Canada's global diplomacy gets attentive ear

Diplomats don't usually admit publicly to being flabbergasted by their successes.

But Robert Fowler, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, recently conceded in a radio interview that he had been "shocked" at how much the gems industry accepted his proposal for clearing world markets of diamonds mined and sold to fund guerrilla wars in Africa.

"That was a huge moment in the diamond industry," says Steve Morrison, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "There's no question" that Mr. Fowler's efforts as the chairman of the UN's Angola sanctions committee were decisive, Mr. Morrison says. "He was bold, he was tough, he was innovative; he named names, he pushed buttons, and he embarrassed people. He used the Security Council very deftly."

The diamonds issue is another sparkling example of Canadian diplomatic triumph in recent years as the end of the cold war has, in the words of one analyst, "opened a diplomatic space for Canada" to operate more independently of the United States.

It's a trend that's been particularly apparent under the current minister of foreign affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, who has been willing to pursue global consensus on initiatives such as the land-mine ban, the International Criminal Court, and nuclear disarmament without having the US "on side."

Such efforts have won Mr. Axworthy accolades from many quarters as Canada's greatest foreign minister since Lester Pearson, whose intervention in the Suez crisis of 1956 lifted Canada onto the world stage and won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unique strategic advantage

Diplomatic analysts say Canada has a special role to play in bringing the US around on issues where a middle power can move more nimbly than a lumbering superpower. Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at CSIS, says, "Axworthy doesn't leverage the US well.... He sees the US as a hindrance to liberal internationalism."

As a result, Mr. Sands says, Ottawa is making less of its unique strategic advantage - its proximity, geographic and cultural, to the US - in pursuit of an international "NGO agenda," which, he says, a number of other "middle powers" could also pursue.

A Canadian official disputes this assessment. "You can bring someone along only so far," she says. On the landmines issue, for instance - often cited as an example of Canadian-US divergence - she adds, "Axworthy went to the wall to bring the US along, and the US couldn't move." Sometimes, she adds, when the US is a lone holdout on a particular issue, the question arises, "Do we wait for one country, or do we move on and hope the US will catch up?"

American analysts often point out that Canada can afford the luxury of an idealistic foreign policy because it doesn't have to worry about being invaded by its neighbors.

Canadians counter that the US doesn't have to, either. "Americans and Canadians share a lack of an imminent military foe," says Ernie Regehr, director of Project Ploughshares, a peace organization in Waterloo, Ontario. What's telling, in his view, is how the two countries respond differently to the same issue. "Americans look after their own security and think they can do it unilaterally. Canadians know without any doubt that their security depends on a stable international order."

The very rules that Canadians find so comforting seem constraining to Americans, he suggests. "We put diplomatic energy into international forums."

Indeed, Canada seems not to have ever met an international organization it didn't like. It's a member of the UN, NATO, the G-8, the Commonwealth, the Francophonie, and the Organization of American States. "It's not simply that we're members," the government official says. "It's that we've paid our dues," in the metaphorical as well as the strictly financial sense.

In recent years, Mr. Regehr says, Canada has been finding that "the beginning of Canadian foreign policy is not [necessarily] to persuade the Americans." And indeed, on an issue like land mines, Ottawa has found that a group of middle powers and energized NGOs can constitute "the new superpower."

There's a practical reason for Ottawa to pursue initiatives in multilateral fora rather than just with the US: Canadians have learned that a commitment from the White House or the US State Department doesn't necessarily mean that the US Congress has signed on.

In any case, Ottawa's opportunity to take an independent course is effectively limited to those areas "where US interests are the least direct and the least visceral," says Regehr. Despite policy differences, the International Criminal Court, and the land-mine issues, these weren't "a vital US interest."

On common ground

On the other hand, although Canada has pushed for NATO to reconsider its reliance on nuclear weapons, and has supported the antinuclear New Agenda Coalition at the UN, Regehr sees Canada as ultimately "staying within the NATO consensus," because NATO's nukes are a priority for the US.

"No one at the Department of Foreign Affairs thinks human security is out to replace national security," says Fergus Watt, executive director of Ottawa-based World Federalists of Canada, which has promoted the International Criminal Court. Axworthy's "soft power" emphasis "doesn't mean Canada doesn't roll up its sleeves and send in CF-18s into Kosovo," he says.

"The Canadian-US relationship is the most important element of Canadian foreign policy," says Mr. Watt, and the decision whether to pursue a policy iniative that will put Ottawa at odds with Washington "is still viewed through the prism of 'What are the Americans going to say and do?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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