Canadians are a fortunate people who live in a successful country. And despite our self-deprecating image, we do not tire of telling ourselves so at high school commencement addresses or viceregal functions. But when it comes to public policy books for the general reader, we prefer the tone sombre and the narrative declinist. After all, George Grant wrote Lament for a Nation, not Audacity of Hope. Recent additions to the Canadian foreign policy genre have been dominated by complaints of decline in Canadian influence, seriousness and power.1

Many critics have taken up Grant’s narrative of a supine Canadian Establishment bending to the whims of the American imperial colossus. Others − centre-right complainers like Andrew Cohen and J.L. Granatstein − look back to a golden age peopled by the muscular Atlanticist liberal internationalists Grant hated. Either way, though, Canadian foreign policy writing eschews Mosaic rhetoric of new covenants in favour of Jeremiah’s language of lamentation and captivity. True, our lamentation is a relatively comfortable and therefore slightly comic one, provoked not by disaster and ruin but by uncertainty and loss of purpose. But it is the rhetoric we are comfortable with, and it is hard to sell anything else.

In Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada, former Ambassador to the United Nations Paul Heinbecker gives an Establishment answer to all this doom and gloom. Canada is still influential and a force for good. Our fundamental goals of a close-but-independent relationship with the United States and a strong international system based on law are sound. What we need are more diplomatic and military resources, more confidence, a few strategic tweaks and less symbolic policy driven by domestic politics. The world needs more Canada and should get it. Canada, in turn, should put its game face on and give multilateralism 110 per cent.

My expectations of a foreign policy book by a long-time Foreign Affairs mandarin were not high. I worried I would have to read a turgid narrative of acronyms and state dinners, which carefully avoided any clear or interesting opinion. Fortunately, Getting Back in the Game is much better than that. So long as you don’t mind sports metaphors (two in the title alone), you won’t have stylistic complaints about this book. Heinbecker tells the story of Canadian foreign policy since Mackenzie King. He manages to be simultaneously critical, balanced and supportive of the basic enterprise. His opinions are not surprising, but he argues for them in clear, forceful language. What he does not do is question the basic assumptions of Canadian diplomacy or analyze why those assumptions have such trouble obtaining a consensus among the broader Canadian public today.

Part 1 of Getting Back in the Game exhorts Canadians to wallow less in self-doubt and project their values and interests more confidently on the world stage. Although it will never again have the relative significance it did in the 1940s, when most of the world was either recovering from war or still colonized, Canada is more powerful – certainly potentially — than we give it credit for.

How persuasive readers find this will depend on their expectations in the first place. “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” is a proverbially boring headline because there have been a multitude of such initiatives. As I write, NATO has launched an air war against the Gaddafi regime in Libya under the leadership of a Canadian general and based on the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, promoted by Canada at the 2005 UN Summit.2 But it would be unwise to push the point too far. Canadians depend on a world order that they can only affect on the margins. The same may be true of the United States, but Canadians cannot really fool themselves on the subject. Mostly, we have to hope our luck holds.

Part 2 is history of Canadian foreign policy. The tale is Prime Minister−centric. Heinbecker’s biases are clear, if nonpartisan. There are two heroes, Pearson (who gets credit for the Saint-Laurent years) and Mulroney. There are two antiheroes, Mackenzie King and Stephen Harper. Grant’s own hero, Diefenbaker, can have nothing nice said about him, so almost nothing is said at all. Trudeau and Chrétien get mixed reviews.

King was of course politically formed by World War I and the conscription conflict that divided Canada on ethnic-linguistic lines. He promoted Canada’s independence from the British Empire, while accepting that it was inevitably aligned with the major anglophone powers. He led Canada through its second great war, politely hosting Roosevelt and Churchill with no real ambition to influence what they decided. Independence was a means of avoiding traditional imperial entanglements, even if the biggest entanglement could not be avoided. For King, foreign affairs were primarily a source of danger – to our finances, to the lives of our young men and, most of all, to fragile Canadian unity.

The postwar era was far more heroic from Heinbecker’s perspective. Although King remained Prime Minister until November 1948, Louis Saint-Laurent as his chosen successor and Secretary of State for External Affairs made foreign policy despite King’s misgivings. Pearson, a seasoned diplomat, became Saint-Laurent’s External Affairs Secretary and successor in his turn. With the unfortunate interregnum of Diefenbaker, there was substantial continuity until Pearson left office in 1968.

Canada, although clearly not in the same league as the United States and Soviet Union, was a significant military and economic power. Europe and Japan remained decimated by war; Africa and most of Asia were still colonies. The best and brightest flocked to the federal bureaucracy and External Affairs in particular. Canadians played a leading role in building both the multilateral institutions around the United Nations and the Cold War institutions around NATO. To that generation, there was no contradiction between progressive globalism and muscular anti-Communism.

There was also no sense that Canadian independence – still conceived as independence from Britain – was at odds with a close relationship with the United States. The Pearson generation shared the same progressive antitotalitarian and technocratic assumptions of the East Coast U.S. foreign policy establishment – although they no doubt found the isolationist and McCarthyite wings of the Republican Party as baffling as Heinbecker finds their Tea Party successors. Finally, they saw no conflict between Canadian interests and Canadian values, and were sure that they understood and embodied both.

Heinbecker agrees with contemporary critics like Andrew Cohen that this was a golden age, and longs for the untroubled synthesis of the Pearson era. Although he does not put it this way, he is in fundamental agreement with the Pearsonian impulse to accept and support American hegemony while binding that hegemony to a legal framework. We should support the Throne, but seek a constitutional settlement.

However, he is more nuanced than Cohen in his assessment of the subsequent Trudeau years (1968–84). Heinbecker makes the interesting point that Trudeau came to office convinced that foreign policy should emphasize Canadian interests more, and moralism less – much like Stephen Harper 40 years later. Trudeau’s enduring concern was fighting Quebec separatism and so he emphasized respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity. This (possibly along with a desire to make life difficult for France) led him to support the central government of Nigeria in its bloody suppression of the Ibo secessionist government of Biafra. As Heinbecker points out, there is a parallel with Harper’s unconditional support of Israeli actions in Gaza and Lebanon. In both cases, Canada’s position was determined neither by morality nor by a hardheaded assessment of interests, but by projecting internal identity politics onto someone else’s conflict.

Unlike Harper, Trudeau had no appreciation of military values and generally had difficult relations with American presidents (Heinbecker points out the significant exceptions of Gerald Ford, who gave Canada the prize of a seat at the G7, and Jimmy Carter). Heinbecker correctly views his attempts to diversify Canada’s trading relationships away from the United States as quixotic and half-baked. Trudeau befriended a number of “progressive” Third World despots, but could not be taken seriously by other NATO leaders. For all his talents, Trudeau was ineffective on the international stage and his cherished final peace initiative never went anywhere. On the other hand, while critical of the way he conducted bilateral relations, Heinbecker would not fault Trudeau for maintaining an independent policy from the United States and credits him for building up a warm reservoir of feeling for Canada in much of the Third World.

Heinbecker’s lessons for today are that (as the right argues) Canada cannot expect to have influence unless it is a loyal ally to the Western countries that share its values and interests and pulls its weight, and (as the left argues) detaching interests from values is less smart than it sounds.

The warmest part of the history is Heinbecker’s account of the Mulroney years (1984–93). In Heinbecker’s telling, Mulroney’s achievement was at least equal to that of the Pearsonian golden age. Mulroney is of course widely distrusted by the Canadian public, and not without reason, but Heinbecker stoutly defends him. Mulroney certainly emphasized a close relationship with the United States, and was a confidant of both Reagan and the elder Bush, but Heinbecker denies that he was ever subservient to American interests. Heinbecker points to Mulroney’s close relationship with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, at a time the Reagan administration viewed the ANC (with some reason, it is in no one’s interest now to remember) as part of the Moscow-backed world Communist movement. Mulroney was also a strong supporter of multilateral institutions and global environmental agreements – his influence on Reagan and Bush was therefore a thorn in the side of neoconservatives who viewed both as threats to U.S. sovereignty.

Heinbecker cannot entirely decide what he thinks about the Chrétien years. On the one hand, Chrétien shared King’s caution and relative lack of engagement in foreign relations. The need to concentrate on deficit reduction led to a loss of resources for aid, diplomacy and the military. Canadian peacekeeping commitments withered. On the other hand, Heinbecker approves of the foreign ministers of that era and the calls Chrétien made – most notably concerning the decision not to participate in the second Iraq war.

Despite his lack of sympathy for declinism, Heinbecker is generally critical of Harper’s Conservatives. He thinks they are making a mistake in providing greater resources to the armed forces but not to diplomacy and aid. The decision to emphasize Latin America instead of Africa for aid priorities was boneheaded. Most of all, Harper is taken to task for emphasizing domestic identity politics in Canada’s foreign relations. He thinks (no doubt correctly) that the Harper government views international politics as an easy way to pick up votes among various traditionally Liberal diasporas. The obvious example is Israel/Palestine, but Heinbecker points to others.

In Part 3, Heinbecker makes his pitch for more resources and for a moderate policy. He marches through the major issues (Afghanistan, climate change, Security Council reform) in no-nonsense briefing-note style. There is much to agree with: for example, a North American Union on the EU model is a pointless distraction and success on bilateral issues with the United States will depend on finding allies among American interest groups and congressional barons. The fact that the United Nations is flawed hardly makes it dispensable. Peacekeeping often has a good cost-benefit ratio and we should do more of it.

The main difficulty is that Heinbecker takes a technocratic view of Canadian interests and values. For him they are givens, rather than the product of an internal political process. Indeed, his one disagreement with his hero Pearson is his dislike of the latter’s dictum that “foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on.” From Heinbecker’s perspective, domestic policy and, even more, domestic politics should have nothing to do with it.

Heinbecker realizes that different ethnic groups have different views of what constitute Canadian values in lands they retain an emotional attachment to. He also sees that Canadian politicians inevitably view foreign events with a domestic lens, as Trudeau did in Biafra. What he fails to consider is that it cannot be otherwise. An increasingly diverse nation is not going to have the common values that the WASP Pearsonian mandarins could take for granted. As a result, we should be cautious about an interventionist foreign policy, since we may simply import foreign conflicts into our own society. King’s nightmare now applies not just to the two “founding nations” but to almost every ethnic group on Earth.

One case in point is the contrast of angry Tamil demonstrators across Canada calling on Ottawa to denounce the Sri Lanka government’s destruction of the autonomous Tamil homeland, with Sinhalese wanting Canadian official support for Colombo’s fight against Tamil terrorists. Randomly looking at last weekend’s Globe and Mail (April 9, 2011), I read that the Conservative Party is proposing to make religious freedom in Egypt a priority – coincidentally, there is a significant Coptic Christian diaspora in a swing Mississauga riding.

Any particular example may be insignificant. Added together, they suggest we cannot assume that foreign policy will be motivated by shared values, since these often will not exist. Most Canadians will be uninterested in policy in a particular place, and those who are will have inherited a particularist narrative about what is going on.

Heinbecker also assumes, rather than demonstrates, that when Canadians want to help they know what to do. He points to the Mulroney government’s action during the Ethiopian famine of the mid-eighties without noting that this involved Canadian funding for a forced government resettlement of disfavoured ethnic groups. Canada has designated Bangladesh as one of 20 “countries of focus” for CIDA aid, but has said nothing publicly about the perverse vindictive campaign waged by the Bangladesh government against Muhammad Yunus, head of Grameen Bank, the world’s premier microfinance institution. The mixed record of Canadian development aid and a decade in Afghanistan has made Canadians wary about their ability to improve the world. Perhaps we can never have enough local knowledge to avoid blunders that make things worse.

In the end, I agree with Heinbecker that pessimism/fatalism is too easy. We have a fortunate position in a dangerous world, and we should do what we can to promote peace, human rights and development. Despite everything, all three have made significant progress since the days of Pearson or even of Mulroney. Demographic pressure on domestic health care costs will make cutting back on globally oriented expenditure increasingly appealing to Canadian voters, but we cannot sustain our attractive mixed economy unless the rest of the world has at least the hope of progress. We should be willing to make some sacrifices to contribute to making that hope more realistic.

I also agree with Heinbecker that the poles of pro- and anti-American sentiment in this country have more to do with our own insecurity than with any real choice that faces us. We are better off with a strong America and we are also better off with a law-abiding one. We should use the opportunity of an American administration relatively open to the possibility that these are mutually consistent.

Laurier’s claim that the 20th century would belong to Canada has been rightly ridiculed, and even Heinbecker wouldn’t claim that he was actually vindicated by Canada’s contributions to the postwar order. But the values we have sometimes painfully come to agree on – democracy, a free economy with generous social programs, ethnic and linguistic diversity, gender equality, the rule of law – are genuinely if imperfectly reflected in our institutions. It would be a mistake to think that everyone in the world aspires to those values, but Heinbecker correctly points out that more do than at any previous time in history. If Canada can bring a spirit of tough-mindedness and focus to its multilateral and development efforts, we might at least make the contribution to the next century that we made to the last.


1 Andrew Cohen, While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, 2d ed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004); J.L. Granatstein, Who Killed the Canadian Military? (Toronto: Phyllis Bruce Books, 2004)

2 See (accessed April 1, 2010).

Paul Heinbecker, Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada. Toronto: Key Porter, 2010. 312 pages