Can Canada have it both ways on foreign policy?

The Trudeau government's muddled thinking will only lead to trouble

CALGARY, Alta. May 15, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion caught the media’s attention in a recent [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]speech[/popup] where he outlined his new sophisticated-sounding foreign policy doctrine. Journalists were inclined to dust off the works of early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber to decipher the words of the minister, a one-time academic.

As National Post columnist [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]Terry Glavin[/popup] pointed out, Dion took what Weber called an “ethics of conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility” – the former an adherence to conviction despite the consequences and the latter a consideration of consequences that may compromise conviction – and “artfully” muddled them. From this concoction, “as if by magic,” was born the “ethics of responsible conviction.” By conflating the two, Glavin concluded, the Liberals can have it “either way on any question.” They may just as easily defend a decision on the basis of conviction when suitable as out of responsibility when fitting.

In support of this foreign policy finesse during his speech at the University of Ottawa in late March, Dion provided examples. One included the government’s change in policy towards Russia. After decrying that the alleged “severing of ties” by the previous government “had no positive consequences for anyone,” Dion invoked – unsurprisingly – co-operation, suggesting it is “often in our interest.”

Dion underlined that, in the case of Russia, “we are Arctic neighbours, facing similar challenges due to our shared geography,” and that it really “makes no sense to prevent our scientists from working with their Russian colleagues to protect the northern ecosystem.”

By way of this example, Dion displayed his conviction in science’s ability to trump the competition of national interests – presuming that the pursuit of scientific truth triumphs over political passions. But just how responsible is such a claim in light of the facts, to say nothing of Canada’s own interest in the Arctic? Is it not a mere matter of conviction without consideration of real consequences?

Dion seems convinced that geography itself is a source of sharing, introducing problems that become common so as to bring peoples together, rather than being a source of demarcation and conflict. Yet, as Robert Kaplan writes in [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]The Revenge of Geography[/popup] – a work that reminds us of geography’s political significance – examining a map illustrates more “the spatial representation of humanity’s divisions” than it does any likely path to unification.

Notwithstanding the work of Russian scientists in the Arctic, it is not self-evident that Russia’s primary concern is to protect the “northern ecosystem.” Reports repeatedly suggest that Russia has been expanding not its scientific mission in the north, but its military presence. It has moved to station troops in the region permanently, with four more bases established last year alone for the 45th Air Force and Air Defence Army of its Northern Fleet.

While Dion worries about melting ice, Russian President Vladimir Putin is positioning to control the region’s resources, as well as the shipping lanes with hopes of dominating maritime and military traffic in what may eventually be an ice-free Arctic. Russia is anything but showing signs of a growing co-operative tendency, with its neighbours or beyond. Apparent common problems are an opportunity for Russia to display strength, as in the Syria campaign, while its own national problems will lead Putin to think even less co-operatively in the future.

In a recent [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]article[/popup] in Foreign Affairs, Kaplan highlights how economic weakness and domestic crisis in China and Russia may fuel ever more “daring, reactive, and impulsive behaviour, which is much harder to forecast and counter” than aggression driven by internal strength and stability. While Kaplan’s focus herein is on Eurasia, the logic is applicable to the Arctic as well.

Kaplan concludes with a reminder that U.S. presidents prevailed against Chinese and Soviet communists throughout the Cold War “in avoiding nuclear war by understanding that rivalry and conflict, rather than peace are normal.” He advises that as China and Russia “accelerate down the path of protracted conflict,” future presidents not lose sight of this truth.

Canada’s Liberal government and its foreign minister ought to likewise bear this conviction in mind, so as to act with the sense of responsibility to which they aspire.

Troy Media Columnist Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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