OBSCURED amid Canada's constitutional turmoil are changes in foreign policy resulting from the October referendum and the weak economy.
The economy in particular is casting a shadow over Canada's ability to play its favorite role as mediator, peacekeeper, and fair broker of international disputes, says John Halstead, Canada's ambassador to NATO from 1980 to 1982 and a former ambassador to Germany.
"I feel that Canada's clout, the weight of Canada's voice, is not what it would be in happier [economic] circumstances," he says.
The economy, Ambassador Halstead says, has strained the social fabric of the country and has scared investors abroad. So "when you put the economy and the referendum together, it leaves a question mark over Canada's stability and puts restraints on foreign policy."
One clear indicator of Canada's diminished ability to influence, he says, is this year's decision for budgetary reasons to close Canada's two bases in Germany and bring home several dozen fighter aircraft and 7,500 troops to save about $750 million. About 300 or so troops will remain on duty in Europe.
Alex Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto, says the NATO pullout was a not a retrenchment or indicator of Canada's ability or desire to maintain its traditional peacekeeping role. Budget cuts have limited the growth of defense spending, but not reduced it from its $12.5 billion level, he points out.
"While we're pulling troops back from Europe, we're increasing the commitment to peacekeeping," he says. "So that doesn't fit the theory of Canada looking inward."
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in a speech at Harvard University Dec. 10 spoke of Canada's expanding commitment to not just peacekeeping but "peacemaking" that would involve intervening at UN request in sovereign nations when humanitarian reasons required it. He pointed to Yugoslavia, where Canada has 2,500 peacekeepers, and suggested a blockade of Haiti to restore the democratically elected president.
But money is tight, and Canada already has 5,000 of its 85,000 enlisted personnel active in Somalia, Cambodia, El Salvador, and elsewhere.
"Canada this year is involved in the former Yugoslavia, Central America, and now in Somalia," Halstead says. "It has reached a point where these commitments are straining our military resources to the limit."