The Menace of General Ideas in the Making and Conduct of Canadian Foreign Policy
By: Denis Stairs
Some 15 years have passed since Allan Gotlieb, the former Under-Secretary and Ambassador to the United States, delivered the first of this series of lectures in honour of O.D. Skelton. Mr. Gotlieb observed then, like many of those who have followed him at the lectern since, that Dr. Skelton, “more than any other one individual”, was “responsible for the creation of Canada’s foreign ministry as we know it today”. I therefore feel immensely privileged to have been asked to talk to you this evening in Dr. Skelton’s memory, and to have been added – with no comparable record of accomplishment at all – to the list of extraordinary speakers who have preceded me.
Dr. Skelton, although apparently an agnostic for much of his life, was an associate of Presbyterians. He was married to an Anglican – an often agreeably flexible denomination – but his academic career was at Queen’s, and the Prime Minister who recruited him to government, and with whom he worked so closely and for so long, was the very Presbyterian Mackenzie King. In his addiction to hard work, moreover, and to the principles of self-reliance and individual responsibility there could be found clear evidence of the austere dispositions of John Knox. The Presbyterian connection could be discerned as well in his attachment to the moderately egalitarian precepts of democratic liberalism as these were understood in the North America of his time. It could be found, too, in his keen sense of the value of thrift. Distrustful, for example, of the proposition that displays of opulent hospitality are good for diplomatic business, he initially opposed the purchase in 1927 of a moderately dignified property to house the new Canadian legation in Washington. He thought a more prosaic form of accommodation leased from a hotel would do just fine, although he eventually conceded, with a wry display of fatalistic resignation, that “if you are asked to dinner, presumably you must engage in reprisals”.
Skelton’s assumption, even as Under-Secretary, that he had an obligation to maintain a personal watch over almost everything was legendary, and its consequences were detected abroad. Philip Kerr, the Marquis of Lothian and British Ambassador to the United States, once pointedly observed to Vincent Massey that it “would be better if Skelton did not regard co-operation with anyone as a confession of inferiority”. Massey reported later in his memoirs that he agreed with the assessment.
If there was a hint of injury in Kerr’s remark, it may have resulted as much from Skelton’s determination to free the pursuit of Canada’s interests in the world from the lingering effects of British presumption and Imperial influence as from his overly intrusive work habits and occasionally acerbic manner. The Under-Secretary’s blunt disposition, however, certainly led him to be forthright, analytical and firm in his judgments. European governments, he thought, were overly addicted to power politics in their behaviours abroad and to the service of unreasonably privileged ruling classes at home. A better brand of international affairs would come, not from the ill-advised use of military force, but from the exercise of reason by leaders whose roots were planted in a truly free and democratic politics. Perhaps this was the heritage that later led John Holmes, another of Canada’s revered scholar-diplomats – a plentiful community, as it has turned out – to note that “Canadians come of Messianic stock”, that “the spirits of John Knox and Jean de Brebeuf haunt them”, and that they have been indoctrinated further by the Americans “with the assumption that a nation must be ordained for a benevolent political purpose”.
Such predispositions are certainly with us today. In our own time, however, it seems to me that there is as much of John Wesley as there is of John Knox in Canadian ruminations on Canada’s proper role in world affairs. Perhaps this is not surprising. The United Church emerged as a major force in Canada’s life through the combining in 1925 of 70 per cent of our Presbyterians and all of our Methodists, Congregationalists and members of the Union Churches of Western Canada under a single roof. I am no student of the history of this typically Canadian approach to the papering over of minor differences, much less of the theological niceties that may have been involved, but in retrospect it would appear that the Methodists soon came to dominate the newly integrated canon (as it related, at least, to practice here on earth). We have less now by way of thunderings from the pulpit in response to the sins of the Pharisees and fewer lectures by far on the virtue of looking after our own fates. On the other hand, we hear much more of the need to forgive and nurture the fallen, and protect and empower the weak. The premise is not that God helps those who help themselves. The argument instead is that God helps those who help others. Translated into secular form, this principle infuses our political culture and the chatter it generates – although it still seems to leave room aplenty for our abiding love of property and for the quietly self-interested pursuit of it by our established classes in particular, and by most of the rest of us as best we can.
This is a conceit, of course, to be taken neither too literally nor too seriously. Post-modernists would call it a ‘construct’, and they might think ill of it. It hardly accords, in any case, with the real distribution of religious attachments among Canadians even in Skelton’s day, much less in our own. But I nonetheless want in my remarks to make use of the Presbyterian-Methodist distinction in order to raise a concern about the emerging conduct – and even more the proliferating public discourse – of our foreign policy and the role that we seem, as a political community, to think we should play in the world.
For reasons that I hope to make clear, the concern I have in mind applies more to our involvements overseas than to our relations with the United States (although recent American foreign policy has certainly helped to complicate – not to say compromise – the operations of Canadians as well as others abroad). The problem that I detect – and I think it is a ‘problem’ – has multiple origins, and I will try (albeit very briefly) to speculate on at least a few of them. At the end of my remarks, in outrageously gratuitous style, I will identify a few of the practical “do’s” and “don’ts” that might conceivably be drawn from my analysis. Many of you, almost certainly, will think the discussion a trifle old-fashioned, and wanting in creative imagination. But my basic premise is that the conduct of foreign policy is – or ought to be – a practical, utilitarian activity. Defining its objectives and articulating the values that purportedly underlie them can be a satisfying undertaking. If we are not too honest with ourselves, the process can make us feel good. But that is the easy part – the ‘general ideas’ part. Figuring out when, and how, the policy itself can be made to work is the hard part. And no one should think for a second that defending foreign policy initiatives by linking them to good intentions will ever be justification enough. In public policy, efficacy is measured by effectiveness. Other measures can be politically convenient, but they usually amount to self-serving blather.
I indicated a moment ago that I did not regard our relations with the United States as an area of significant concern in the context of the problem that I am attempting to address. Perhaps I should explain myself. Just two weeks ago, after all, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence noted in the Executive Summary of its most recent report that “the general Canadian attitude toward the United States is immature”. Professional students of Canada-U.S. relations, moreover, have been complaining for some years of the lamentably awkward and embarrassingly public handling of the continental relationship by Canadian politicians with an electoral interest in firing off verbal pot-shots at American expense – a temptation to which they have succumbed even when they have been perfectly aware that their doing so can serve no useful Canadian purpose, much less exert a constructive influence on American behaviour.
But these are surface political phenomena – self-indulgent, perhaps, and certainly unhelpful, but also clearly at odds with the substantive underlying realities of the bilateral relationship. On the whole, and with only occasional exceptions, our dealings with the United States are driven by interests that are both material and direct – interests, in fact, that monopolize the attentions of the most influential elites in both our governing and private sectors. Obeisance is certainly paid from time to time by those in high elective office to the desire of Canadians at large to strengthen their sense of dignity by differentiating themselves from their American neighbours. Our political leaders try as well to distance our performances abroad from the sometimes-disruptive behaviours that emanate readily enough – even understandably enough – from a nervously competitive superpower. Such rhetorical gildings of the Canadian lily to American disadvantage aside, however, on bilateral matters of serious practical import it seems to me that those in Ottawa who have to deal with the substance, as opposed to the mere colouration, of the Canada-U.S. relationship routinely do their calculations with impressive intellectual discipline and care. In particular, they weigh the tactical pros and cons with a clear eye on the costs and benefits of the available alternatives. Even when they contemplate general ideas of the larger sort – ambitious ‘big bang’ models of integrated North American economic and security arrangements, for example – their focus is primarily on the instrumental, and their preoccupation is with the reliable preservation and enhancement of substantive rewards for Canadians as a whole. Greater wealth. Greater security. Consistently and reliably. And for as long as possible.
It could be argued that this is the domain of Canada’s real foreign policy, and notwithstanding the chatterings of the chattering classes, we actually talk about it surprisingly little, even (and perhaps especially) in our governmental policy statements and other official pronunciamentos on our foreign relations. The North American environment is what really matters to us most. But it is unrewarding to focus our rhetorical attention on what in fact is a composite of vast impersonal forces. These remind us, after all, of our incapacities, of the limits of our freedom of action. So we leave the maintenance of the essentials to our mechanics – which in government means our large cadre of bureaucratically scattered and often disconnected officials – while our politicians attempt from time to time to cover the process over by sermonizing in ways that are at once self-serving and irrelevant to what is really happening on the ground. In short we lay down cosmetic claims to superior virtue, while concentrating our most expert minds on what it really takes to fill our pocket books.
It is in this very particular sense that I do not regard our conduct of Canadian-American relations as a ‘problem’. Certainly it raises difficulties, and clearly the difficulties themselves are enveloped in ‘politics’. They pose challenges for policy-makers. But in the end they are more practical than ideational, and their persistence over time draws our attention to the fact that they are a normal part of doing business in the North American context. Those who must deal with them understand that they are about interests – direct, immediate, and often vital. It is in the nature of imperatives that they have their own logic, and the conduct of Canada’s bilateral relations with the United States is ultimately about the management of imperatives. It is the game that Presbyterians know best.
My real concern (in the present context, at least) thus lies elsewhere, and more particularly with our approach to dealing with politico-security challenges overseas, where the game is very different. In the first place, our behaviour there is not much driven by imperatives, although these may make flash appearances here and there in fields of transnational endeavour that have major ‘functional’ significance for Canada – trade, for example, or the law of the sea, or the control of disease, or (more tenuously, it would appear) the nurturing of the environment. But in the politico-security area, the truth of the matter is that we do not HAVE to do anything very much at all. The enterprises we undertake are elective – ‘voluntarist’. That being so, we can much more easily pretend in our operations overseas than in contexts closer to home that our performance is a function, not of our interests, but of our nature, our culture, our values. Even where we do have identifiable interests in play, these tend to be far less direct and far more diffuse than they are in North America, and the objectives we have in mind in most cases cannot possibly be attained by ourselves alone. All this allows us to claim that what’s in the enlightened interest of the international community at large is in the Canadian interest, too. Happy is the country whose geopolitical circumstances are so benign as to allow it to proffer such assertions with a straight face. Our only desire, we insist, is to lift up the fallen, rescue the oppressed, and relieve the miseries of the miserable, arguing that our doing so will make the world a happier, safer and more prosperous place not only for them, but for ourselves and others, too. We thus act here, not as Presbyterians, but as Methodists; we think less like economists and more like social workers.
Now I want to emphasize that I have no fundamental objection – in principle, at least – to this general attitude, and I reserve the right to feel a trifle injured if I am told later this evening that I am addicted to a heartlessly brutish brand of realism. Canada is an unbelievably fortunate country. It is blessed with a relatively benign internal history (although our First Nations can certainly be forgiven for thinking otherwise), along with enormous wealth, as secure a geographical location as it is possible on this technologized earth to imagine, and, notwithstanding what we often say and hear in daily political debate, an enviable system of governmental institutions, norms and practices that together deliver public services of high calibre in decently responsive style. Unencumbered – except in relation to the United States – by foreign policy requirements that are persistent, urgent and vital, we are almost uniquely well-positioned to indulge our perfectly human desire to do some good in the world, and to take satisfaction from the effort. Given our extraordinary advantages, moreover, if WE don’t try, it is hard to imagine (outside Scandinavia and Australasia, perhaps) what society would. And to what faint hope could we then cling in attempting to sustain our abiding belief in progress, and in the possibility of improving our world through collective action co-operatively orchestrated by public policy means? At our core, after all, we are ‘westerners’. We may accept (as Margaret Atwood claims our literature does) that Fate perennially lays upon us an influential and sometimes heavy hand. In this we may be a little more like Europeans and a little less like Americans. But we are convinced, too, that among the working forces of history there is at least a little room for humanly-contrived architecture, and being true to ourselves requires that we seek to make constructive use of it. Besides, the social sciences – the intellectual offspring of the Enlightenment – keep pointing in hopeful spirit to levers we can pull, variables we can manipulate, as we try to promote beneficent change.
So I say again that I have no concern in principle with the Methodist impulse, and with our desire to ameliorate the lives of the least fortunate of our counterparts abroad . At rock bottom, moreover, and pace realists of the tougher-minded sort, I think this impulse is better defended on grounds of common decency (in defence of which there are utilitarian arguments of another kind) than by reference to national interests, narrowly conceived. The state’s primary responsibility – a responsibility that lies at the core of the mechanisms of accountability that are embodied in our institutions of representative and responsible government – is to serve its own. But it is nonetheless free, within reasonable limits, to use some of its resources to serve others, too, provided that it is suitably instructed to do so by its citizenry. Our own state is routinely confronted with precisely this sort of instruction.
What concerns me instead is that our approach to fulfilling our well-intentioned international aspirations has become unthinking, and that we are increasingly guilty, as John Holmes once observed with his typical acumen, of running away from the “terrible facts”. In this headlong flight, we have taken refuge in a rhetoric that Kim Nossal has devastatingly described as “ear candy”. In short, I am concerned, not about our Methodism simple, but about our Methodism rampant.
More concretely put, it seems to me that we have become excessively optimistic about our capacity to transform, in ways that we think would be beneficial, societies in which other folk live, and in which the operating norms, traditions and circumstances are very different from our own. This optimism of purpose is accompanied – although I concede here that there have been glimmers recently of our beginning to have some second thoughts – by an optimism of means. We appear, that is, to have concluded that the transformations we have in mind can be accomplished in the relatively short term with the help of reasonably modest investments applied, not in an imperial (whether of the heavy version or the ‘light’), but in a liberal spirit.
These two underlying premises are sustained by a third, which is that we are in a position to found our effort on a sound technical understanding of how to do the job. This last, of course, manifests the unconscious arrogance of the aspirant social engineer, and it feeds on an exaggerated faith in applied social science. It reflects, that is, the Enlightenment view that natural laws of human behaviour are out there to be discovered, and that, once found, they can be used to shape the construction of heavenly cities on earth. It accepts as well the Enlightenment corollary that the truths thus revealed are universal.
I am fully aware that expressing scepticism in this field is more than a trifle out of fashion. At the very least I risk the charge of making the best the enemy of the good. Even the hard-headed Standing Senate Committee, after all, found it appropriate to entitle its recent report, Managing Turmoil – apparently confident that the turmoils we all have in mind can, in fact, be ‘managed’. Governments have changed, of course, and official views on these matters may ultimately change, too, if they have not already done so. But the fact remains that a great deal has been made in recent years of our desire to rescue failed and fragile states, and to do so in task force style – with the help, that is, of the “3 D’s”, or the “3 D’s and T”, or even “whole of government” operations, or more recently still (it is hard to keep up!), “all of government” operations. In National Defence they prefer to talk more modestly of “three block wars”, but the general conception is much the same. The premise is that by pulling several levers at once – manipulating a number of variables simultaneously – we can fundamentally transform the society, the polity, the economy, even the culture, of the communities we target.
In thinking this way, moreover, we are far from alone. The British, among many others, have the same disposition. So, it would appear, does NATO. The U.N., replete with its Specialized Agencies, has reflected loosely comparable concepts from its very beginning, although not so ambitiously and intrusively at the start as it sometimes seems, with enthusiastic Canadian encouragement, to do now. The Americans, even when they are thinking on their own, toy lightly with the idea, too.
But in Canada it has become something of a mantra – if not generally, then certainly among the politically attentive. The basic argument, while variously expressed by different players, goes something like this: State X has failed, or is fragile and therefore in danger of failing, or to an unreasonably extreme degree is oppressively constructed at home and malevolently intentioned abroad. It therefore needs to be fixed. This requires first that its citizens be made secure from military menace. The polity itself then needs to be democratized, and buttressed by the rule of law and respect for human rights. An honestly-administered physical and social service infrastructure is also required, with decent roads, schools and hospitals prominently included. Gender equality is an essential pre-requisite. Education must also be universalized. And a growing economy producing benign goods and services with reasonably full employment is vital, not only because the edifice as a whole cannot be sustained without adequate economic resources, but also because unemployed young males are a menace and need to be distracted from their ominously mischievous diversions by having something more useful and rewarding to do. If such conditions are satisfactorily met, a radical politics can be avoided, and a secularized politics of compromise and tolerance – a politics of amicable pluralism, a politics, in short, like Canada’s – will take its place.
I am going to call this the Comprehensive Social Engineering Model. Thus described, it is immensely appealing. It rests on a seemingly plausible set of empirical propositions about the sources respectively of good and bad social and political behaviour, both domestically and internationally. That being so, it offers – at least on the surface – a clear guide to action. In concrete terms, it tells us what to do. Because we think its applicability is universal, we are certain as well that our being wedded to it puts us firmly on the side of the good and the just, the side of natural law. Our allies, moreover, have also bought into it – although not all of them with equal conviction. And in the end, if it actually works, it will make everyone in the comfortable OECD world, and possibly elsewhere, too, much less vulnerable than they appear to be now to the violent predations of the fanatical and the furious.
These observations can help to explain – in intellectual terms, at least – why we are happy with where we are, and how we came to be there. But the model itself may ultimately prove to be much less attractive in practice than in theory. Some would argue that this proof is already in. Others would insist that the jury is still out. But however that may be, I want now to consider, if only by way of illustration, a few of the problems that seem to me to underlie the model itself. I do so because, if we fail to take them into account, we will run the serious risk of thinking far too simplistically about the challenges we face and how we should respond to them. Among other things, we may pay insufficient attention to the subtle nuances of the context, and to the confounding devils that forever lurk in the details. In short, we will fail to do the hard-headed policy analysis that we routinely pursue elsewhere, and in consequence buy far too easily into ‘big label’ projects on the basis of loosely-formulated general ideas alone.
I ask you, then, to consider the following ruminations:
Problem 1 – The Model is static. The first, and perhaps the most fundamental, of the difficulties, it seems to me, is that the model itself is static – a frozen portrait of how things are (or could become). But while static, it is being used as the intellectual rationale for launching a process that is inherently dynamic, a process defined by change. Now that sounds like academic gobbledygook – the contemporary social science equivalent of sophistry. So let me put the point in more concrete terms. What the model says is that if certain conditions pertain in a given society – a democratic system of government, for example, along with an honest and sophisticated apparatus for maintaining the rule of law, an effective regime for the preservation of human rights, a moderately well educated population, and so on – then there is a much better chance than there would be otherwise that the society’s polity will be stable, that it will provide appropriate public services to the citizenry over which it presides, that it will behave responsibly in its relations with other powers, that it will not become a birthplace of radical politics pursued by transnationally mobile guerilla warriors, and all the rest. But that amounts to saying that if conditions in the failed or fragile state were like conditions (say) in Canada, the inhabitants would behave more like Canadians. All of which may be true. The difficulty, however, is that the conditions in question are not inert objects like the ingredients of a recipe for making cookies – so that, if we mix them together in the appropriate order and in suitable amounts, we can be sure that we will actually emerge from the exercise with… well, ‘cookies’. In the real world of human affairs, change itself is an unpredictably disruptive force, and the law of unanticipated reactions routinely applies. Change one circumstance, or set of circumstances, and repercussions break out somewhere else, not least of all in the mind-sets of the folk who are most immediately affected.
This can happen even in response to the most prosaically instrumental of innovations. The classic example – well-known to students of development assistance – is the one that often arises with the introduction of farm tractors (and I understand we have recently done a bit of this in Kandahar). Agricultural production may become more efficient, but in the process large numbers of young and untutored males are liberated from their jobs without alternatives being available – not only immediately, but in the foreseeable future. Extended families become economically dysfunctional and are broken up. Such developments in turn can have highly destructive consequences for the fabric of societies that in many respects are the very antithesis of the liberal world that we in this room know so well – a world where atomistic individualism is a core value and the mobility of labour an essential prerequisite for creating the material wealth to which we are so happily addicted.
This example, moreover, is a very simple one, with implications that we can all easily comprehend. In the world of societal change, it’s a mere rain-shower. By contrast, the introduction of democratic institutions, or the enforcement of a liberal version of gender equality, can be a full-blown hurricane, with the potential to lay waste traditional power structures and familiar ways of doing things in so dramatic and comprehensive a fashion as to leave the locals completely disoriented – and very nervous. The nervousness may be particularly evident among the indigenous power elites. The intellectual ruminations of Karl Marx may have had some deficiencies, but he was surely right in observing that classes of folk who enjoy power and privilege are inclined to resist those who want to cut them down to size. Even in the liberal west, the process has rarely occurred without the help of violent revolution or military cataclysm, and not always successfully even then. The assumption underlying our social engineering model, however, is that most of those to whom we convey our message and our aid will soon see the light – the light we want them to see. And if they don’t, their children will. But of course they may not. Or they may see it and not like it. And we are then left, not with an adaptive politics of compromise, but with a dug-in politics of animosity. The process of change itself, in such a case, will have defeated the predictions of the model, whose architects will be shown to have underestimated from the very beginning how tortuous, twisted and bumpy is the road from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
Problem 2 – The Model calls for more than we are prepared to do. Even if the road were straight, and smooth, and free of obstacles, however, there would be a second problem. For the programme of practical action to which the Comprehensive Social Engineering Model directs us is extraordinarily ambitious, and there is little evidence that we as Canadians, or even we and our allies taken together, are really willing to spend the resources required to implement it, much less to stay the course for as long as it takes. This has been transparently true even in Haiti, notwithstanding the fact that the Haitian diaspora in Quebec gives our politicians self-serving reasons to do the job properly. It has also been true in Somalia. It is certainly true in the Sudan. It was tragically true in Rwanda. And in spite of the contrary rhetoric that we now hear almost daily from our political and military leaders, there is a very good chance that it will prove to be true as well in Afghanistan, into parts of which our allies already fear to tread. Even now, there is evidence of our quietly contemplating ways of making contributions that might serve as reasonably dignified alternatives to indefinite military deployments.
The history of these sometimes melancholy performances thus points directly to a troubling, inconvenient but clearly inescapable reality, which is that the Comprehensive Social Engineering Model we have in mind cannot work, even in theory, without extensive investments over a very long period of time across a dauntingly impressive range of public service endeavours, and these are investments that we are not prepared to make. If anyone doubts me on this, I invite you to read the “strategic focus” section of the paper in the 2005 International Policy Statement that was devoted to development assistance. I understand, of course, that this may have been consigned to the dust bin along with other leavings of a now-defunct government, but the paper offers as clear an exposition of the model we are considering as can be found anywhere, and the range of initiatives that it identifies as crucial to the process is nothing if not overwhelming. No one, I assume, thinks that Canada has a hope of completing such a transformational enterprise – in any country – all by itself. But it seems to me that there is little prospect of our successfully completing one in coalition with others, either. We are simply not prepared to put that much into it.
Problem 3 – The Model requires our doing things we don’t know how to do. But even if we were, a third problem would still present itself. It arises from the fact that we wouldn’t know how to do the job even if we had a sufficiently serious will to try. In the middle 1980s, Canadian elites (I have often argued) largely gave up the attempt by public policy means to make the economy of Cape Breton ‘take off’ (along with the economies of other regions in the hardship category). Nothing seemed to work against the grain of normal market forces. The government could never pick winners. It was routinely stuck instead with losers. Perhaps it should give the effort up, and go with the flow. Labour, it was argued, would then move to where the jobs were – as labour is moving now in droves to Alberta – and the economy of the country as a whole would then be better off, even if the economy of Cape Breton continued to languish (as indeed it has). A controversial sketch, you may say, and of course I agree it’s not the whole story. I draw it only to make the point that if we cannot do the job in Cape Breton (whether we prime the pump or leave it to the invisible hand) – if the challenge defeats us even in our own polity, with all the advantages and resources that we enjoy – what on earth makes us think we can do it in Haiti? Or in the Sudan? Or Somalia? And what makes us think we can find a more lucrative crop than poppies for farmers in Afghanistan, even if we discovered how to keep the extortions of the warlords and the gangsters off their backs? In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some of the best-intentioned have given up, and are suggesting instead that we find more constructive ways of using the narcotics that the poppies generate. Not that that is likely to work, either.
Problem 4 – The Model requires that we do things that run counter to our own public philosophy. There is a fourth inhibiting factor at work, too, and it comes from our own liberalism. (I hasten to say that I am here using the term generically, and without partisan intent. Presumably we can agree that all political parties in Canada, even if they have different priorities, emanate generically from the same western liberal tradition.) As we all know very well, part of the on-site resistance to the social engineering that we have in mind comes from the fact that the indigenous populations – in whole, or in substantial part – think differently from the way we do. When they are grown up, moreover, they are very human in not wanting to cope with the intellectual and psychological effort involved in changing their minds, much less with the inconvenience of acting on the practical implications of doing so. The problem is compounded when they are illiterate, but that is not the main source of the difficulty. Its origins lie, as sociologists would put it, in the way they have been socialized – in what they have been taught is true by their parents, their religious leaders, their school teachers (if they have had any), their siblings, their spouses, and their peers. Yet our liberalism – strongly supported by our prudence – tells us that we cannot intrude on the curricula they offer in their schools, much less on what their religious leaders say in their places of worship. There are occasions when both the schools and the religious leaders threaten our own security (or so we think) by going too far, and we may then press the local political authorities to shut the offending institutions down or lock the offending preachers up. This, however, is the exception, not the rule, and in any case we are unwilling, as well as being unable, to do the job ourselves. So we construct or repair buildings in which schools can be housed, and we may give special encouragement, with the help of indigenous NGOs, to schools for women. But otherwise we have little to say about what goes on inside them. We may even provide notepads and pencils. But the notepads are blank. It is not for us to decide what should be written in them.
I do not contest these practices since I doubt that we have much choice in the matter. But I do point out that they have the effect of making it far more difficult for us to nurture the development of societies and cultures with liberal democratic values akin to our own. If Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo go to separate schools, there to be indoctrinated with a sense of hurt drawn from prejudiced accounts of an ancient past, the liberalizing process – and the emergence along with it of a pragmatic politics of give-and-take – will be long delayed. Politicians in Bosnia are once again playing their respective ethnic cards. In the circumstances, can any of us be surprised?
Problem 5 – The Model requires us to be better briefed than we are. There is, I think, a fifth problem, as well, and this one really is our own fault. Indeed it goes to the heart of what I want to urge upon us all this evening. For it seems to me that we often do not exhibit a very sound understanding of the societies we are seeking to transform. At one level, this is a matter of knowledge, pure and simple – knowledge of languages, history, culture, customs, norms, power structures, styles of governance, practices of economic production and distribution, and all the rest. This is knowledge we do not have – not, at least, in the right places, the places where our decisions are made – although it would appear that our troops in Afghanistan are now acquiring some of it quickly enough there. Sadly, however, the school they attend is the school of hard knocks, and it commands a heavy price.
Knowledge deficiencies of this sort are largely, of course, a consequence of straightforward and obvious realities. We are short of experts, and our intelligence and foreign service resources for years have been too thinly distributed to supply all the analytical capacity we require in a world in which no region anywhere can now safely be left unattended.
But I think, too, that we may be operating in some measure on the premise that having knowledge of the kind I have in mind doesn’t matter very much. Why is that? Because we have our model, our ‘general idea’, and we are convinced that its applicability is universal. Even though I am advertised as a political scientist with an interest in foreign affairs, I am tempted to suggest that we have been exposed too much to the study of International Relations, and far too little to the reading of history and to the analysis of societies, polities and cultures that fall outside our own tradition.
I am reminded of a conversation I had some time ago with a well-informed person in Ottawa (not in Foreign Affairs) who shall remain nameless. I said to him that I was making a hobby of trying to find out whether anyone in government had done a serious policy-analysis of the problem in Afghanistan before we decided to commit our forces. I knew, of course, that important diplomatic interests were at stake. A significant Canadian deployment would strengthen our position in NATO. It could repair some serious damage in Washington. More specifically, our political leadership, sustained by apparatchiks in the PMO, may have thought it a tolerably acceptable alternative to action on the ground in Iraq, a view that might conceivably have been shared, albeit with a measure of disappointment, in Washington. Broadly speaking, in short, our like-minded friends were all for it, and it was in our interest to coalesce with like-minded friends. But the real question, it seemed to me, was whether the job itself was do-able, and for commentary on that, a comprehensive analysis of conditions in the field would seem to have been required. Obviously we could import, and then accept, the assessments of others if we found them persuasive. On complex matters of this sort, in any case, nothing is ever certain. But uncertainty is a matter of degree. Did we try as best we could to gauge the hazards in advance? Did we know what we were getting into?
There was a long pause before the answer came. I paraphrase it, but not by much: “We couldn’t have done such an analysis because we lacked the necessary expertise. We are getting some now, acquired through the experience of our soldiers in the field. But we didn’t have it then.”
I conclude from this that such zone of comfort as we initially thought we could enjoy came on the one hand from the knowledge that we were acting in tandem with our friends, and on the other from our conviction that our intentions were good and that our transformational model – our general idea – was well founded. Taken together, all this would see us through, even if it would take more time and trouble than Canadians at large were conditioned to expect. And to be fair, an attempt to re-condition them was launched. We were warned over and over again by the pertinent ministers and military commanders that the cost of the enterprise in terms of time, resources, and personnel would probably be high. Beyond that, however, there appears to have been little sense that we needed a better understanding of Afghanistan itself before going in, and our forces arrived in the theatre knowing very little about warlords, clans, the drug trade, and the intricately intermeshed rivalries and competing zones of influence that they created. In effect, we barged into the china shop, confident that we weren’t bulls and hence posed no danger to the inventory.
I realize, of course, that in some measure it is always like that. I have already conceded that uncertainty is inevitable and we have to live with it. But we can trim it down a little if we do our homework. In the offices where this decision was made, however, it would appear that very little homework was actually done.
It has not been my intention in this disquisition to argue that we cannot usefully do anything anywhere, although I can certainly understand why some of you, at the end of so gloomy a catalogue, might think so. But I do wish to suggest – ever so gently – that we need in the conduct of foreign policy to be distrustful of general ideas and grand designs, and to undertake, before we leap, as careful a study of the “terrible facts” as we can.
In this connection, I threatened at the beginning of my remarks to conclude with an outrageously gratuitous list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. You may think I have already done damage enough to your patience, but I suppose nonetheless that I should keep my word. A few illustrative exhortations therefore follow, in no particular order. They are directed primarily at politicians, although not exclusively so. This is because politicians and their partisan aides in high office are often among the least well tutored in foreign affairs, while at the same time having the capacity to do the most damage. I fully expect them, of course, to ignore what I say.
Exhortation 1: Downgrade the Comprehensive Social Engineering Model as a framework for action. We cannot and will not implement it, and in failing to do so we will disillusion those at home and abroad who have been naive enough to think we mean what it says. Consider it instead as an educational, consciousness-raising device. So as not to mislead, surround it even then with qualifying caveats to the effect that we cannot hope to implement the model ‘whole’ in the real world.
Exhortation 2: Strengthen our intelligence analysis capacities in a way that will allow us to do our own homework before embarking on high cost and life-threatening interventions abroad. We cannot always leap in the full light of day, but leaps in the dark are to be avoided whenever possible. Even a little light is better than almost none at all.
Exhortation 3: In specific contexts, never include in our lists of purposes abroad objectives that we know we cannot possibly accomplish. As popular as it may be, the democratization of a hitherto undemocratic polity is probably one of these. We can sometimes help, but we cannot do the job itself. Even in trying only to help, moreover, we should not act unless we are asked.
Exhortation 4: Never assume that others want what we want, especially when we know them to be operating at very different levels of material wealth, and under the influence of cultural, religious and other traditions that depart fundamentally from our own. Political communities are the products, in part, of collective imaginations, and what they imagine is focussed as much on the past as the present. Their memories, their circumstances, their perspectives are often very different from ours. We should remember this, and in remembering it, be reminded of the value of caution, and of feeling our way.
Exhortation 5: As a corollary of Exhortations 3 and 4, we should never forget that ways of doing politics and economics, and of conducting family and other social relationships, are deeply imbedded phenomena. They are not commodities that can easily be displaced by imported alternatives that foreigners supply, even in the guise of gifts. Edmund Burke may have been too conservative for some, but he had a point in arguing, against the French, that political systems work best when they are home-grown. It follows that peaceful change is likely to be very slow, and the locals need to feel they own the process. They won’t have that feeling if aliens try to dump it on them, or force them into it. In any case, if the forces of globalization are as powerful as many seem to think, and if democracy is as appealing as we like to claim, sooner or later it will materialize on its own.
Exhortation 6: In the same vein, we need to remember that attempting to propagate our way of life abroad is an imperial enterprise – and no less so because we claim that our purposes are guided by what we regard as universal principles. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Canadians almost everywhere – inside government and out – believed that ambitions of this sort were typical of the foreign policy behaviour of the United States (and perhaps that of the European empires of an earlier time), but were happily absent from the diplomacy of Canada, which was guided by understandings of a more empathetic sort. The perception was not entirely accurate, but there was a measure of truth in it all the same, and in the U.N. and elsewhere the practice contributed to the effectiveness of our foreign service. Perhaps there was a grain of wisdom here that we should now recall.
Exhortation 7: Coming closer to home, our political leaderships, and more especially the manipulative political operators by whom they are most immediately staffed, should be wary of assuming that their intricate knowledge of what drives politics in Canada equips them to understand what drives politics abroad. Presumably they do not wish to emulate the political journalists on American public affairs talk shows, who can dissect the intricacies of manoeuvres inside the Washington beltway in awesome detail, but who sound like mindless adolescents in a schoolyard when they discuss the behaviour of the Chinese, or the North Koreans, or even the more familiar Europeans.
In concrete terms, and while recognizing that the responsibility for last-say decision-making, and for taking the imperatives of domestic politics appropriately into account, rests quite properly with political authorities, the latter need to listen very carefully to their officials in deciding on what to do overseas, and to make sure that these officials have done the homework that the politicians cannot possibly do themselves. (As an aside, I remember years ago interviewing Paul Martin, Sr., and listening to his account of why he felt the Cabinet as a whole was not equipped to deal with foreign affairs. Conducting Canada’s external relations was not, he argued, like dealing with transport policy, but required a subtle understanding of circumstances abroad with which his colleagues were completely unfamiliar, and about which they could not be professionally advised. His covetous handling of his portfolio made him unpopular with the younger guard – Pierre Trudeau and Donald Macdonald among them – but he had a point: – the job is not for amateurs. As power comes to be ever more concentrated in the office of the Prime Minister – a process accelerated in foreign affairs by the growth of summit diplomacy – we may need to be reminded of it again. There was a time, in fact, when summit diplomacy itself was thought to be a menace – best left to ceremonial occasions in the wake of work already done by the professionals. It might not hurt to think again about that, too.)
Exhortation 8: In whatever overseas social engineering we do decide to undertake, we should remember to tailor the effort to the value of our real objectives. Enjoying some credibility around the tables in NATO, for example, is an invaluable diplomatic asset, and certainly rewarding for our military and foreign service professionals. But it is a very limited objective and should not be pursued at too high a price. This is not a new thought. Classical analysts of world affairs have always understood the proportionality rule. We temporarily lost sight of it when warfare went ‘total’ in the two great cataclysms of the 20th century, and again when the challenge appeared to be civilizational during our contest with the Soviet world. But we were reminded again during the engagement in Korea that most wars are limited, and are fought with finite means for finite purposes. The reminder – repeated for the Americans in Vietnam – was discomfiting to the citizens of democratic societies, who are somewhat more at ease with the horrors of battle when they are certain their country’s cause is not merely just, but also absolute. But if we are going to minimize the killing and the casualties, our calculations have to be very hard-headed. It may turn out in the end that on matters of this kind the traditional realists were right, and that a higher morality is more often served better by pragmatism than by principle. It is useful to recall here the practical calculus implied in the ancient words of Sun Tzu:
“If it is not advantageous, do not act.
If it is not attainable, do not employ troops.
If it is not in danger, do not do battle.”
Exhortation 9: Avoid falling victim to the over-generalizations of social science. The latter can often be illuminating, and they perform what the academic trade likes to describe as heuristic functions. They can direct us, that is, to what we should be looking for. But they are often pitched at too abstract a level to help policy-makers reach decision on specific issues here and now. The empirical evidence is a better guide. Failed and fragile states, for example, are not all the same. Sudan, Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan and Rwanda are very different from one another. What they have (or have had) in common is that they have failed or are fragile – but not necessarily for the same reasons. Hence they may require very different treatment, to the extent that they are prone to treatment at all.
Exhortation 10: Whatever the domestic political incentives, avoid criticising your allies – or even your adversaries – gratuitously or ostentatiously. If you do, it will set you up for expensive costs of repair later on, and in the process it may distort your priorities and misdirect your attention to problems that could have been avoided. Even the Bush administration – renowned for foot-in-mouth disease – has begun to learn this lesson, albeit far too late to avoid getting itself and others, too, in a lot of difficulty.
Exhortation 11: If, in deference to the Comprehensive Social Engineering Model, you really do commit to a multi-dimensional programme of action, then do it properly and responsibly. It is no good, for example, pretending that such a programme is really guiding the behaviour if CIDA devotes itself in Afghanistan largely to handing over fat cheques to the government in Kabul, while delivering naught but dribs and drabs to the PRT in Kandahar.
Mr. Chairman, I could dream up other injunctions of a similar sort, thereby lengthening my list. But I think my eleven may be more than enough to display my pitch.
I therefore end with the hope that, if Mr. Skelton were here this evening and familiar with the circumstances we face, he might regard at least some of what I have said as sensibly prudent. Certainly he would have agreed that our reach should not exceed our grasp; that our claims should not exceed our accomplishments. And he would insist, I am sure, that we should cut our coat according to our cloth.
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