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An Establishment answer to Canadian declinism

by Gareth Morley

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.

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About the Author

Gareth Morley
Gareth Morley is a litigator with the British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General. (All opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the views of the Ministry of Attorney General.)


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