Said the Kettle to the Pot
You might have noticed by now that I tend not to write much about Canadian politics. For the most part it is because I find Canadian politics rather boring. Now bland and boring are not necessarily a bad thing (the political scene in Berlin in the ‘30s was exciting as hell but I doubt anyone would want to have been alive then), but it doesn’t tend to lend itself to inspiration. All politics in modernity are very much just variations of the same flavor of vanilla dressed up with slightly different assortments of sprinkles, chocolate flakes and nuts to give the illusion of difference. This is especially true in Canada where, for all the bluster by the main three parties, there is very little separating the main contenders for power.
Now that’s not meant to be a knock against the governing Conservative Party. All things considered they’ve probably done as well as they could. Of the democratically palatable options available to them, the Tories have mostly chosen the best ones. Where they have tried to distinguish themselves from the opposition parties, I’ve mostly been approving. There’s been an increased emphasis placed on the monarchy and our British heritage, the Human Rights’ Commissions have largely been defanged, and abroad Canada has increasingly had a reputation for being supportive of Israel and telling the UN to go fly a kite.
That last part has become the latest flavour of the day in our current election, it would seem. Justin Trudeau, the witless spawn of a past Prime Minister recruited by the Liberal Party to lead them in this election, of late seems to be showing mounting frustration with his inability to gain any traction in the campaign. Not only has he done a complete 360 on the issue of the budget (switching from lambasting the Tories for their fiscal record to vowing a new found of deficit induced stimulus midway through the campaign), he’s also of late brought out the geriatric brigade of past Liberal Prime Ministers to stump for him, doubtlessly in the hope that he may gain some maturity and gravitas by association. First it was the esteemed Paul Martin, the last Liberal PM for all of five minutes who was most famous for being unable to string two words together without an “er” or an “um” in between, who was trotted out to berate the Tories for their refusal to fully embrace the spirit of Keynesian fiscal stimulus (given that Paul Martin’s sole claim to fame was that he balanced the federal budget as Finance Minister back in the ‘90s I can only assume he has suffered a convenient case of amnesia resulting in a total personality transplant). Then, as a follow up, Justin the Boy King produced the 80 year old Jean Chretien, Martin’s immediate predecessor, who cantankerously thundered out that Canada must reclaim its previous position as a leader of world events which conveniently could only be accomplished by the return of the Liberals to power.
Now, I was never one of those on the right who could be defined as a Chretien-hater. Had I been old enough to vote when old Jean was in office it certainly would not have been for him, but I’ll be the first to admit his tenure as Prime Minister was far from a disaster. He finalized NAFTA and balanced the budget among other things, and I’ll give him credit for having the foresight for keeping us out of the disaster that would become the American invasion of Iraq. On a personal level I’ll admit I even have a very grudging admiration for him in some ways. Chretien very much took the position that “I am who I am, and if you don’t like me for it I don’t like you so fuck off and die!” (a trait he interestingly shares with the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper) and I respect him for that. Moreover, say what you will of him, Jean Chretien certainly possessed a spine, which is sadly lacking among plenty of politicians on both sides of the spectrum these days.
That being said, how Jean Chretien can lecture anyone on how Canada has been shirking from a position of leadership on the world stage is beyond me. While he unquestionably had a fair share of domestic achievements he could lay claim to (keeping the country together in the referendum crisis being the foremost), in the realm of foreign affairs there is little to boast of. During Chretien’s own tenure at the helm Canada did contribute to the Gulf War, Afghanistan and peacekeeping missions to the Balkans, but could hardly claim to have played a leading role in any of those conflicts. He signed up for the Kyoto Accord on climate change…and then proceeded to do exactly nothing to actually implement the treaty from then on. NAFTA was finalized under his watch, true, but the groundwork and heavy lifting for the treaty had all been done under the administration of Brian Mulroney (a conservative) and all Chretien could lay claim to there was that he wisely decided not to scrap it (despite campaigning on a promise to do so in the 1992 election). To be fair, few Canadian Prime Ministers have much to brag about in that arena. Robert Borden and Mackenzie King both led the country through World War One and Two respectively, and Lester Pearson could probably claim to have wielded some influence on the world stage, but that’s pretty much it.
The record of Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister, is much the same as Chretien’s when we get down to it. He’s contributed militarily to the war in Afghanistan and the ongoing combat mission against ISIS, but for Canada to claim to have been a leading player in either conflict would be an exaggeration. We did our part in both cases, and that’s the most that can be said. Harper has spoken out quite forcefully in both the case of Israel and Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, and deserves kudos for breaking with popular consensus in both conflicts, but neither would serve as much of an example of Canada having actually influenced world events much. Harper can claim to have not only signed but also negotiated a free trade deal with Europe, and may very well achieve a similar achievement in Asia as well; both examples combined would likely be the starring moments of his foreign policy legacy as things stand. Ultimately, there is little Chretien can criticize the existing government for that would not also apply to his.
The simple truth is that Canada has never been much of a player in the realm of international diplomacy because we’ve never had to. For our entire history we’ve either been the colony of the greatest power on the globe or its next door neighbor and closest ally. This has given us the luxury of being able to step back from foreign events because their ability to affect us have been negligible. When we have chosen to insert ourselves into foreign conflicts it has usually been out of either familial duty, as was the case when we fought for “King and Country” in the world wars, or obligation to a fellow ally, as we could characterize our involvement in the War on Terror.
There are no Bismarcks, Metternichs, or Talleyrands in our history because we have never had need of them. As a nation, we have been blessed to never face a genuine threat to our existence or challenge to our sovereignty, the closest example of one in the Chretien years was a dispute with Spain over fishing rights (yes, high stakes indeed). When the need is not there, both the will and ability often are found lacking. Evidence of this can be found in the gradual erosion, under both governments of the left and the right, of Canada’s military capabilities from their post-WWII position as one of the premier militaries of the West to their present state of barely functional mediocrity. Pundits of the left tend to romanticize our past reputation as an “honest broker” in diplomatic circles, but that largely boils down to our past history of being nice to everyone and critical of no one, which I doubt anyone would define as “leadership”.
Now, there is nothing wrong with aspiring to more in this area than has historically been achieved in the past. Advocating that Canada take a greater role in world affairs is a perfectly valid position, and one that I would generally be supportive of. However, waxing nostalgia for some supposed past “golden age” achieves nothing and in fact is counterproductive as it creates a false perception as to what the actual demands and cost of such a role would require. Being a leading power in the world has never been cheap, either in terms of lives or treasure, and that has been the case since days of Louis XIV when France bestrode Europe as its unchallenged colossus. To achieve even a fraction of that in Canada’s case would be taxing, and this fact should be communicated by anyone advocating such a role and mulled over by all parties that listen.