A recent thinkpiece from Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae exploring the pandemic’s impact on isolationist global attitudes falls short of specifying files Ottawa needs to boost its “engagement” in, leaving one expert to draw her own conclusions on “rhetorical commitments” the official makes to multilateralism.
Speaking to Parliament Today, Nicole De Silva, a political science professor at Concordia University, said her takeaway of the letter Rae penned this month in Policy Magazine was its vagueness “in what it’s calling for.”
While he underscores the “principle of engagement” could take on renewed importance coming out of the pandemic, placing an emphasis on using international bodies like the UN as forums to tackle global challenges like climate change and the virus, it remains an open question which exact initiatives or issues require a strengthened multilateral approach from the feds.
“I was wondering where this was coming from in a sense, but generally, it’s a restatement of Canadian commitments to multilateralism — at least rhetorical commitment,” said De Silva. “If you read between the lines a bit, you might discern some kinds of critiques of our approach to multilateralism in recent years.”
Rae, in an interview this month, said while his piece included reflections on Canada’s position on the world stage, it was not exclusively designed to focus on Ottawa’s multilateral engagement efforts.
“It’s really about western countries more broadly and saying, ‘We can’t afford to disengage from what’s happening in the world. We can’t afford to leave the field open to others. We have to engage, not just at the UN, but on global issues and understand if we don’t do that, other countries whose commitments to civil liberties and the rule of law may not be as deep or as real as I believe ours really are, will fill that void,’” he said.
Citing a “rhetoric-versus-reality gap that can exist” across Canadian foreign policy, the professor noted one of the more specific references Rae, a career politician-turned-diplomat, made in his piece is of the “growing role” of China, which he wrote “has emerged as a major creditor able to leverage its economic power toward political outcomes.”
He continued that “we do not yet have the global financial architecture to deal with the breadth of that problem,” predicting tensions with China will “play out” in the coming months and years.
Rae did not specifically offer guidance on Ottawa’s stance on dealings with Beijing, only noting that the UN is an arena that highlights “conflicts,” which “makes the principle of engagement so important.”
“If Canada and others are disinterested in these critical decisions, we shall end up with organizations whose purpose and direction will not serve the interests of human dignity, civil liberties, and the rule of law.”
Those statements were published just over a week after a diplomatic stalemate between China and Canada appeared to come to a close, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the nation in welcoming the “two Michaels” back onto home soil last month in what was widely seen as a quid-pro-quo in exchange for detained Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou.
The professor noted the country’s approach to Beijing has frequently landed Ottawa in hot water, including in the recent aftermath of that return.
In a recorded statement at an event hosted by the Canada China Business Council, Ambassador to China Dominic Barton, who was intimately involved in the arrangement around the release of the two Michaels, urged Canadian companies to “seize opportunities where they exist and take advantage of the continuing economic rise of Asia and China.”
He added that “regardless of one’s outlook on it, China really cannot be ignored.”
For De Silva and other experts, like former ambassador to China David Mulroney (who likened Barton’s remarks to a “trial run” of the feds’ Beijing policy), those comments flew in the face of the regime’s human rights offences.
Chinese authorities have long faced criticism for suppressing political dissidents in Hong Kong and persecuting the Uyghur minority community, among others.
“To flip so quickly and say, ‘OK, now you can do business with China,’ it’s not really consistent with a human rights-based foreign policy,” said De Silva. “There are these kinds of gaps between rhetoric and reality.”
De Silva noted while Canada, a middle power on the international stage, has not had a “streak of isolationism” in recent years akin to the former U.S. administration’s “Make America Great Again” mantra, Rae’s reference to “engagement” is wanting, much like his vague mention of restoring this through “battles [that are] fought outside the glare of publicity.”
“How do we practically change our approach to multilateralism so that we can defend these things, beyond just citing empty platitudes on the floor of the UN General Assembly?” she said. “Because that’s not where the action happens. It happens elsewhere.”
Letter reflects a ‘factual comment’ on Canada’s role in world, says Rae
Pressed for specific examples where a withdrawal of engagement could prove dangerous for Canada, Rae pointed to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s frequent critique, and decision to pull out, of the World Health Organization as a “major mistake” that hurt allies.
The former president did not account for the “net effect” of his actions, as it “only had the effect of giving more power and more authority to the very things he was complaining about,” said Rae.
In writing the thinkpiece, the diplomat said Trump’s actions were what he had in the back of his mind, though his main message of today’s “reality” to world leaders is “as soon as you leave a vacuum, somebody else will fill it.”
“I’m not complaining about Canada at all,” he said, cautioning from barking up the wrong tree in reading the thinkpiece as a critique of Canadian foreign policy. “It’s not about Canada falling backwards … It’s not intended to be a critical comment, it’s just a factual comment. That’s one of the reasons why this kind of engagement really matters.”
Regime’s impact on women’s education ‘open question’
De Silva noted discussion of the international policy file was limited in the latest election campaign, with party captains spending much of their time on the “bread and butter” issues of domestic matters like housing, inequality and vaccination mandates.
Trudeau faced criticism in the early days of the election call after the Taliban closed in on the Afghanistan capital, prompting Ottawa and other allies to wrap up repatriation efforts, but chatter about the file appeared to subside among pundits toward the tail end of the campaign.
Still, De Silva noted Trudeau, who’s often boasted about his feminist credentials and foreign policy agenda, could be dealt a blow if Taliban forces continue to shy away from allowing girls to return to high school.
Last month, the regime decided schools for those above Grade 6 would only reopen for boys, prompting outcry from the international community.
Noting it remains an “open question” whether the Taliban, which Trudeau has said Ottawa has “no plans” to acknowledge as the nation’s government, will budge on the matter, De Silva said the feds will not be able to tout that “feminist foreign policy” item if girls are not granted access to schools, despite the pressure campaign from Canada and its allies.