Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Our Foreign Policy Should Not be Left to Children

If there has been one area where Stephen Harper has failed Canada the most, it's been in our foreign policy. He's managed to reverse decades of diplomatic accomplishments that made Canada a leader in peace brokering.

This week Bob Rae exposed what many already knew. That our foreign policy is now being directed by Harper's backroom boys:
"If they can't control it, if the 25-year-old jihadis in the prime minister's office can't control it, it doesn't happen, and that's what's wrong about this government ... "Our ambassadors overseas ... are not allowed to comment on anything, ever, without first referring anything they might say or could say, to be approved by people in the prime minister's office," Rae said." People in the prime minister's office have probably never been to the country in question, they don't know anything about it, probably in some cases could not find it on a map, and they're the ones who are deciding these people who have been in the field for 30 years are going to be able to do their jobs.
And yet unbelievably the topic for discussion on Power and Politics, was whether or not Rae went too far in calling these little rats 'Jihadis', instead of what it means to our security, when 25-year-old staffers, who probably could not find a country in question on a map, are directing our foreign policy.

This is why I can't watch Canadian political commentary shows. I envision people like Solomon, before the show, getting hooked up to a brain cell zapper, like the gizmos you'd see on old television programs. A colander on his head with wires protruding from every hole and smoke blowing out of his ears. It's the only explanation.

The Language of Protocol

When in opposition, Stephen Harper said of our diplomats, that they spent "too much time clinking glasses at cocktail parties", clearly not understanding the importance of not only "cocktail parties", but meeting foreign leaders on a social level.

When Sonja Sinclair wrote the biography of longtime Canadian diplomat, George Ignatieff (yes, Michael Ignatieff's father), she quoted his views on the importance of protocol and of course socializing.
"... protocol is really a language, a set of rules and conventions which enable people of different nationalities, social backgrounds, and political persuasions to feel comfortable with each other, to avoid embarrassing situations, even to enjoy each other's company." (1)
In a political discussion group last night, one of the members spoke of "respect". Respecting that the citizens of another country are just as important as the citizens of your own. And that is what diplomats try to do. To meet people at their level.

Harper's backroom boys are only concerned with the political leverage. How it will advance the party's fortunes at home. Diplomacy is not part of the agenda.

So when the Harper government drastically cut the social budget of the diplomatic corp, they were naturally upset, with such a simple minded action.
The reduced spending, which reflects restraint measures taken last year, has sparked criticism from one of several retired senior diplomats who have accused the Harper government recently of not respecting the importance of cultivating social relationships with key officials and politicians in foreign capitals. Paul Heinbecker, former ambassador to the United Nations, said chaining diplomats to their desks means the huge cost of establishing and running embassies abroad is squandered.
Now I realize that members of Harper's base, after learning of this, probably pulled the straw out of their teeth long enough for a "'bout bloody time!" and applauded the cost cutting measures. But what are we losing in the long term? Far more than just a seat on the UN Security Council.

In Embassy this week, on the editorial page, they spoke of the Bev Oda affair and it's implications.
The Bev Oda scandal will not endear CIDA to its detractors—including a prime minister and Conservative government who view the agency as a nuisance staffed by granola-eating hippies and lazy NGOs feeding off the system. (2)
How do you build from that? Our NGOs already live in fear that their funding could be cut at any moment. They are the people on the ground, trying to feed the world's poor and keep them safe. Those who "respect" the value of all of the world's inhabitants.

They now talk softly and carry a big picture of Stephen Harper. It appears to be the only thing that keeps them in business.

Pollster Nik Nanos this week suggested that Michael Ignatieff missed an opportunity to write his own narrative, allowing the Conservatives to write it for him, with their "just visiting" ads.

I think a good example of Michael Ignatieff the man, and how he views the world, comes from his book 'Blood and Belonging.' As the son of a career diplomat, he has travelled extensively, meeting world leaders, and "clinking glasses". But when working as a war correspondent, he interviewed war lords, peasants and soldiers alike.

Contrast that to Stephen Harper who never even had a passport before he became prime minister.

I've read Blood and Belonging three times, and one of my favourite passages deals with batons, of all the crazy things. When Ignatieff visited the grave of former Yugoslav president, Josip Tito (Michael's father was the Ambassador to Yugoslavia, from 1956-1958), he wrote of Tito and those seemingly meaningless pieces of wood.
He liked greenhouses. So he built himself a greenhouse. He used to rest there, among the poinsettias and the cactuses, like an old lizard in the sun. Now they have buried him in the greenhouse, in front of his residence in Belgrade. There is a large white marble slab, with bronze lettering which reads Josip Broz Tito, 1892-1980.

No one much visits any more, and the place is neglected. On the day I visit it is raining, and rain is dripping from a broken skylight on to the Marshal's grave. Nobody cares.

On his birthday in 1945, some teenagers ran a relay race from Kragujevac to Belgrade and presented him with a baton. Every year of his reign, the 'youth' of Yugoslavia repeated that race, and at the end of it they presented the old dictator with the relay batons. His birthday became 'Youth Day'. Twenty thousand batons are kept in the museum next to his grave. Nobody visits the batons any more. (3)
Those objects might not mean much to the casual observer, other than in why there are so many, but they once meant something to the people who grew up in the former Yugoslavia under Tito. They are part of their heritage, good or bad. Michael Ignatieff was able to give life to those batons.

This is not a hero worship for me. I don't expect to agree with all of his actions when he's prime minister. In fact I can guarantee that I won't.

And I don't expect him to have all the answers.

But in another huge difference between Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper. At least we will be allowed to ask the questions.


1. The Making of a Peacemonger: The Memoirs of George Ignatieff, By Sonja Sinclair, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0-8020-2556-0, Pg. 62

2. ANOTHER NAIL IN CIDA’S COFFIN? Embassy Magazine, February 23, 2011, Pg. 6

3. Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, By Michael Ignatieff, Vintage Press, 1994, ISBN: 0-09-938951-7, Pg. 38

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