Canada Foreign Policy
Sunday, January 14, 2007
  What’s Going on, eh?

Officials, especially those connected with the military, take whatever opportunity they can when speaking to the media to make the point that our country’s involvement in Afghanistan has raised Canada’s profile. They don’t actually make claims directly, but it seems they would also have us believe that after many decades our nation is reasserting or somehow defining its status as a hard power. The era of Canadian soft power is behind us. Some argue the point that Canadian troops in Afghanistan make it possible for this country to have far greater influence with NATO. Others are content to repeat the mantra that the international community now has no other choice but to take Canada far more seriously.

But what would Tony Blair make of this Canadian posturing? On 12 January 2007 the British Prime Minister delivered a foreign policy speech [BBC, 12 January 2007]. His words amounted to the diplomatic equivalent of contending Britain could both walk and chew gum at the same time. When it comes to radical Islam, he said Britain had to be prepared to continue with a robust foreign policy, and one which had a large role and need for the military. On the other hand, giving over resources for this objective did not mean the UK would be rendered incapable of tackling world poverty, global warming, or peacekeeping missions. Britain had a long and proud peacekeeping tradition, said the PM. But that fact in no way meant that it was somehow impossible to do both; and, Blair stressed London could and should do both war fighting and peacekeeping. He did note that some countries had over the decades found it convenient to degrade their militaries, opting only to project soft power. So for the UK, playing "Globocop" does not mean other strategies and goals are to be abandoned [cited in Rashmee Roshan Lall’s ‘Blair Wants UK to Stay Globocop,’ Times of India, 13 January 2007. Story posted at].

Was Blair, at any point while speechifying, thinking of Canada? And were any Canadian officials, if they were listening or watching, agreeing with the PM’s analysis of soft power? While Canadian elites may wish to believe we now have much more bargaining ability on the international stage and that this country is well on its way to exercising hard power, recent events say there may be a large measure of doubt concerning our potentialities. To be sure, those in office understand many average Canadians are far more committed to an international role that depends on peacekeeping and reconstruction. And so public relations efforts are periodically trotted out to reassure that constituency, that part of the electorate. Yet over the past days there is mounting evidence that our leaders may understand soft power is mostly what Ottawa actually has in its arsenal.

The world just became much more complicated. On 11 January 2007 US troops entered Iranian consular offices in the Iraqi city of Erbil, taking documents and arresting five Iranian nationals. Earlier, on 7 January 2007 Washington launched air attacks against al-Qaeda bases in Somalia, killing at least eight people but failing to target or wound three key radical leaders. And it was back on 10 January 2007 that US President George Bush spoke to the American people, explaining it was his plan to deal with the civil war in Iraq by sending an additional 21,500 troops to that country. Undoubtedly some scare-monger somewhere is already suggesting the Western world may be only three or four headlines away from reports of the start of the Third World War.

Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor seems very concerned, if not rather worried, about what’s going on. On 12 January 2007, after speaking to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, he observed that Canada is doing about as much as it really can in Afghanistan, and did so by stating he hoped the recent US decision to beef up troops in Iraq did not translate into Washington quitting Afghanistan. Could he be wondering whether or not any unfolding US policies may in fact translate into rough times for Canadian foreign policy in Central Asia? He did note there was absolutely nothing to critique when it came to sending more US forces, so long as the move does not "draw any troops from Afghanistan to reinforce Iraq" [cited in ‘O’Connor Hopes Bush’s Iraq Plan Won’t Drain Afghanistan Force,’ CP, 12 January 2007. Story posted at].]. And so how much hard power can really be tapped into for the mission in Kandahar? O’Connor, way back on 8 May 2006, said the mission might be extended "basically forever," however doing so would mean no troops for other major projects, including the war-ravaged Darfur region [See O’Connor’s remarks in ‘Peter MacKay Visits Troops in Kandahar’, CBC News, 9 May 2006. Story posted at]. Are O’Connor’s words relevant today?

It was on 7 January 2007 that Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay arrived in Afghanistan to meet with troops and reconstruction teams, and to reassure them of Canadians’ support for their work. He arrived in Kabul and days later, on 9 January, went to Pakistan where he met with officials to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. MacKay also hoped to find ways of keeping al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters from the crisscrossing the border between the two countries, and while balking at a Pakistani suggestion that border territories be mined, he did agree that biometrics, that technologies could be critical in arriving at a solution [See ‘MacKay Rejects Pakistan’s Border Mining Plan,’ CTV News, 9 January 2007. Story posted at].

There was something very different about this latest visit to Central Asia by a high-ranking Canadian. Just after PM Stephen Harper was elected early last year, he made a visit to Afghanistan, after some days of very public planning. To be sure, the exact timing of his arrival was kept secret, though the trip itself had been advertised well in advance. MacKay’s arrival was a surprise, and his very public agenda suggested something much more than reassuring troops and voicing commitments for reconstruction work needed to be handled. Then again, maybe it’s all about personal style, and little else. Back in May 2006 MacKay went to Afghanistan, and that too was a surprise visit. Nevertheless, this time he did seem to go out of his way to say Canadian efforts were yielding significant progress, and this comes at a time when some high-profile sources argue there is little but doom and gloom: " article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, an influential journal published by the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations, paints a gloomy picture of NATO efforts in Afghanistan. The article claims rebel attacks are increasing and the opium trade–which helps fund the rebels–exploding" [Cited in ‘MacKay Paints Rosy Picture of Afghan Mission’, CTV News, 7 January 2007. Story posted at].

MacKay travels to the Middle East later this month.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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