Looking back on 2009: the demise of Canada’s international reputation
Today is the last day of 2009. We all no doubt have much to reflect on this December 31st, as well as much to look forward to in the months to come: our New Years 10-pounds-less resolutions, the debauchery that will occur only hours from now, helping to wash away the unwanted memories of the last 12 months…
But as I reflect on 2009, I find myself little elated about the year ahead: if Canada continues on the trajectory set out in 2009, I fear that 2010 will be even more dismal, disappointing, and embarrassing for both the country’s citizens and the country’s reputation than its predecessor. I fearfully predict that 2009 will simply act as a small-scale model for years ahead, during which neo-liberal economic policies will exponentially over-ride freedom of liberties and help to promote environmental degradation.
For many, 2009 was a year of dashed dreams: a botched Afghani election gave little hope for peace and democracy occurring within this seemingly endlessly corrupt state; Israel and Palestine and their respective supporters, for the most part, became further embittered and dichotomous, squashing whatever dying embers of hope remained for a two-party state resolution; and, perhaps most infamously, U.S. president Barack Obama won his current seat by promising his country and the world that “hope and change” would occur under his watchful guidance through an honest government that worked in the interests of the people, only to prove himself to be a classic American politician by bailing out multi-billion dollar banks and prolonging foreign wars.
Canada’s domestic and international behaviour also tops the lists of disappointments: not only were domestic hopes, dreams and values displaced through the quelling of civil liberties in the months preceding the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and nation-wide budget cuts for art, education and other public programmes, but international support for and admiration of the country diminished greatly upon watching Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Canadian contingent uphold industry interests over environmental protection at the UN Copenhagen talks on climate change.
While studying International Relations at the University of British Columbia, I was inundated with Canada’s quest for and model of multilateralism. My professors loved to talk about how much support Canada gave the UN, all of the treaties that the country had signed while others (notably the U.S.) had failed to place pen to paper, and Canada’s focus on international development, trade, and aid. While much of this was hard to swallow—at least in the shiny pre-packaged political science form spoon-fed to IR students—one thing was clear: Canadians, and those interested in Canadian politics especially, loved their international standing as the nice, go-to guy who did and said the right things for the right causes. Sure, Canada may be smaller than the U.S., may be less economically powerful, but damn it, at least we do what’s right while our southern neighbours continue on their ever-downward spiral towards corrupt capitalistic hell.
For once, even just momentarily—but I fear more permanently— the Copenhagen climate talks seem to have indicated that the tables have turned. Canada was the butt of jokes at COP-15, being publicly ridiculed by the prankster group the Yes Men and bestowed with the most fossil awards, given by environmentalist to countries deemed to be blocking progress within the talks. More so, Harper was seen as the political leader working against multilateralism, dragging the country’s feet towards any sort of meaningful agreement. Canadian and international media was abuzz with slams of Harper and praise for Bema, who while showing up late to the conference and, let’s be honest, really putting very little weight behind a comprehensive, binding treaty, at least put the U.S. on the map as an international leader against climate change, with the president taking the initiative on bringing previously fraught countries to the table and encouraging a multilateral approach. Perhaps most embarrassing to Canada, Harper didn’t agree to join the talks until Bema announced that he would be traveling to Copenhagen, and publicly stated that he would essentially follow the U.S.’s approach rather than work independently. With regards to Copenhagen, Canadians could no longer say that they were the leaders in multilateralism, stacking themselves as the good guys against the power-hungry and staunchly independent U.S. Instead of acting as a leader, Harper and Canada acted as a reluctant follower, relying on Bema to encourage the country to work in conjunction with its international counterparts rather than staying behind its own borders and in line, at any cost, with its own companies.
This is obviously embarrassing to many Canadians, but perhaps more so a point of great disappointment for those around the world who looked to Canada as a model of multilateralism and a leader on environmental issues. Harper didn’t just let his citizens down, but made a mockery of his own country and, most damagingly, hindered any chance at climate justice. It is one thing for a country to experience self-criticism; but it is another thing entirely to suddenly fall from global grace to the status of global criminal.
I see 2009 as a year of Canada’s international demise, but I’m not yet so downtrodden as to say that the country’s reputation and power has been put to bed. My only hope is that 2010 doesn’t kill what has already been greatly injured.