Beyond Vimy Ridge: Canada’s other foreign-policy pillar
This is a hallmark year for Canadian foreign policy. 2007 marks the anniversaries of two events through which Canada contributed significantly on the international stage: the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize. This is a wonderful coincidence. These two moments, and the values they imbue, are defining pillars that have guided our foreign policy.
Sadly, these events and the principles they represent are frequently held up as opposing ideological doctrines between which an absolute policy choice must be made. In reality, the very opposite is true. Not only are Vimy Ridge and the Nobel Prize both real and important achievements, but the policies and values they embody function far better in collaboration than in isolation.
The first pillar, Vimy Ridge, is a defining moment in Canadian foreign policy. It compels us to remember, and give thanks to, Canadians whose sense of duty and sacrifice contributed to a greater cause.
Equally important, Vimy personifies a Canada that stood by its allies and contributed more than its share. It created a lasting legacy of values that continue to serve us well: courage, allegiance to allies, steadfastness, valour, bravery.
However, we must also remember that the First World War reflects an enormous breakdown in political leadership. It is an example of what happens when great powers allow their rivalries to run unchecked.
Wonderfully, Canadian foreign policy responded to this deficiency, and evolved to include a second foundational principle: Pearsonian diplomacy.
By providing an innovative solution to the Suez Crisis and preventing its allies from stumbling into a global conflict, Mr. Pearson’s prize reflected a different set of values than those of the First World War: honesty, integrity, leadership, principle and a willingness to question and check our allies. The Peace Prize honours a tradition of diplomacy that prevents us from having to commemorate another Vimy.
While both pillars are critical to an effective Canadian foreign policy, many on both the left and right would prefer to celebrate only one of these great events. Each claims that either Vimy or the Peace Prize imbue “true Canadian values.” Both are mistaken. It is the interplay between them that makes Canada a credible and recognized actor in global politics. Notably, this is accomplished by being neither militaristic hawk, nor unwavering peacenik.
There is no doubt that diplomacy was ultimately what prevailed in the Suez crisis, yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was backed up by a credible military presence. An idealistic dependency on diplomacy has limits, as Roméo Dallaire is quick to point out. Sometimes, it is the threat of force that is required to keep or build the peace.
Likewise, the use of military force also has its limits. Washington’s predisposition to rely on force often taints the legitimacy of U.S. military interventions. In contrast, countries respect Canadian interventions because they know our diplomatic history and leadership in avoiding unnecessary conflicts. Recent achievements continue to demonstrate the value of carefully weaving together these two pillars. For example, Canada did not participate in Iraq because we rightfully believed diplomacy had not run its course.
Ambassador Paul Heinbecker’s Pearsonian resolution at the United Nations, proposed on the eve of war, assuaged legitimate international concerns by balancing credible weapons inspections with the threat of force. Had it been adopted, and no weapons found, a disastrous war might have been avoided. Countless lives might have been saved and Canada might have been in the running for another peace prize.
Contrast this to the first Persian Gulf war, where diplomacy was allowed to take its course. An important norm of the international system — the unsanctioned use of force — was defended. Canadians fought valiantly alongside our Anglo-U.S. allies and with the legitimacy of a broad 30-member coalition.
In both of these cases, the Vimy and Pearson pillars worked in tandem and resulted in principled international action.
Sadly, we may be drifting toward an overemphasis on the Vimy pillar of Canadian foreign policy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government appears overly romanced by our military tradition and negligent of our diplomatic history. The UN Peace University in Toronto has recently been closed down and funding for the Canadian International Model UN has been cut. More telling — and in sharp contrast to the months of time, energy and money that were appropriately dedicated to the Vimy celebrations — the government’s plan for the Pearson anniversary are unclear.
The Prime Minister’s treatment of the peace prize milestone will be telling. If he believes that the second pillar of Canadian foreign policy is indeed symbiotic with the first, the same priority will surely be placed on celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.