Does Canada Have a Foreign Policy Independent of the US?
Canada likes to portray its foreign policy as being independent and different from the US, but according to Yves Engler it actually almost always follows US lead
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
In January of this year, as controversy erupted around Donald Trump’s plan to block nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the U.S., Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to strike a more welcoming pose. One way in which he did that was to tweet to his nearly 800,000 followers the following message. “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”
Trudeau’s message was retweeted over 400,000 times and liked over 1 million times, and was widely reported in the mainstream media. But in the past few days, articles have appeared in the Canadian press questioning whether Canada’s policies toward refugees are really all that more welcoming than those of the United States. One of those articles appeared in the CBC, Canada’s state broadcaster, and it was titled Trudeau should probably stop telling desperate refugees that everyone is welcome in Canada. The article stated armed with the fallacious belief that Canada will absolutely offer them residency, many asylum-seekers will gamble all their money and risk their lives trying to make the dangerous journey to Canada.
But of course many refugees will not find a home in Canada, even if they are granted temporary asylum. According to data supplied by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, out of the 15,196 in-country refugee applicants processed in 2016, a total of 4,970 were rejected for various reasons, such as applicants not being considered in enough danger in their own home country, and that was only after hundreds of other applications had already been terminated because the applicants had criminal records, abandoned claims, and so forth.
All of this raises a question: when it comes to Canada’s interactions with the rest of the world, how different is Canada really from the United States?
Now here to discuss this with us is Yves Engler. Yves is a Montreal-based activist and author. He has published eight books, including Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy, and The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Thanks for joining us, Yves.
YVES ENGLER: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: A few weeks ago, Yves, I had an off-the-record conversation with a retired Canadian diplomat who had once served as an ambassador in the Middle East. I asked him whether Canada had a foreign policy that was truly independent of the U.S., and I won’t repeat all that he said, but I can sum it up by saying that he basically laughed at me – or, at least, at the suggestion that Canada “might” have a foreign policy that is truly independent of U.S. foreign policy. I’d like to explore this question with you and ask you in regard in particular to three key foreign policy issues namely, the war on terror, the climate crisis and the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people.
With reference to those three key foreign policy issues in particular, what are the main similarities and the main differences, if any, that you can see between Canadian foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy?
YVES ENGLER: Well, with the war on terror, the Canadian government has quite certainly since 9/11 has clearly in many different ways aligned Canadian policy with U.S. policy. The best example of that, of course, was the war in Afghanistan where about 40,000 Canadian troops fought over a bit more than a decade alongside U.S. troops. Canadian troops, they were there right from the get-go, and from October 2001 there were Canadian Special Forces on the ground working with U.S. and British Special Forces. So I think the war on terror, there has been pretty strong alignment, notably in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
With regards to the climate question, the Canadian business class very clearly says it can’t… you know, we can’t act on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions unless we have some sort of accord with the U.S. because our economies are just so integrated and therefore it’s… you know, we’d be at a competitive disadvantage if we were to bring in carbon taxes or other measures that would limit carbon emissions that, while it wasn’t simultaneously taking place so U.S. business competitors. I think that’s largely sort of just a justification by corporate officials that don’t want to move forward on these matters. There are all kinds of ways that moving forward on reducing carbon emissions without having much of an impact really on business or directing energies to businesses in a less carbon-intensive… you know, that becomes basically justification for continuing extraction of the tar sands and the like. But, you know, there’s a kernel of truth to that question.
On the question of Israel/Palestine, I think that if you look historically, Canada’s foreign policy in terms of supporting Zionism, free states, Israel and supporting the State of Israel since 1948 has been the central explanatory factor in Canada’s pro-Israel policy has been the fact that Washington has been pro-Israel. There are many examples you can look into. You can look into Canada’s role in the creation of Israel and the partition plan in 1947 at the UN where Canadian diplomats, notably Lester Pearson actually even stated we’re not going to express an opinion until we’ve had an opportunity to consult with American diplomats at the United Nations. So, on that question of Palestine, Canada’s relations to the U.S. have been an important explanatory factor in the … policy.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now in recent memory, Yves, there has been at least one major divide between Canada and the U.S. on an important foreign policy issue and that is, namely, in 2001, Canada Prime Minister Jean Chrétien rebuffed George Bush’s request that Canada…
YVES ENGLER: Dimitri… Dimitri… Dimitri – 2003.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’m sorry – 2003. That’s correct. And as many will recall, Germany and France also refused to participate in that invasion. Do you regard that as proof that Canada does in fact have an independent foreign policy? Or is that more the exception rather than the rule? And if so, why in that particular case did Canada go its own way?
YVES ENGLER: Well, in… the Chrétien government in 2003 did not join the Bush administration’s coalition … that invaded Iraq. That’s not to say that Canada wasn’t involved in the invasion of Iraq. There are people have suggested, and I think correctly, that Canada was probably the 5th or 6th biggest participant in the war in Iraq. So, for instance, the Canadian government, there were Canadian naval vessels patrolling off the coast of Iraq, and actually the Canadian government had legal opinion that Canada was legally at war because it was enforcing a blockade, a naval blockade of Iraq. A Canadian general oversaw 35,000 troops in Iraq. Walter Natynczyk who later becomes the Chief of Defence staff. He was in charge of tens of thousands of troops, international troops in Iraq. There were Canadian troops that were training with American units that fought in Iraq. Other countries that didn’t participate in the coalition willingly(?), they withdrew their troops that were training with U.S. units at the time. Canada pumped in a whole bunch of aid money into Iraq right after the U.S. invasion that was very much designed to sort of consolidate the U.S. invasion.
But that’s not to say that the Chrétien government didn’t do the thing that the Bush administration wanted above all else, which was giving international diplomatic legitimacy by explicitly saying that Canada was part of the coalition willing(?). And that was entirely explainable by the anti-war movement in this country. Mostly in Quebec. There were demonstrations. I was at those demonstrations in Montreal in minus-20 degree temperature where there were 150,000 to 200,000 people. There were two demonstrations that reached into that range. There were all kinds of groups organizing actions. I was part of a group that was organizing actions at the U.S. consulate trying to shut the U.S. consulate down and stuff like that.
It’s basically I think the Iraq war tells us a lot, Canada’s position on the Iraq war tells us a lot about the question of independence. The reality is, the Canadian military is so intertwined with the U.S. military at this point that it’s almost impossible for the U.S. to go to war somewhere and Canada not to be part of it in some way, even when the political leaders say that we’re not supportive of it. So I think that says something about resistance to Canadian foreign policy in the case of Iraq where there was massive resistance, we were able to have a partial victory in not officially joining the coalition willing(?), but the fundamentals of Canadian military policy being tied into U.S. military policy are so strong that we aren’t strong enough, we weren’t strong enough, the anti-war movement, to stop still a form of Canadian complicity to that war.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, thank you, Yves. This is Dimitri Lascaris talking to Yves Engler, Canadian author and activist, about Canadian foreign policy. That concludes our first segment. In our second segment, we’re going to look at the attitude of Canada’s traditionally social democratic party and the governing Liberal party towards foreign policy, and in particular whether they are prepared to consider foreign policies that depart significantly from U.S. foreign policy.
This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
This is Part 2 of my interview with Yves Engler, Canadian author and activist. In Part 1, we explored Canadian foreign policy issues, and whether there are material differences between Canadian and U.S. foreign policy. Now we’re going to talk about specific issues of foreign policy within the social democratic party in Canada, the NDP, and the governing Liberal Party.
Now, one would think that at least on the left in this country, there would be some vigorous debate about the remarkable alignment of Canadian foreign policy with U.S. foreign policy. But a couple of days ago, you authored an article titled, “NDP Leadership Candidates Call for Foreign Policy Debate,” in which you noted that, as yet, in the leadership debates in the NDP, which is traditionally the social democratic party in this country, there had not been a single question about foreign policy.
Do you think that the leadership candidates, or at least some number of them, are afraid to talk about foreign policy in the NDP, and if so, why would that be the case?
YVES ENGLER: I think many of the leadership candidates are afraid to talk about it, and I think the whole party establishment is afraid to talk about the issue. And they’re afraid to talk about the issue particularly at this moment, because they know that the policies they’ve been pursuing do not actually align with the opinion of much of the membership of the party.
Much of the membership of the party wants to move away from support for NATO, wants to move in favor of the Palestinian perspective, doesn’t want to be spending more and more money on the military. But in recent years, the party establishment has come out in favor of sending Canadian troops to Russia’s border.
The bombing Libya in 2011, has purged candidates in the 2015 election, purged candidates that were elected by local riding associations that were supposed to be running an election, because they had supported Palestinians during the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza.
So, the leadership of the party is afraid really, of the opinions of the majority of members, or at least a sizeable percentage of the members on foreign policy issues. You know, specific candidates, and if you look at specific candidates, they mostly voted -– this is in part of that story I go into. I bumped into Niki Ashton, who’s the most left wing of the four candidates seeking the leadership of the NDP, and I asked her if she voted in favor of the 2011 bombing of Libya, and her answer was that she couldn’t remember.
She tried to convince then party leader Jack Layton, not to support the bombing of Libya, and when that wasn’t successful, she couldn’t remember if she voted yes, or if she just abstained herself from the House of Commons. No MP in this country, except for Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, voted against Canada’s participation in the bombing of Libya.
There were in fact two votes, so then NDP actually voted two different parliamentary votes in favor of the war in Libya, and this went completely against what the African Union was calling for. The African Union was calling for a negotiated solution. They were sending delegations of heads of state from Africa, to Libya, to try to figure out a negotiated solution to the conflict.
But here you had the Canadian government, who was a major player in the bombing of Libya, and you had the social democratic NDP, backing and backing that affair.
So, the party is afraid to discuss these issues. The question of Palestine in one is the clear one. The specific example, the young New Democrats of Quebec, in the last leadership debate, it was supposed to be about youth issues. And the Young Democrats of Quebec asked for a question about Palestine to be put on the agenda, and the leadership of the party refused.
So, it’s my opinion that it’s going to take a real push from below, within the NDP, and outside of the NDP, to force the leadership to actually discuss foreign policy issues during this leadership campaign.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s conclude with the governing party, the Liberal Party of Canada. Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, replaced a longstanding senior member of the party, Stéphane Dion, in the Foreign Ministry portfolio with Chrystia Freeland, who’s relatively new to federal politics.
And perhaps most notable about that appointment, not only that she’s new, and she replaced a stalwart of the party establishment, but also she has a remarkable antipathy towards Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Her family has -– part of her family, at least –- comes from the Ukraine, and she has demonstrated a strongly nationalistic Ukrainian point of view in the past, particularly in her comments on Russia. At the same time, that she has ascended to that portfolio, a president has ascended to power in the United States, who has, apparently, a much more conciliatory attitude towards Vladimir Putin in Russia. And seems to be intent upon effecting some sort of a reset in American-Russian relations.
What do you think is going on here, and what do you think we can anticipate in terms of foreign policy, now that Chrystia Freeland has replaced Stéphane Dion?
YVES ENGLER: Yeah, well, I mean, I think the first thing is it’s come out now, a fair bit of detail that, you know, Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator. And she has been part of trying to, sort of, justify that, or hide that. And she is staunchly anti-Russian, and close to the sort of neo-fascist sectors in the Ukraine that have gained a lot of power over the past couple of years.
I don’t think that that’s actually has all that much to do with her appointment. My guess is her appointment has more to do with Trump… a concern about NAFTA negotiations, probably some internal politics, in terms of the look of having her as the foreign minister, versus Stéphane Dion who was a little on the kind of older end, older white guy. I know they’re trying to have a more youthful look to the Liberal Party.
I don’t think this is going to be, with the exception, and it will be different, because Stéphane Dion was trying to take a more conciliatory position, with regards to Russia. I think he was less aggressive. He did represent more of the leftish end of the Liberal Party, but I don’t think we should exaggerate that. That’s fairly limited differences between the different actors, maybe on the question of Russia there was a fairly… a difference of note, but on other issues, I’m not sure that that was the case.
You know, Stéphane Dion was providing the justification for selling $15 billion in light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. He’s somebody who’s been part of that establishment for a long time.
And I think even, who the Minister is just more generally, has not as much import as people might think. There’s a whole foreign affairs, now Global Affairs Canada bureaucracy, a whole ideology, a whole institutional structure that goes beyond individuals. I think that… and we see that with the difference between Harper — Stephen Harper had an aggressive foreign policy — and I authored a book called Stephen Harper’s foreign policy… or called, “The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy”, very critical of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy.
But, as we’ve seen in the first year and a half of the Trudeau government, the differences aren’t as significant as people might think. There are some rhetorical differences. The Trudeau government’s a little bit better. But the fundamentals of Canadian foreign policy are the same, and the change from Dion to Freedman, Freedman is not going to significantly change that matter.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I’m sure that the Trump presidency is going to pose a number of interesting foreign policy challenges for the Canadian government in the future, and I hope that we’ll have you back on, and we’ll be able to have the opportunity to discuss those with you, Yves. Thank you very much for joining us today.
YVES ENGLER: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.