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Looking back on 2009: the demise of Canada’s international reputation

December 31, 2009

Harper at his best.

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 10:57 am

    Mara,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. In my mind two way dialogue is a key ingredient for informing, educating and allowing individuals to make better decisions.

    A big part of your comments are in respect to the environment, Copenhagen and Canada’s policy moves there. I do not profess to be an expert in this area, in fact this is one of two topics, the other being US partisanship, that I avoid as both of these have the potential to be all consuming, taking away from my focus on other global issues in which I aim to draw much needed attention. Nothwithstanding that, I do believe in a clean environment, diligently recycle, watch my water & energy consumption and enjoy breathing clean air. However, I also recognize the benefit of economic prosperity, one in which I believe many of us take for granted. While the two are not mutually exclusive, global competition is becoming more a reality everyday, and putting Canada at an unfair disadvantage is not an equitable way to solve this problem. Emission reduction should be equally applied the world over. Creating an inequitable sharing of reduction costs, taxes our production, reduces our profit & incentive to operate, and ultimately hurts certain industries and jobs associated with it. If reductions are applied equally, all firms globally face the same tariff and therefore prices can adjust to address this cost until technology can catch up. Mara, I know you said we will not agree on this but I thought it necessary to expand on my perspective. Finally, at least Harper intends to follow through with agreements he commits to, unlike predecessors who signed Koyoto and never had any intention of abiding by them. Great for immediate world approval, but not very “leader like”?

    The next points I want to address are regarding multilateralism and leader follower. In respect of many other world issues Multilateralism assumes that countries have the best intentions when solving the world’s problems. Unfortunately in reality, many nations are not democracies, have their own internal agendas, and sometimes use these issues to divert attention away from their own misgivings. Iran & Zimbabwe are great examples, always blaming the US and the West for all the world’s problems, trying to divert attention away from their atrocious human rights records. Sometimes strong global leadership is demonstrated by ignoring the chorus of criticism and taking an independent, principaled path with your nations values and interests at heart. I would argue that on many global issues, Harper’s leadership has been exemplary, especially when it comes to the morally bankrupt UN, but that discussion is for another day. My main point here is that global reaction should not dictate our policy, we should strive to be a leader and pave the way for other nations to take what they know to be the morally correct path.

    On your links, I could also provide various links that support my points, but I believe openly laying them out my arguments in my own words is more reflective of my position. Thanks again for your response.

    World Affairs Guy
    http://www.worldaffairsguy.com
    http://twitter.com/worldaffairsguy

  2. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    January 8, 2010 1:51 pm

    Hey World Affairs Guy,

    Okay, we have a lot to talk about. Let’s begin with the simple stuff. Regarding the elections in Afghanistan and the continued mess with Israel and Palestine: while I personally do believe that Canada has some responsibility for both situations, this is not what I was saying in my article. I pointed to both situations as an example of some of the many disappointments of 2009, and stated that Canada’s mishaps in Copenhagen added to this already long-list. I was in no way looking to these as indicative of Canada’s foreign policy, although admit that by comparing these catastrophes to Harper’s (in)action in Copenhagen, I do suggest that I hold Canada’s posturing at the summit as within the same realm of importance and impact as those happening in other parts of the world. This is, of course, debatable, and so from here we can continue with the rest of your comments and questions.

    While I do not think that one action from a country is indicative of their entire foreign policy, I do think that Canada’s behaviour in Copenhagen and the world’s/media’s response to it is indicative of both the positions that Canada is taking generally (specifically by acting as follower and not leader within multilateral forums), and also the world’s reaction to it. Canada rarely receives a bad rap within the international community, especially when compared to the U.S.: the U.S. is historically portrayed as the foot-dragging bad guy that closes its doors to multilateral action, especially on issues of environment, while Canada is painted as the quiet, kind leader (remember Kyoto?) But if you peruse through a general “Canada Copenhagen climate change” google search, you find that the majority of first-page hits condemn the country’s back-door and individualistic actions at the talks. Perhaps most strikingly, there are oodles of articles that point to Harper as simply “following” Obama, lauding the U.S.’s (extremely limited) climate change policy as better than Canada’s.

    This is, in my opinion, extremely unusual. Regardless of what one considers right or wrong (and you, my friend, are right to tell me that I can’t objective say which is which), Canada has always been looked to, often in a very self-congratulatory way, as the leader on multilateral agreements such as the one attempted at the Copenhagen climate talks. But in the face of Harper’s late decision to attend the talks (after Obama announced that he would), and leaks of secret corporate-backed deals, compounded by a media-savy Yes Man prank, Canada looked like the bad guy, even comparable to the U.S. And this, to me, denotes a serious change in Canada’s international reputation. This change didn’t just come from one event, no, but was exemplified by Canada’s actions in Copenhagen. I concede that Obama’s ridiculous popularity on the world stage is probably somewhat responsible for the slamming of Harper, and that this may change as everyone becomes more fatigued with the still-new U.S. president, but to me this still follows a series of trends in which Canada is increasingly made a fool on the world stage.

    With regards to what Canada’s action should be on climate change: I’m afraid that you and me, World Affairs Guy, aren’t going to agree. I believe that it is the responsibility of developed nations to bear a greater burden of the change needed than developing countries. Not more than India or China, perhaps, but I doubt that any of us can say with certainty that they are still considering “developing.” I do not laud their position, either, but this is a blog about Canada’s role in the world, not India’s role in the world or China’s role in the world, and at this point I am not impressed with where this country stands. Rather than defensively backing ourselves into a corner, pointing fingers at those who are also doing an atrocious job of creating necessary change, we need to take the lead on climate change, and not wait to follow an example that will never come.

    For some interesting reads:
    Information on the Yes Men prank in Copenhagen: http://theyesmen.org/canada
    “Canada’s Image Problem” on rabble.ca: http://www.rabble.ca/columnists/2009/12/canadas-image-problem
    A comparison between the American and Canadian response to climate change: http://westcoastclimateequity.org/?p=4028
    An article that describes Canada as simply following the U.S. (regarding Copenhagen and generally): http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/canada/091216/canada-lags-climate-change

  3. January 4, 2010 1:52 pm

    Allow me to understand this article: Based upon your view of Canada’s position at the recent climate summit in Copenhagen, you are lambasting Canada’s overall foreign policy? I guess nothing else matters outside of environmental policy when it comes to setting foreign policy agenda? Your discussion on the summit utilizes a few negative reactions as criticism but I cannot find one fact illustrating why our position was wrong. Yes we need to make this world livable for generations to come, I agree. But this burden needs to be equally shared and not economically punitive on developed nations. That is my understanding of our position. Should you not be criticizing China, India and the developing world to shoulder an equal share of emission reductions?

    You mentioned Multilateralism and being the “Nice Guy Country doing all the right things”. Right is a relative term and you can’t seriously think what you believe to be right by default is right? If you have an issue with anything in particular, submit an argument supporting that position and allow readers to judge the validity of that argument.

    On Afghanistan, I agree, the elections were botched, but how can you blame our foreign policy for that? We are fulfilling our military commitments under NATO in support of ISAF in Afghanistan, an area in which many of our European allies have failed. Our government did not run those elections. Notwithstanding that I am an ardent proponent of democracy, I would take the corrupt Karzai regime any day over another Taliban regime. I believe our national security is much better served by this situation.

    Israel / Palestine: Our foreign policy is to blame for this? Why don’t you criticize the foreign policy of the regime in Tehran? They fund and arm the terrorist organizations of Hamas & Hezbollah, both of which mandate the destruction of Israel. Hamas continues to make unprovoked missile attacks on Israel, requiring an Israeli defensive response and unfortunately causing additional, tragic and unnecessary hardship on the Palestinian people. What does this have to do with our foreign policy? Conditions need to be improved before peace in this region can be achieved. This is evident given Clinton’s multiple failed peace attempts in this region.

    I am a Canadian, and I and many other Canadians are quite proud of the direction our foreign policy has taken. I would be happy to review (and maybe even accept) your position if you would be so kind as to provide facts and arguments that support that position. Based on the above, I cannot find that so please help.

    World Affairs Guy
    http://www.worldaffairsguy.com
    http://twitter.com/worldaffairsguy

  4. anne hopkinson permalink
    January 1, 2010 11:46 am

    And now Mr. Harper wants to prorogue parliament. Again. The nerve. He just doesn’t want to face questions about his mistakes. Couldn’t he hold a chicken instead of a kitten? Maybe he could follow Sarah Palin’s lead and write a book, “Going Prorogue!”

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