Canada shares the same “democratic” and “entrepreneurial” ideals of the United States, but is not yet burdened with the negative stereotypes that burden the USA, said former prime minister Joe Clark in a keynote address to the Opportunities North conference on Thursday night.
As a result, Canada is a kind of “US lite” with significant power to act diplomatically in international situations.
“Canada can be a bigger influence on the way the world works than many other nations of our economic size,” said Clark.
“We are the other North America,” he said.
That power is being wasted, and Canada risks losing its international potential if it fails to act soon.
The international role of Canada has indeed faded in the years since Clark once battled Pierre Trudeau in the House of Commons.
In the United States, presidential candidates conduct entire debates on the subject of foreign policy, while the subject rarely came up in last night’s Canadian federal leaders’ debate.
“(Canadian international presence) is not as strong now as it was three, four years ago … it’s less powerful than it used to be because our representation internationally in the developing world has declined, we’re spending less money on these things,” said Clark.
As well, when Canadian citizens pursue positions in international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, they do not have their govenment’s support.
In 1979, Clark became the first Canadian prime minister to visit Africa. As foreign minister under Brian Mulroney, he was instrumental in spearheading the international diplomatic campaign against South African apartheid.
He was also the first foreign minister of a western nation to respond to the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia.
Nowhere has Canada’s dwindling influence been clearer than in Canada-US relations.
The height of these relations came in the Lester Pearson era following the Second World War, when senior officials on both sides of the border had “grown up together,” fighting in the same war and attending the same European schools, said Clark.
“They met to talk about policy issues, but they probably also met to talk about baseball,” said Clark.
A new, less-cohesive generation of officials soon took their place, and Vietnam only widened the diplomatic rift between the two nations, said Clark.
In the midst of straining ties, Clark helped negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US government under Ronald Reagan.
“There were times when the Chretien government did not work as hard on the US relation as it should have, and there have certainly been times when the Harper government has not worked hard at all on the international development side of things,” said Clark.
Whereas Canada once had, and could have, the ear of the US government, that influence has fallen to almost nothing.
US President George W. Bush has visited Canada less than five times during his eight years in office.
Internationally, Canadian influence is alive and well, and it has persisted despite a lackadaisical foreign affairs approach by Canadian governments.
“The reputation we have internationally is earned, not just by diplomats or governments, it was earned by missionaries, by traders, by all sorts of people,” said Clark.
“It’s an old reputation, it’s still paying dividends. If it’s going to pay dividends in the future it has to be renewed — the issue is, will we renew it?” he said.
“We have earned, and we have kept, the respect of the developing world — including the Islamic world,” he said.
In 40 years, Canada’s economy will be smaller than that of Vietnam, but only slightly larger than the Philippines.
“Will we belong at the G8 summit then?” said Clark.
Canada’s future standing will rely on the role it chooses to play in a political and humanitarian sense, not in an economic sense, said Clark.
“Canada’s political and diplomatic strengths, our reputation, our skills, our moderation, our ability to generate trust — those qualities could have much more currency again, if we choose to build and to use them,” he said.
Regarding Canada’s history of moderation, politeness and peacekeeping, both valuable international tools, it is often hard to get noticed on the world stage, said Clark.
“I often thought that this country would have driven John Philip Sousa crazy, how do you write a march for peacekeepers? You don’t,” said Clark.
In his speech, Clark also warned about the growing power of Russia, as well as the rising economic influence of China in Africa — a role that may shift African governments away from a democratic tradition and more towards Chinese-style authoritarian systems, he said.
“China has the self belief required to be a megapower,” said Clark.
“A national determination, widely shared, underpins the Chinese conviction that this century belongs to them — this isn’t just population and GDP, this is a sense of will,” he said.
Clark’s wary of commenting too much on the ongoing election, fearing his comments could be interpreted merely from a partisan perspective.
In 1980, after only nine months in power, Clark’s minority Conservative government was defeated by the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau. A major issue during the election was Clark’s adoption of an increased tax on gasoline — a policy that, although based on income rather than environmental issues, mirrors the current Liberal and Green Party carbon tax proposals.
“I don’t think people should take the 1980 election as an iron rule about energy taxes, there were other factors at play,” said Clark.
“We were very much the minority, the Liberals were still the natural governing party … the 1980 election was about more than 18 cents a gallon,” he said.
In early September, Clark co-signed a statement with three other former prime ministers calling for increased political action on climate change.
“We need to find more effective ways to deal with climate change issues, and we certainly cannot rule out a carbon tax,” said Clark.
The growing environmental concerns of the Canadian electorate are making it less likely that a gas tax could be detrimental to a political campaign, said Clark.
Other elements of Clark’s policies in the 1970s, including the decriminalization of marijuana and guaranteed minimum income, have all found their way into the platforms of Canada’s current federal contenders.
All except Harper’s Conservatives.
“Mr. Harper’s party is profoundly different than the party I led, it’s much narrower in its focus and its constituency — including on issues on this kind,” said Clark.
“It wasn’t an accident that the word ‘progressive’ was taken out of the name,” he said.