Jim Miles: What is Canada For? – Book Review

What is Canada  for?  Intent For a Nation.  Michael Byers. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, Canada. 2007.

By Jim Miles
PalestineChronicle.com Exclusive

There is a second sub-title to this book, A relentlessly optimistic manifesto for Canada’s role in the world.  Indeed, a very positive picture is presented of what the future of Canada could be, without denying that there are currently some divisive and questionable practices put forward as foreign policy in Canada today – but not limited exclusively as creations of the current government.  The policy options examined range from free trade to nuclear defence, from climate change to our icy northlands as sovereign territory, from global citizenship to global warrior.  The theme of how Canada can best be represented in the world, and the role that it can play in the world all falls under our relationship with the United States.

Recognizing that Canada is physically, militarily, economically, not quite yet culturally dominated by the United States, the discussion draws an intelligent and realistic line between what is necessary as a relationship between Americans and Canadians and what is a political expedient that garners favour, power, and wealth to only a few Canadians.  The introduction gives a very brief effective summary of the author’s background and a quick précis of the various governments, Liberal and Conservative, over that past thirty years, and their general tendency towards appeasing American economic and military interests.  Byers ends his conclusion with, “Canadians are confronted with great challenges….We need a vision to light the way, something more inspiring than keeping the U.S. border open to trade….[We are] not a shadow of someone else’s destiny; we have a greater purpose.”

The first chapter on terror calls for saner calmer heads when the real risk factors are considered as opposed to the fear factor from the media and politicians.  This leads into a discussion of the laws of war  (and as Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, the reader should be assured that Byers is well versed in the rules and regulations of international interactions) and Canada in Afghanistan.  Torture, rendition, and Canadian complicity in both activities have been answered with a simple solution – “refusing to share intelligence that might be used for such purposes, and denying CIA planes permission to use Canadian airports or airspace….”  Canadians, at least the upper level politicians, tend to be fearful of hurting trade with the U.S., but we should not let international human rights standards be jeopardized for that. 

While discussing “Warfighter or Peacekeepers” Byers presents six arguments used to support the Afghan war, essentially divided into two groups: those arguments that use the rhetoric of anti-terror, human rights and democracy; and the second group about our “image” presented to other countries and the influence that carries.  He then provides another set of arguments that present the real costs, costs in military terms, in international perceptions of Canada (as the U.S. reputation has declined rapidly in the eyes of the greater part of the world’s population), in Canada’s view of itself as a peacemaker as compared to a warmonger, and ultimately for my views, the view that “over time…Canadian Forces [will be] focussed almost entirely…on aggressive missions conducted in concert with the United States.”

His next essay – and truly his writing is a series of well connected and well presented essays under a common theme, almost textbook examples of introduction, argument, counter arguments and conclusion, all written in readily accessible language – focuses on Canada’s response to Israel.  While recognizing that Hezbolla “violated a central principle of international humanitarian law” with its rocket attacks on Israel, he more strongly indicates such attacks “may never be justified by similar violations on the other side…” referring to the “horrors” of the attack on Qana.  Byers was “staggered” by Harper’s response, being that of a measured and proportionate attack, which only “demonstrated an ignorance of international law and a lack of common sense.” 

After discussing Harper’s possible reasoning, and the damage it could do to Canada’s more positive role as a middle power, “It seemed the Harper government was ideologically opposed to playing a constructive role in the Middle East.”  The chapter ends with a brief look at Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur from which “Canada’s reputation as a leading global citizen…is at stake.”

The two subsequent chapters deal with nuclear missiles and missile defence.  Byers’ discussion looks at Canada’s actions and reasoning through the process of reacting to American requests to their position, involving considerations of money, technology, corporate financing, and sovereignty.  Had Canada accepted missile defence “the rest of the international community would consider Canada had surrendered most of its foreign policy independence to the United States.  And they’ be right.”

The hypocrisy and double standards of the American positions on nuclear proliferation, on Iraq, North Korea, and Iran reaches into Canadian territory, Canada’s role within NATO and the UN.  Again referring to international law under the status of the UN Charter, Canada’s support of NATO’s nuclear stance is an “apparent violation” with its “option of engaging in a nuclear first-strike against any aggressor country,” more fully so with the new American policy of pre-emptive nuclear first use.  

Under global governance, Canada has had some significant effects, in contradiction to U.S. policies and intentions.  In 1948, Canada participated strongly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Canadian citizens and politicians spearheaded the land mine treaty.  The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was established with very strong Canadian input and influence in spite of opposition by the U.S., in particular Bush and advisors as it “threatens U.S. interests, and…represents a triumph for multilateralism and international law.” Canada argued for and obtained a binding arbitration mechanism for the WTO (although with probable other costs, and the arbitration itself is highly non-democratic and non-transparent).  The warning here however is that it has been strong civilian NGO input that has strengthened Canada’s hand in these sectors while “Canadian leadership is episodic, often overblown, and all too frequently absent.”

A change of topic leads into global warming and sovereignty over Arctic waters.  The general discussion on global warming leads to the truth that its not all about carbon, its not all about the greenhouse affect.  Rather Byers recognizes the consumptive nature of corporate capitalism and concludes that “our prosperity should not be borne on the backs of more vulnerable people elsewhere, nor stolen from future generations.”   As an “intent for a nation” Canada should assume real leadership to “create an ecologically sustainable economy” something our current government “so badly failed to provide.” 

Global warming creates the problem of a navigable northwest passage, the Holy Grail of many early explorers.  The arguments concerning the passage involve two main areas, natural resources and rights of passage.  As an international waterway, Canada would not be able to govern the passage.  Ironically, in light of terror concerns, it would be better if Canada had sovereignty, as it would then be able to monitor and patrol the waterway, on guard for any terror threat.  In effect, an international waterway shields foreign vessels from regulations and scrutiny. 

Following again, two related chapters on continental integration, one looking at the military, and the other looking at the economy.  In general, “Canada…is in danger of allowing itself to be suffocated in America’s militaristic embrace.”  The negatives of this include our loss of independence, our servicing financially of the American military, and in spite of other Canadian viewpoints that insist a more militarized Canada will be more influential, the contrary will more likely result, with Canada’s voice ignored in Washington.  Byers concludes it is “time to stop acting like a vassal state, and to start acting like a grown up country.”

Economically the arguments turn around the non-reality of “free trade” in a corporate sense, and more importantly for natural resources.  Byers argues that NAFTA has not provided its promised benefits, resulting instead in greater income inequality, social stratification, and a less secure social safety net.  It also leaves Canada’s resources (mainly oil and water as American concerns) open for purchase – cheap – and a high cost of environmental damage and cultural disruption to obtain those resources.  Canada’s intent should be the removal of energy provisions in NAFTA, the use of international law rather than U.S. domestic law in disputes, and a revision of foreign investment protections, Canada “should refuse to capitulate.”

The final chapter “Global Citizenship” reprises the themes from throughout the work.  While there is much that draws Canada and America together, Canada needs to establish or re-establish its position as an independent multilateral international country.  Many uses of “global citizenship” are in vogue, including that of “the ruthless capitalist economic system” formed of corporations  “required by law to focus on profit making.”   Byers’ final argument indicates that global citizenship is much more “than a high GDP.”  He posits three conditions for his view: first maintaining and improving the quality of life vis a vis education, health, social welfare and environment; secondly addressing global developments that affect everybody, as with climate change; and improving the lot of human beings everywhere, “for the simple reason that doing so is right and just.”

Acting differently from our American neighbours will do a lot to promote this.  Michael Byers has provided many excellent future possibilities of how to act that lead away from the small contingent of politicians, militarists and businessmen who seek profit and power at the heels of the American state. 

Byers’ work is a good first read on Canadian foreign policy and how we relate to our southern neighbors.  It avoids the rhetoric of the rising militarist and corporate players who wish to aggrandize themselves.  Well articulated, well defined, it does indeed provide a “relentlessly optimistic manifesto” for a Canada of global citizens, of citizens who care about the people of the world and the environment they live in. 

The kind of Canada I would like to live in and promote.  For all my scepticism about politics and business, this work creates a viable, positive future position for Canada.

– Jim Miles is a regular contributor to PalestineChronicle.com

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