Wednesday, October 13, 2010

International follies

Harper's campaign for a Security Council seat, lost with a little help from his friends, is now dust. But let's let the Schadenfreude wear off. This is no gloating matter.

Harper has succeeded in making Canada look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, not least by petulantly blaming a domestic Opposition leader for his defeat, rather than the self-evident failings of his foreign "policy." But we should be angry about it, not merely gratified by his abject humiliation. He represented us to the world, after all: and now we Canadians are all wearing the mantle of his international ineptitude.

I put the word "policy" in quotation marks, because there has never been a Conservative foreign policy as such: there is no evidence of coordination, planning, or the nuances that go into over-all strategic thinking. It's been all chest-thumping dogmatism, the kind of Rob-Fordian straight talk that makes anyone with the slightest sense of tact cringe with embarrassment.

Whether it's ignoring Africa (when he isn't cutting off African aid), advancing flawed maternal health schemes, giving uncritical support to Israel's bellicose adventures in Lebanon and elsewhere, setting well-respected international aid agencies adrift based upon trumped-up charges of "anti-Semitism," and even at the eleventh hour refusing to address the UN's 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, while offering delegates bottles of maple syrup and a look at a real Mountie, Harper has blundered and bumped into things on the world stage ever since he was elected in 2006. The results were entirely predictable, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Michael Ignatieff.

But let's not romanticize Canada's role before our hapless Prime Minister fumbled his way into the international limelight. Yes, we had a more enlightened view of foreign aid, our troops were relatively well-respected as peacekeepers, and we played a role as honest broker here and there. But we have never hovered angelically above the fray.

Some folks look back at the days of Lester B. Pearson with a kind of reverence. Not I. Pearson allowed American nuclear missiles to be stationed on Canadian soil. Earlier, he had dutifully played his role in Canada's junior partnership with the US, supporting the latter's rapid nuclear arms build-up, while striking certain "independent" positions that mattered far less in geopolitical terms.

His successor, Pierre Trudeau, kept those missiles on hand for a further five years, and continued to preside over Canada's active complicity in the war in Vietnam, which had begun under Pearson. A few hand-waves towards Cuba were outweighed, I would argue, by
our substantial shipments of materiel for use against Vietnamese peasants, two million of whom were killed in that conflict. We supplied the Americans with everything from napalm and weapons guidance systems to green berets. (Indeed, we had been a loyal American ally from the beginning, playing an active role in subverting the 1954 Geneva Accords.)

We should also not forget that it was the Liberals, not the Harper Conservatives, who mired us in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. And if our role in the UN is now pro-Israel, the truth is that it was substantially so before Harper as well.

The Liberals are and have always been the kinder, gentler face of Canadian self-interested Realpolitik. Especially under Ignatieff's shaky tutelage, the "Opposition" has favoured almost every Conservative international position, whether it was a cozy deal with the genocidal Colombian narco-state, the continuing Afghanistan debacle, or strong support of Israel's aggressive policies in the Middle East: Ignatieff, once reluctant to join the choir, eventually came around.

Had the Liberals been in power, could we have sweet-talked our way onto the Security Council? Possibly, by being less offensively blunt, and deploying that well-known Liberal discursive technique whereby all parties in a dispute are persuaded to see them as allies. But would we observe very much concrete change in terms of international relations? Colour me very sceptical indeed.

Harper blew it spectacularly. We can all see that. But let's not create the myth of an pre-Harper Golden Age of saintly international diplomacy. It was anything but. And if Ignatieff's Liberals come to power, don't expect a post-Harper one to begin.

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