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Canada's Role in the World: New Opportunities in a Changing Global Environment

Keynote speech by David Kilgour

Edmonton - Mill Woods - Beaumont

Opening event for International Month

Mount St. Vincent University

Halifax, N.S.

November 1, 2005


Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is an honour to be invited to speak during this important month on your campus. 


Canada is increasingly seen as an example of a successful pluralistic and democratic society with the rule of law; the world, however, is changing rapidly and we have become complacent in our reputation. Our role as a leader and role model is in decline. This is why events like International Month here at MSVU are a valuable contribution to improve the knowledge, interest and commitment of individual Canadians to engage in international issues.


Atlantic Canada is traditionally a trader and the link by sea for many of Canada’s international relationships, including the Caribbean. As the home of a large part of our military, it has long played a key role in Canada’s global activities. Nova Scotia is also home to the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, the institution which supports our contribution to international peace and security.  Canada’s global role is thus particularly near to the hearts of many Atlantic Canadians. I must add that the many post-secondary institution of Atlantic Canada are also excellent links to the world. Two of our children have benefited from two of your institutions.


Changing Role


Our reputation as the world’s “Boy Scout” evokes images of Canada as a champion of human rights and dignity for all, equality and fair dealing, and most importantly, world peace and security.  In the past, Canada has not hesitated to do what its elected leaders deemed necessary to the accomplishment of these goals.  Our willingness to spend resources, and even Canadian lives, validated and increased our reputation as a leader in peacekeeping and a model for what is possible when one country reaches out to help others.


Although none of us want to accept it, our reputation worldwide has diminished considerably over the past 15 years as we grapple with the implications of changing global circumstances.  There is little doubt that our international performance has fallen, especially after the 1994 Somalia debacle in which some in the Canadian Peacekeepers were found to have tortured and murdered the very civilians they had been sent to protect.  Equally distressing for our image as the world’s leading peacekeeper, the numbers now place Canada in the 34th spot in terms of contribution to global peacekeeping efforts, behind the United States, with Bangladesh in first place as the world’s leading contributor to peacekeeping missions.  A widening gap now exists between how Canadians view our role in the world and what we actually do. 


International institutions in which Canada has played a key role, such as NATO and the G8, are becoming less significant as new players, such as India and China, move to the centre of the global stage.  Canada’s influence with the United States, the world’s current superpower, has withered as well, as our contributions to international security and global development have decreased. On the home front, Canada’s military capability dwindles in the face of increasing budget cutbacks and distaste among many Canadians towards anything armed.  In sum, as one European diplomat put it, “The current trends are against Canada’s influence.”


Current Trends


This is not for a moment to say that Canada has not made a difference in areas where we have really committed ourselves.  Canada was a key player in the campaign across the world to end Apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, Canada, under Lloyd Axworthy, took a courageous on the landmine issue, leading to the Landmine Treaty signed by many in Ottawa. Canada has also forged a new norm for the international human security agenda with our Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which in theory provides that governments who abuse human rights can no longer hide behind their sovereignty to perpetuate those abuses. 


As the Australian Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group put it, sovereignty must not be a “licence to commit murder.” The military regime in Sudan, in the opinion of many independent observers, has used sovereignty for precisely that purpose in Southern Sudan for many years and in Darfur for many months. In Southern Sudan, the number killed is huge. In Darfur alone, the number of ‘Africans’ murdered to date is in the 200,000 range, with approximately the same number dead of malnutrition or related diseases. Isn’t 400,000 about the population of Halifax-Dartmouth?


External Voices Project


The interim report on the External Voices Project, undertaken by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, cites three essentials that are missing from our foreign policy approach today: firstly, a willingness to make clear choices; secondly, a consistency in those choices and relationships over time; and lastly, a determination to build world-class assets in the particular areas in which we choose to lead.


Policy changes in these three areas have the potential to go a long way in revitalizing Canada’s relevance in world affairs, there are two other conditions that must be fulfilled if they are to have any impact: A major shift in the way Canadians generally approach foreign policy matters and a fundamental rethinking of the way in which we allocate resources. 




At the end of World War II, Canada emerged as a key player in the new geo-political reality.  After the horrors of Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps, Canadians understandably emerged from war with the idea of it is inherently wicked.  In the post-War years, Canadians, perhaps naively, hoped that since peace was restored, the world would never again wish such a blight upon itself and consequently that the need for hard-hitting militaries and assertive defence policies would gradually fade away.  While this may not have seemed unrealistic in the Canadian society, for many other peoples, harmony was a distant dream. The realization slowly dawned that the end of World War II did not spell an end conflict, but rather sowed the seeds for new tensions and new and older forms of conflict.


UN Role


The end of World War II also saw the creation of the United Nations as a body to influence the conduct of governments.  The collective security system of the UN assumed that governments and legislators could now avoid the evils perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies because the world had experienced it so directly.  Possible offenders would be thwarted by the overwhelming force of the collective international community, or a least by its most powerful representatives.  Since multilateralism was the new order of the day, it followed that a large armed forces were now unnecessary since governments of goodwill would now act in concert to prevent future threats to global security. 


In hindsight, we now see how naive policies that assumed an end to governments sustaining conflicts in too many corners of the world were.  The “never again” policies of the post-World War II era quickly evaporated as the Cold War emerged among the victors.  The nuclear threat became a central concern and tensions heightened the focus not only on the old European fault lines but also on the emergence of China, with Korea and later Vietnam.


Peacekeeping Role


One side effect was that it also became possible for Canada to respond to a broad array of international security challenges, primarily peacekeeping, following the contribution of our international statesman, Lester B. Pearson, in the creation of UN Peacekeeping Forces.  The increased capability of our peacekeepers and the seeming willingness of the Canadian government to protect and defend did not go unnoticed by the greater international community.  We were soon being asked and expected to do more and more.  Canada’s forward thinking response to the Cold War morphed into the presumption of Canada as the world leader in international peacekeeping.  Most Canadians were proud of this role. 


Trudeau Years


In the Trudeau years (1968-1979; 1980-1984), while not keeping pace financially to sustain our forces, we did not cut back on Canadian peacekeeping commitments. The government expanded our roles abroad and the notion of Canada as the world’s leader in peacekeeping became deeply embedded.  With each new commitment of our soldiers to various peacekeeping operations around the world, the domestic and foreign expectation that Ottawa would keep on making such contributions became more deeply entrenched at home and at the UN. 


The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought with it a changed geo-political landscape; the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower.  Confidence in the ability of the United Nations, the Security Council, and the United States to police the world and prevent hostilities from degenerating into blood baths somehow flourished even as Yugoslavia descended into a bloody ethnic war and the US and others commenced the first crushing military campaign in Iraq to curb its aggression towards Kuwait. 


The hope that the United Nations would finally take its place as the world’s leader of peaceful mediation and that the Security Council would resolve disputes failed far too often since 1989.  The idea that the various sanctions and pressures applied to the despotic leaders of troubled nations by the UN and that the Security Council members would apply unified military, economic, and diplomatic power to prevent the horrors of the past has been undone by the stark reality that not everyone is playing by the same rules. 


Two paradigm shifts


In his much-quoted article, Canada in the Age of Terror, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian at Harvard, commented “One of the great foreign challenges facing Canada is staying independent in an age of empire…you can’t believe in multilateralism, international law, unless you are prepared also to believe that occasionally you have to step up to the plate and defend it, and by force if necessary.”  This is the source of one of Canada’s international performance defects which is haunting us today.


Canada left the Cold War era relatively strong with a sound defence and foreign affairs policy that was committed to international security and prepared to take risks in support of that policy.  In South Africa in the 1980s, for example, we used our influence with the G7, the Commonwealth, and the Francophonie, connected with international leaders, and engaged the African National Congress and the then South African government to fight against Apartheid and then later provided governance and development support during the transition to democracy. 


In the early 90s, Canada was instrumental in laying the groundwork for regional and international trade agreements, most notably NAFTA and the WTO.  We became a model for other regions. We showed that economic integration could be compatible with political independence, as exemplified by the close economic relationship Canada has had with the U.S., while still maintaining policies that are independent from those on the other side of the border.  Today you might question those statements in light of some of the negative results such as the softwood lumber or the BSE crisis in cattle.


The Decline


Towards the end of the Mulroney years (1984-1993), domestic issues began to occupy much of the Canadian government’s time and resources.  As calls for sovereignty grew in Quebec, the Charlottetown Accord became the preoccupation; a national unity crisis loomed.  The Somalia peacekeeping mission debacle tarnished Canada’s reputation and legitimacy as a neutral, even-handed, and effective peacekeeper.  As the 1990s began, Canada was already withdrawing from the international scene in many fields.


Domestic issues marked the beginning of Jean Chretien’s prime ministry (1993-2003) with national unity, the trade and budget deficits, and growing Canadian cynicism with the federal government marking his early years in office.  In hindsight, Chretien was viewed by many internationalists as unengaged and uninterested in international affairs except perhaps as trade opportunities.  As well, noticing the backlash that Mulroney’s close relationship with Presidents Reagan and the elder Bush, Chretien sought to distance himself from the Clinton administration, which placed a good deal of strain on the good relations that the two countries had previously enjoyed. 


In hindsight, Canada’s international reputation declined during the Chretien years, except for the very important role of Canada’s leadership in the drafting of the Landmine Treaty, against which the Clinton administration was very much opposed.  Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy went outside the UN’s customary processes and managed to have the treaty passed without the consent or support of the world’s only superpower.  A remarkable achievement!


But our foreign policy today is both overextended and strategically directionless.  Our country has reached a cross-road and must decide what role we want to play in the world, or risk not playing one at all.  Although Canada has and continues to be a strong champion of the human security agenda, many have begun to notice that the rise in Canadian rhetoric in this area has coincided with a reduction in political will and military commitment to do anything about it.  Moreover, in areas in which Canada has become militarily engaged, it is perceived as having little or no impact.  In other words, by virtue of doing just enough to “show up”, we are pretty much “everywhere and nowhere” at the same time.  By virtue of our “on paper” support of a human security and humanitarian development agenda without committing the resources needed to achieve those ideals, we have come to be seen as a country that likes to adopt high moral standards, but only from a safe distance. 


A Question of Capabilities


A fundamental shift seems to have occurred in the way in which Canada views the role of its military at home and in the world. This is well summed up by Ignatieff’s argument that “There is something very curious about the way the military spine that was a part of the central national identity of our culture has just slipped away, so that when you make a claim in defence of national defence and military expenditure, you are ultimately regarded as some kind of foaming-at-the-mouth warmonger.”  Can anyone seriously disagree with Ignatieff?


The capacity of the UN is weakened by a lack of will or capacity from many governments to compel rogue states to desist from malevolent actions. This reality is so overwhelming that the multilateralism and international order that Canada espouses is undermined.  If the UN, already hobbled by the divergent interests of the members of the Security Council, cannot get a country such as Sudan to obey even limited objectives, then international law and the potential for multilateral solutions are severely thwarted.  If Canadians truly believe that there is a place for international law and cooperation among countries, we must put our money up and provide leadership to back our belief in an international system with a force and persistence that is capable of affective conflict resolution.


Canada is currently contributing less than 2% of the troops engaged in sanctioned international security operations (not including the Iraq engagement in these calculations) a shamefully low level for a country that prides itself on being an international leader in peacekeeping.   What steps can Canada take to improve this situation?




First, Canada needs to make a clearly defined contribution to international security. There is a strong perception that we could make a very important difference in international security if it would focus its assets on a few key areas and stick with them; what is commonly referred to as “niche diplomacy.” Opinions from around the world have identified three areas in which there are voids that need filling: an air mobile brigade with stand alone capability, constabulary and security training, and post-conflict reconstruction.  Canada is seen as having a unique reputation in world affairs suitable for involving itself in situations in which other key international players might not be able to take on for historical reasons. 


Secondly, we need to improve the protection of Canadian sovereignty and continental defence.  A commitment needs to be made to the Canadian military in resources and political support.  Furthermore, if we are to regain influence, we need to be seen as a nation that is willing and ready to share the load.  We must start to demonstrate this by committing to doing its part when it comes to our homeland and backyard.  This would require the development of a strong and capable coast guard, interdiction capabilities, and perhaps controversially, increased cooperation in some areas with the United States.  Although increasing cooperation with the Bush administration is unpopular in Canada, it is unrealistic for Canadians to believe that it can enhance its well-being and influence by thumbing our nose at the US every chance we get.  If we are to benefit from our relationship with our closest neighbour and the world’s only remaining superpower, we must work with the Americans, for their security will help us to ensure our own. 


Third, Canada needs to review all of our military assets and support operations to assess their relevance to 21st century priorities.  The disparity between Canada’s capabilities and the realities of the age of terror is again, all too evident.  After World War II, we had a conventional, high-technology, full service military that had been engaged in an international projection of force as part of an alliance that successfully contained an aggressor that posed an unprecedented threat to European and global security.  The threats to global security have changed in shape and substance; the only way in which the Canadian Forces have changed is in its deterioration.  Canada is left with a depreciated conventional military built to deal with a threat that no longer exists today while present security needs have morphed and multiplied.  


Walking the Walk


If we want to be seen as a legitimate supporter of human rights and security, we must match our assets with our attitudes; Canada can no longer maintain a credible global and human security attitude without real human security assets.  We can no longer expect to lecture others in the world about doing good while telling other how to do it without actually getting our own feet in the water.


Although I have not enumerated our need also to increase and smarten our international development assistance today, this is an integrated topic of great importance which cannot be overlooked. Canadians are known in villages around the world for their grassroots projects. Atlantic Canadians have shown a significant commitment of resources and people in this area.


One of the greatest strengths, which many in the world, and indeed, many Canadians seem to underestimate, is that Canada is loved by many and disliked by almost no one.  The goodwill which many peoples around the world seem to hold towards us is a vital asset that we must nurture. Canada is seen by the rest of the world as approachable and, if we devote the time and resources that are necessary, we can live up to our reputation as a credible multilateralist that is both willing and able to help when needed. 




The general consensus abroad appears to be that Canada’s performance on the world scene since 1989 is “punching well below its weight” for a country of our wealth and history.  Not only has our performance fallen well below our high-minded posturing, it has also fallen well below our historical performance and our own, and the world’s expectations.  Nothing indicates that this trend cannot be reversed. 


Canada’s economic position has strengthened in recent years and the relative size of our economy has grown.  Other active international players, such as the Norwegians, have also come onto the scene and carved out their own legacies of humanitarian and peacekeeping work with whom we would do well to collaborate.  In spite of our under performance in the past decade, it is not naïve to think that the world still believes that Canada can make a difference.  Indeed, the world needs, now more than ever, for Canada to make a difference.  With more resources, focus and commitment, we can meet the expectations of our fellow Canadians and regain our ability to impact peace and security for those who need assistance.

Thank you.


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