A UBC academic has written a new book that suggests Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a mess of foreign policy. Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law, told the Georgia Straight that Canada is a powerful nation. But he said that Harper refuses to chart a course independent of the George W. Bush administration.
"Stephen Harper has been a disaster for Canadian foreign policy on almost every front," Byers said. "It's partly because he doesn't understand the issues, but it's also partly because he doesn't think–or he doesn't want to think–that Canada can play an independent role."
Byers's new book, Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? (Douglas & McIntyre, $32.95), is a passionate rebuttal of the notion that Canada lacks influence. He covers a long list of foreign-policy issues–the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, land mines, the creation of an International Criminal Court, and missile defence, to name just a few–on which Canada has acted independently of major powers in the past.
"It is possible, and indeed desirable, to be optimistic about Canada's potential influence in the world," Byers said. "That really is highlighted by the fact that we were able to say no to both the Iraq war and to missile defence. We do have the proven capacity to chart our own path. Once you know that you're independent, and once you know that you can make your own decisions, then I think you have a responsibility to act."
His book criticizes Canada's transition in recent years from a peacekeeping to a war-fighting nation. He predicts that hundreds more Canadians will die or be injured in Afghanistan, which he describes as a "broken-down country".
Byers noted that while in Opposition, Harper supported the Bush administration on missile defence and the Iraq war. He said if Harper achieves a majority government, he might commit Canada to the costly and destabilizing missile-defence system, which was rejected by the previous Liberal government.
"The Conservative government is taking its script out of the playbook of right-wing Republicanism," Byers claimed. He cited the examples of Harper's "strong" preference for supporting Israel over the Arab world, and for favouring Taiwan over China. "I don't think we should be silent when it comes to human rights in China," Byers said, "but you cannot influence a country of that size and that power by refusing to establish a relationship."
In his book, he chides Canada for not resuming diplomatic ties with Iran. He said that tens of thousands of Iranian Canadians who travel to Iran are at "considerable risk".
"Having an ambassador in the country would enable Canada to intervene more promptly and at a higher level when something goes wrong," Byers writes in his book.
He adds that a diplomatic presence in Iran is important because the U.S. has few diplomatic and commercial contacts there. He noted that Canada could play a role in defusing tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Intent for a Nation is a response to Canadian philosopher George Grant's 1965 book Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, which posited that the country could not resist continental integration. Byers mentions Grant's view that foreign policy was the first area in which Canada would succumb to the U.S.
However, Byers notes optimistically, Canada has managed on several occasions to avoid simply replicating the U.S. position. One of the most obvious examples is the Vietnam War. Lesser known is Canada's decision under Pierre Trudeau to divest itself of nuclear weapons by asking the United States to remove its warheads from this country.
"A Canada that is consistent and courageous without being unfriendly is a Canada that will do better in its relations with the United States than one that is deferential and acquiescent and tries to do American politics in a soft and consensual Canadian way," Byers said.
He pointed out that the United States has a complex political system with many different sources of power. For instance, he said that on the issue of climate change, California's current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the most influential player in the United States. "At the moment, the Bush administration is supported by only a minority of the American population," Byers said. "Bush is rapidly becoming the worst American president ever, and in foreign policy, his weaknesses have been most visibly displayed. This is not someone who should be a model for Canadian policy. This is someone we should resist in a friendly but firm manner."
Byers includes a strong endorsement in his book for the "responsibility to protect", which is a concept sometimes cited to justify intervention in sovereign countries on humanitarian grounds. He criticized former prime minister Paul Martin for proposing that the United Nations should have a veto over these humanitarian missions.
"Martin refrained from suggesting that interventions could occur without the expressed authorization of the UN Security Council, saying that the body 'should establish new thresholds for when the international community judges that civilian populations face extreme threats'," Byers writes in his book.
British prime minister Tony Blair has cited the "responsibility to protect" to justify the invasion of Iraq. Critics of the "responsibility to protect"–including Vancouver antiwar activists–say it offers an excuse for western powers to invade small countries and seize resources.