How others know us

Hugh Segal has written Two Freedoms, Canada’s Global Future (Dundurn Press, 2016) in which he discusses the future direction of Canadian foreign policy. It is written clearly, succinctly and provocatively. His proposals recognize the past and argue for change. Retired and active bureaucrats will be irritated by some of the ideas proposed. This is exactly what is needed, and probably intended, to generate debate and hopefully some changes, although these are hard to bring about even with a new government. As the Cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats know, popes come and go, while many of them will outlast him.

Segal proposes that foreign policy should aim to achieve two goals, freedom from fear and freedom from want. All else should follow from these. Implicit, but not stated is that Canada’s foreign policy today has lost its focus and needs to be brought back to the objectives which he proposes. I find his case persuasive.

Segal also writes, “Today’s Canadian foreign service is based on a post-war model. It sees as its primary roles the monitoring of economic, political and strategic developments around the world……It can best be called a “monitoring and sustaining operation,” one that is supervised by an establishment that has typically seen Foreign Affairs as a practice for a certain elite, preferably of the Oxbridge variety, and not really in the purview of ordinary citizens or communities. Its default position is one of passivity, which is abandoned only if some aggressor threatens the nation, or new government comes along with a more activist bias – something that officials seek to discourage at every opportunity (p.109).”


I would suggest that change will require, in particular, understanding two sets of factors. First, the world has changed in a number of ways which means that the conduct of foreign relations has to be revised. And second, as a result of some of these changes, foreign and domestic policies are more intertwined than in the past.

A diplomat working in 1900 would have difficulty in recognizing today’s world.

  • World population has risen from 1.7 bn in 1900 to 7.4 bn today (Canada from 5.3 mil to 36 mil).
  • Transportation costs by land, sea and air have fallen, which opens up the possibility for travel and with rising real incomes more people can afford it. Freight costs have also fallen.
  • Declining communication costs mean that people in one part of the world can know in real-time what happens elsewhere. The refugees from the Middle East all seem to be carrying cell phones. Newspapers and letters are not how people get most of their information. By the time a diplomatic report is filed it may be too late to be useful.
  • From 1950, the world economy grew as did the number of sovereign countries. These are now members of international organizations, many of which fall under the UN umbrella. In 1945, the UN had 51 member countries. Now it has 193, of vastly different geographic and population size and per capita income. All are supposed to be sovereign but in an interdependent world, this need not mean much especially for the smaller fry. If Scotland becomes independent, it will have to make concessions to join the EU and other international organizations, thereby limiting its sovereignty. The same is true for larger economies but size matters, and some can and do exercise more power than others.


Secondly, at least since the 1950s, and especially in today’s world, foreign and domestic policy are so intertwined that negotiations with other countries need to be handled so as to recognize the interdependencies. Of course, other departments and levels of government have had input into diplomatic negotiations, but the cooperation has not always worked well and needs to be restructured.

Consider the topics of trade, aid, immigration, the environment, industry, agriculture, communications, and transportation all of which have separate federal departments or agencies, as well as domestic and foreign implications.  Add to these the interests of provincial and municipal governments, and you have a raft of interests to organize for international negotiations.

Note: Other aspects of Two Freedoms warrant discussion which I will attempt in future postings. A former student told me to keep each entry brief….a wise suggestion.


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