Dave and I wrote the review below of Michael Byers’ new book on Canadian foreign policy, Intent for a Nation for Embassy Magazine.
Intent for Nation
Michael Byers describes his book, Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada’s Role in the World, as a challenge to George Grant’s generation-defining thesis, Lament for a Nation. Canada, Mr. Byers argues, may not be on an inalterable path towards full integration with the United States.
But contrary to its title, Intent for a Nation does not reject its namesakes’ thesis–it embraces it whole-heartedly. Mr. Grant’s Lament paints Canada as a country already lost to the forces of Americanization. Mr. Byers, a professor of politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, sees Canada teetering on the abyss. Indeed, our position is so precarious, Mr. Byers himself twice believed the country was doomed: once after the “free-trade election” and again after Jean Chrétien signed NAFTA. It is only due to a handfulof increasingly rare policy decisions that Canada has managed–albeit just–to remain a sovereign state.
Intent for a Nation is a firmly nationalist treatise–a book that sees Canada under imminent threat from Americanization–and this perspective is the source of its strengths and weaknesses. As a nationalistic critique, it is often powerful, providing important counterbalance to many foreign policy assumptions. At the same time, its anti-American lens is limiting. Mr. Byers, like Mr. Grant or Mel Hurtig, over-inflates America’s role, holding it responsible for far too many of Canada’s challenges.
This book is as much about the U.S. and Americanization as it is about Canadian foreign policy. Canada’s choice is black or white: assimilation or isolation, a choice Mr. Byers echoes with chapter titles like “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” The fact that reversing NAFTA would be at best difficult, and at worst disastrous, is a window into the book’s central challenge: its inability to move beyond critique. For a self-titled “manifesto,” Intent for a Nation focuses almost exclusively on what Canada shouldn’t do, and says little about what it should.
It is refreshing to read a strong nationalist critique of Canadian foreign policy, particularly one that adeptly engages on military issues. The argument that the goals and purposes of Canada’s military are increasingly shaped by its integration with U.S. forces is the book’s most convincing discussion. A Canadian military fully integrated into its U.S. counterpart does indeed run the risk of preparing for, and executing, U.S.-style military operations. Do we want to spend (literally) billions to emulate the U.S. model? More importantly, if we shape our tools after America’s hammers, should we be surprised if we increasingly see global problems as corresponding nails?
In a similar vein, Mr. Byers’ discussion of the Canadian Arctic stands in admirable contrast to much of the military-centric discourse on “securing” the north. And his treatment of the war on terror, racial profiling, and missile defense are all notably level-headed. Clearly, Mr. Byers has an important voice to add to these debates. Indeed, the problem in each of these cases isn’t what he says, it’s what he leaves out.
For a manifesto, the book provides few policy options. Both the chapters on climate change and terrorism never take the reader beyond past mistakes. There are hints of possibilities (such as increased individual responsibility for emission control, and greater use of legal mechanisms in the war on terror), but at markedly few points does Mr. Byers provide directions for action. Indeed, his regular calls for national leadership, with little indication of a policy platform, become frustrating.
Take, for example, the treatment of the Responsibility to Protect. The author rightly argues that former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy showed prescient leadership by convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. However, he is then highly critical of Paul Martin’s attempt to institutionalize the concept through the UN General Assembly.
The principle of R2P is that the international community should have a mechanism to intervene when sovereign governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens. Faced with the problem of how this principle should be actualized, Martin argued that the Security Council’s threshold for the authorization of Chapter VII intervention should be expanded to include a wider range of harms. Byers suggests a more appropriate course would have been to “embark on a long and difficult campaign to shift international opinion towards a right to unauthorized humanitarian intervention.”
This is a strikingly ambiguous, and controversial, statement regarding one of the central foreign policy challenges of our time–the use of force in the name of humanitarianism. We are provided with no indication of what a different legal framework might look like, nor do we receive guidance as to how this would mitigate the central concern of R2P’s critics–its abuse by powerful countries over weak ones. Indeed, this policy challenge was so difficult, that the ICISS commission itself deferred answering it and it is the underlying reason why Martin chose to work within the UN framework rather than against it. Again, Mr. Byers’ reliance on “bold leadership,” without an indication for what leaders are to do, simply inadequately addresses the policy challenges underlying his critiques.
In addition to failing to flesh out his policy prescriptions, many of the recommendations made are in conflict with one another.
For example, Mr. Byers speaks urgently, but vaguely, of the need for a green economy. But in a later chapter, he laments the decline of east-west transcontinental tractor-trailer traffic at the expense of increased north-south trade between the U.S. and Canada. And yet comparatively, this east-west traffic is grossly inefficient. Trade between Seattle and Vancouver is much more efficient–and thus green–than that between Vancouver and Toronto. Mr. Byers never attempts to prioritize or contextualize his environmental and nationalist policy
Another example emerges from his treatment of Afghanistan and Darfur. “Where would we gain the most?” Mr. Byers asks. “Continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur.” The choice appears clear: project our humanitarian interests by redeploying our military from Afghanistan to Darfur. While our role in Afghanistan should be debated, there are real humanitarian costs to leaving. Not accounting for these costs, in an argument on the moral imperative of inserting military forces–against the desire of its government–into another Muslim country rife with sectarian conflict and radical jihadism, is highly problematic.
Similarly, calling Afghanistan a “US led war in Asia” and Darfur a peacekeeping mission trivializes the former and romanticizes the latter. This month rebels killed 10 African Union peacekeepers and a further 50 are missing. Darfur could be every bit as complicated and dangerous as Afghanistan. Both are examples of complex emergencies in which new, and in large part Canadian-led concepts such as 3D and human
security, are being applied.
One senses that Byers disdain for Afghanistan springs not from the nature or intent of the mission, but simply that it was American instigated and led. When discussing Afghanistan this bias is merely distracting, but in other cases, the distortions border on the absurd. For example, Byers rightly criticizes successive Canadian governments for failing to give .7% of GDP in overs
eas development assistance (ODA). However, when assessing why Canada has failed to do so, his culprit is all too predictable. The United States – who contributes a mere .1% of GDP – fear their international reputation will suffer if Canada fulfills its ODA commitment and thus exerts subtle pressure which keeps our contributions down. Putting aside that no examples of how this nefarious influence is exerted, are we really suppose to believe the United States cares how much Canada donates in ODA?
What makes this bias all the more frustrating is that without it, the book would be more compelling. Mr. Byers considers Canada a powerful country, capable of international greatness. In interviews he argues that our insecurities often impede our success. It is a sentiment we agree with, and to which history can attest. But in Intent for a Nation, this insight is crowded out by the United States, which is too often blamed for our shortcomings.
If Canada is a powerful country, how should it exert its influence? The final chapter on global citizenship is clearly intended to provide a framework for action. But the conclusion fails to link the concept of global citizenship proposed to the challenges and themes outlined in the previous nine chapters. Moreover, Mr. Byers’ definition of global citizenship ultimately does not differ from those he critiques, as well as others he doesn’t mention, making it difficult to tease out his unique contribution to the debate over this term.
And when Mr. Byers suggests that being a global citizen at the national level would entail acting independently from U.S. and our economic interests, the focus on America again hinders his analysis. Mr. Byers conflates our capacity to act independently with our choice to do so. Are there troubling aspects to the Canada-U.S. relationship? Absolutely. But Mr. Byers seems less interested in fixing them than in building a firewall. Is disengagement and isolationism really the logical conclusion of global citizenship? Surely being sovereign, and a global citizen, entails more than not being American?
This book is clearly meant to serve as an agent provocateur, and to spark discussion. In that spirit it is an important contribution to the national debate. Mr. Byers is right to argue that Canada can be more and that message deserves an audience, both in Ottawa and across the country. That said, the book contains vague and conflicting advice and over-emphasizes America’s role. This is largely because Intent for a Nation embraces rather than challenges the flawed analysis of its namesake. Almost four decades after the release of Mr. Grant’s Lament, Canada has retained its independence, and according to some polls, is increasingly distinct from America. Shouldn’t the debate over Canadian
foreign policy move beyond the constraints of this thesis?