serious alternatives in policy approach.
On the politics of Canadian foreign policy, there is nothing more comprehensive than the book of the same name by Kim Richard Nossal, Stéphane Roussel, and Stéphane Paquin. It’s now in its fourth edition. I hope the fifth includes more about the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s international realm. Speaking of which, Alicia Campney’s recent piece about “How the Supreme Court’s carbon price review intersects with Indigenous rights and reconciliation” is worth a look. I learned a lot from it.
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