Canada's Foreign Policy Review

By Fergus Watt | 1986-10-01 12:00:00

The deep sea divers who recently explored the remains of the Titanic can probably understand the reaction of Canadian peace activists who wade through the government's recently released foreign policy review. At first glance, the document looks better than one might have expected under the circumstances. But, as a guide for Canadian behaviour committed to building a community of nations free from the threat of war, well ... it just won't float.

Independence and Internationalism, the Report of the Special Joint Committee on Canada's International Relations is the first overall review of Canadian foreign policy since 1970. As the title would suggest, the Report outlines the contours of a foreign policy future which differs little from the course charted by Canadian decisionmakers in the past However, this in itself is noteworthy, given inauspicious beginning to the review process.

The review got off to a rocky start in May, 1985with the release of the government's 'Green Paper' entitled Competitiveness and Security. That discussion paper was roundly criticized by the press, public, and opposition parties for its simplistic analysis and its over-emphasis on economic aspects of our foreign policy, especially Canada - U.S. free trade. The Liberals and New Democrats threatened to boycott the entire review process, alleging that the new Tory government's major foreign policy decisions had already been made. A compromise was struck when the government agreed to conduct an interim review of free trade and Canadian participation in SDI research.

The Committee's interim report, released last August, gave a green light to Canada - U.S. free trade negotiations but offered an ambiguous, non-committal conclusion on the advisability of participation in Star Wars research. The Mulroney Cabinet later declined direct government to government participation in SDI research, but left Canadian companies and universities free to accept research contracts.

Under the Chairmanship of Senator Jean-Maurice Simard and Tory M.P. Tom Hockin (now Minister of State for Finance) the Committee began work on the bulk of the foreign policy review last fall, albeit with much less fanfare. Following public hearings held across Canada, a final report was released in May which was approved by M.P.s from all three political parties.

The Rubber Stamp

The Committee adopted an overall policy of constructive internationalism " . . . not because it conjures up an imagined golden age of Canadian foreign policy, but because it most accurately describes the stance that Canada should take towards a difficult and uncertain international environment." With a few minor exceptions, it advocates positions which differ little from present government policy or Liberal policies of years past.

For example, with regard to arms control and disarmament policy, the report rubber-stamps the government's present arms control objectives. These include reductions of nuclear forces to enhance strategic stability (including re-affirmation of the ABM Treaty), maintenance and strengthening of the non-proliferation regime, a chemical weapons ban, a verifiable comprehensive test ban, prevention of an arms race in outer space and agreement on confidence-building measures leading to reduction of conventional forces in Europe.

A side from a weak recommendation that the government "seek international support" for an arms trade register, few of the recommendations made by the many peace groups who appeared before the Committee actually found their way into the final report A freeze, making Canada a nuclear weapons free zone, cruise missile testing and "no first use" are not even discussed in the report. The report acknowledges Canadians' concern over these issues. However, the arms race, per se, evidently is not considered a sufficient threat to our security to warrant any new approaches.

Indifference to Star Wars

The report is similarly indifferent over the prospect of Canada being drawn into Star Wars. It speaks only of a "possible eventual link" between NORAD and SDI which may force Canada to reconsider its role in NORAD some time in the future. Our present participation with the U.S. in SDA 2000 (a joint planning exercise which is laying the groundwork for a Canadian role in strategic defence) is not discussed. Nor are any possible alternative policies which Canada could support, such as a Canadian space program which could contribute towards an International Satellite Monitoring Agency. Aside from a brief reference to a minority of Committee members' views that Canada could assume responsibility for peacetime control of our airspace and early warning system, there is a lack of discussion of the effects, for Canada, of evolving U.S. strategic doctrine. For a document intended to guide Canadian foreign policy into the 21st century, this is a definite weakness.

The four traditional Canadian commitments in the area of defence are endorsed. These include protection of Canadian territory, assisting the strategic deterrent through participation in NORAD, our NATO commitments and peacekeeping missions. A long-term study of future defence requirements is called for, to bring Canadian commitments in line with our actual financial and manpower capabilities.

The report endorses continued strong Canadian participation in international organizations, particularly the United Nations. The U.N. has recently completed an exhaustive assessment of its operations. The findings of this study-The Bertrand Report-call for both streamlining of operations as well as creation of a "third generation United Nations [word missing]

global economic and development issues. Unfortunately the Standing Committee chose to support only a recommendation for streamlining U. N. operations, while neglecting a chance to support the strengthening of the institution.

Aside from this shortcoming, the report does contain some positive recommendations regarding Canada's role at the U.N. These include support for more secure funding of the U.N. Environment Program, the need for expanded powers for the International Atomic Energy Agency, a recommendation that Canada nominate a judge to the World Court and support for exploring new financial arrangements for the U.N., so that it will be less dependent on the U.S. Especially noteworthy is the recommendation that Canada ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, something the government has not yet committed itself to doing.

The international promotion of human rights is affirmed as a fundamental component of Canadian foreign policy. In addition to protesting human rights abuses abroad, the Committee urges that Canada take an activist role, seeking re-election to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, creating a Human Rights Advisory Commission and creating an International Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Development.

The report recognizes the growing importance of the Canadian north, devoting an entire chapter to this dimension of Canadian foreign policy. Early settlement of native land claims are encouraged, as well as increased cooperation with Nordic nations.

In sum, the Committee's report charts a politically safe, non-controversial course. Some have dismissed the importance of the foreign policy review exercise, saying that major policy decisions are usually made as they arise, on a more ad hoe basis. This seems unwise, for the Joint Committee's report will set the tone for government policy for years to come.

As a document which considers medium and long-term government policy, providing input to it was an important opportunity for the peace movement. The failure of peace groups to do little more than register their concerns should be cause for some serious reflection on the efficacy of our proposals. We are still winning the struggle for public opinion, but losing the struggle for political support.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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