The Peacekeeping Illusion: Don’t be fooled by Canada’s foreign policy PR

Canadians have long taken a certain pride in our overseas presence. Studies suggest we see ourselves as a nation of peacekeepers, of defenders of the right and the just. But in his new book The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Montreal-based author and activist Yves Engler probes the reality of Canada’s long history of backstopping the imperial ambitions of our Southern neighbour, and doing away with pesky impediments–like democratically elected governments–to the success of Canadian corporations operating abroad.

Just look at who frames Canada’s international agenda to get an idea of what underpins our international activities, says Engler, citing a 2007 article that appeared in the Ottawa-insider magazine Embassy headlined “40 Names Influencing Canadian Foreign Policy.” There, alongside Department of National Defence generals and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade policy wonks, are names like Canadian Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Perrin Beatty, Scotiabank president and CEO Rick Waugh, Manulife Financial honcho Dominic D’Alesandro, Encana Oil CEO Randy Emerson and Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk (whose name graces the University of Toronto’s School of International Studies). Nowhere on the list are individuals representing organized labour or the causes of human rights or social justice–the very values we claim to uphold in our overseas missions.

What I’ve found is that there have been two main motivations for Canadian foreign policy, and that is support for empires, historically British empire and today American empire,” Engler said in an interview with Monday. “Not because Washington bullies Canada into it, but because the Canadian elite see the world in a similar way to the U.S. elite who decide U.S. foreign policy. And the second motivation is support for Canadian corporate investment abroad.”

Engler argues the source of Canadians’ misperceptions about our international presence are twofold. First, since Canada has never had its own overseas colonies (despite its best attempts to convince Britain to surrender its Caribbean holdings as a reward for Canadian blood shed in WWI), there is less of the historical baggage associated with the cultural and economic conquests of other Western nations. Second, says Engler, Canada has been sold a bill of goods by its intellectual elite that masks the true nature of our activities.

You have someone like Lester Pearson and his concept of peacekeeping–and peacekeeping was basically designed to serve U.S. geopolitical interests in the context of the Cold War–but it is a very high-minded sounding principle or doctrine, and through someone like Pearson, it’s very good marketing,” he says. “And the equivalent today is someone like Michael Ignatieff or Lloyd Axworthy and the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, which is basically high-minded sounding cover for Western imperialism.”

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government recently presided over a re-direction of foreign aid from Africa to Latin America. Engler says this move reflects the Canadian government’s fear of the recent rise of socialist-minded leaders throughout Central and South America, whose commitment to wealth redistribution means reigning in the activities of foreign corporations.

It’s designed to blunt any moves away from dependence on Washington in the hemisphere, moves away from a sort of neo-colonial situation and any move toward independence or socialistic forms.”

While Canada’s ongoing involvement in Haiti provides the most stark example of this policy, Engler says actions like Canada’s recent free trade pact with Colombia are from the same playbook.

[Harper] has done what he can to support the free trade agreement with Colombia, which is largely designed to support the most right-wing government in the hemisphere, which is an implicit and at times explicit challenge to the leftward shift in the hemisphere,” he says.

But perhaps Canadians have grown so accustomed to a government that acts as security for its business interests that the impact of Engler’s message is blunted. After all, a recent government press release on Canada’s pending free trade deal with Colombia stated, “Colombia is an emerging market of 44 million people. An increasing number of Canadian investors and exporters enter the market each year. The free trade agreement will provide greater stability and protection for Canadian companies involved in the oil and gas, mining, manufacturing and financial services sectors.”

Regardless, Engler says Canadians must look behind the headlines to their government’s true motivations abroad, both today and over the last century. The real story is that Canadian corporations are involved in horribly environmentally and socially destructive operations all over the world, and Canadian diplomacy, Canadian aid and sometimes even the Canadian military is going to support that process.

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