Canada Foreign Policy
Forty Million Dollars in Aid
The grim facts are by now all too familiar. At least 125,000 have already perished, and that tally is likely far too conservative. Over 80,000 of those souls are concentrated in Indonesia, where some analysts say the death toll could reach 350,000 before too long. At least four Canadians are among the dead, while another 78 remain missing.
The survivors endure massive hardships. According to some estimates, there may be anywhere between 5-6 million made homeless, lacking the most basic of necessities. And the immediate future promises only more anguish, with disease expected to exact even more from the vulnerable populations. It was a Boxing Day tragedy, one of the most intense earthquakes unleashing a tsunami, impacting the lives of millions in at least 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.
By 30 December the government of Canada pledged 40 million dollars in aid. Ottawa also says it will donate a dollar for every dollar given by citizens to recognized relief agencies. And there’s more, with the federal authorities adding that effective immediately there is a moratorium on debt collection from the countries impacted. Canadian civilian and military experts are now on the way to southeast Asia, tasked with assessing damages and advising on what ought to be done. On the morning of 31 December Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke with President George Bush and now agrees to join in coalition with the US, Japan, India and Australia so that “the group will work together - with the United Nations - to ensure rich nations are not competing against each other in the delivery of aid” [CP, 31 December 2004]. But was Canadian generosity too slow to come, prompted by something apart from altruism?
Many journalists noted in the immediate aftermath of the horrors most of official Ottawa was conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Affairs Minister could be made available for comment, presumed on vacation. It was left to Minister of National Defence Bill Graham to greet the press and announce an aid package of four million dollars. Canadian disaster relief and engineering expertise, among the finest in the world, was not pledged, opening wide the door to speculation that such services were either too costly to make available or simply, as a matter of policy, not meant for deployment outside the country, no matter what the circumstances. Then the vast, byzantine Canadian foreign affairs bureaucracy remained mute, signaling that either the entire staff was away enjoying the season or directionless and adrift, too new to what was unfolding, unsure of what powers were granted by which job descriptions.
No sooner had Paul Martin become Prime Minister than he began to promise a greater role for Canada in world affairs. Aid was and supposedly remains among his principal concerns. With balanced and surplus budgets, it appears a greater level of commitment would be no problem. As one report noted, right after Martin went to the polls earlier this year and secured his minority, “His address [in New York on 7 July 2004] also touched on Canada's solid financial position, its balanced federal budgets... He called for increased foreign aid budgets and an emphasis on rebuilding public institutions in troubled countries.” [CBC news online, 20 July 2004. Posted at http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/martin_paul/
]. Yet what Canada’s response during the first 48 hours of this crisis reveals is that no commitment was made in case of natural disasters, beyond, that is, the rhetoric of public diplomacy. How the unfolding crisis impacts Ottawa’s diplomatic strategy remains unclear, though it is possible to suspect the effect will be short-lived, likely limited to the present situation, with Ottawa’s policy capital eventually refocused on the crises presented by failed states rendered so by man-made adversities.
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Almost Christmas in Tripoli
He garnered plaudits, his country winning approbation for how much it had done to advance liberal democracy. “I send my regards and compliments… and congratulate them for the progress they have achieved so far.” But there was more, with the leader noting “I congratulate them on the democracy that is exercised by all ethnic groups.” And Libya’s Colonel Moammar Gadhafi wasn’t through lavishing kudos just yet, stressing that he and Prime Minister Paul Martin would remain friends no matter what, “even if he is not prime minister” because “on a personal level, we have gained quite a personal friendship. We are friends not just because he is the prime minister of Canada… we shall always be friends.” [Moammar Gadhafi speaking on 19 December 2004, cited by CBC news and posted at http://sympatico.msn.cbc.ca/story/world/national/2004/12/19/martin-libya041219.html
Meanwhile, Martin, who arrived on 19 December 2004 for a few hours’ meetings with the Libyan leader, spoke well of his host. The PM observed Gadhafi has an inspired awareness of history and senses the world is evolving. But is the Colonel the man to guide his nation through these transitions? According to Martin, who spoke to the press, Gadhafi “understands that with the changing world, abuse of human rights cannot continue…Certainly, by the tenor of our discussions . . . a great deal of progress has been made and a great deal of progress is desired to be made in the weeks, the months and the years ahead.” [cited in Dan Dugas’ “Martin Puts Cards ‘on the Table’ in Talks with Libyan Leader Gadhafi, CP, 19 December 2004. Posted at http://www.recorder.ca/cp/National/041219/n121949A.html
Not so long ago, almost any reference to the Libyan strongman was meant as a slur. In some quarters, Gadhafi embodied what stood out as reprehensible, if not utterly evil. Back in March 2003, when Canada failed to join the United States in the invasion of Iraq, members of the now-defunct Alliance party [today’s Conservatives] said that decision put Ottawa in league with Tripoli. Alliance Foreign Affairs critic Stockwell Day claimed Canada was thrust “onto the side of nations like Libya, Syria, China, nations who don't want to see a united front against Saddam Hussein.” [CBC news, 18 March 2003. Posted at http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/03/17/chretieniraq030317
Martin’s is just one in a recent series of visits made by Western politicians and statesmen. Gadhafi is the recipient of much improved if not overwhelmingly positive media attention. He is no longer the international pariah. According to some observers, this may be accounted for by one of two major developments. First, say some, the Libyan leader was prompted to drop his objectionable behaviour and seek reconciliation with the West because he has come to see its strength in Iraq, and in order to evade such consequences himself, has had to learn to begin conforming with international standards. Martin possibly underscored objections to how the Colonel runs his government, maybe even lecturing his host on human rights abuses and about much-needed reforms, which would include an overhaul of the judiciary. Perhaps there is much to this logic, but Martin’s first of two brief meetings with Gadhafi provided some evidence for making the argument that if the Libyan is shaken by the awesome power of the West, he is doing an effective job of concealing that fact. According to accounts, he made sure his first encounter with the PM would take place in a tent “not far from the remains of Gadhafi's bombed out residence, where one of his children died when U.S. fighter jets attacked the building in 1986.” [cited in http://sympatico.msn.cbc.ca/story/world/national/2004/12/19/martin-libya041219.html
]. Second, some say prompting the rapprochement is economic necessity, and little else. There are raw materials, especially oil, in Libya, and they are much in demand, while the Libyans are in desperate need of markets. In fact, Martin did meet with members of the Canadian business establishment who are no doubt hoping to secure lucrative contracts. Yet the reality is that business has been going ahead with Libya for some time. Ottawa opened its Tripoli embassy in 2002, and already lifted its sanctions regime back in 1999. What’s unique about the relationship with Gadhafi in late 2004 is just one aspect, that of the aggressive public diplomacy.
Perhaps at this very early stage it may be best to avoid the panoptic interpretations of what’s going on in and with the North African state. All this may amount to little more than recognition by the West that difficulties are mounting across the Middle East, and alienating any potential contact might prove disastrous for geopolitical stability. If this is the case, then Gadhafi may actually believe he needs us less than we need his oil and goodwill.
Finally, Paul Martin is finding it hard to leave North Africa. After returning home briefly, he left again on 20 December, planning to take a two-week family vacation in Morocco. Back on 12 December he celebrated an important anniversary, his first full year in office as prime minister.
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