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November 17, 2010

Getting Back in the Game, a book review

Reuel S. Amdur

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Getting Back in the Game, Paul Heinbecker, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2010.

Heinbecker brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this topic of Canada’s place in the world.  He was a key foreign policy advisor to both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers and served as ambassador to the UN. It is thus with a certain trepidation that I take issue with his basic approach.

He lists development of our relationship with the United States as “job one”, and while not calling for a total submission to Washington he calls for a Canadian relationship to it similar to that of Finland to the old Soviet Union, with just a bit more independence and wiggle room.  As an example of the independence, Heinbecker notes “the Canadian decision to stay out of Iraq,” which “brought us enormous respect from a world profoundly in disagreement with the Bush administration.” 

But Canada did not stay out of Iraq, and Heinbecker is well aware of that fact, though he does not admit it.  Our “Finnish” stance would amount to something like this fictional declaration to George W.: Our public insists on our staying out of this conflict, but here’s what we can do for you.  As well as a corporal’s guard attached to US and British units–and we will call it a normal troop exchange, a training assignment, and any other excuse we can think of other than the truth–we will also give you a rotation of our top generals.  At the same time, we will loudly proclaim our unwillingness to participate in this enterprise. 

And as for admiration of our dissident behavior from the other nations of the world, it is a bit more complicated.  Governments undoubtedly admire Jean Chrétien’s legerdemain.  He pulled off a bluff on the Canadian public at the same time that he kowtowed to Bush.  A neat feat indeed, artistry worthy of a Talleyrand or a Bismarck.  When Bismarck was informed of the death of the Russian ambassador, he sat back pensively and commented, “I wonder what he meant by that.”

Heinbecker speaks of our close reliance, economically and militarily, on Washington, and he calls it “job one” to cultivate Uncle Sam.  He acknowledges various problems such as softwood lumber but calls for close personal diplomacy with the president and other political figures to iron them out as much as possible.  Of course, there is an alternative hardball game, at which Jack Layton has hinted.  If the US wants our oil, for example, we can demand an end to economic protectionism that punishes Canada.

And as for our military cooperation, in whose interest is it?  No one is out to get Canada, except to the degree that we ally ourselves with the United States in its imperialist endeavors and adventurism.  We have spent blood and money on our Afghan mission, to help the US pull its chestnuts out of the fire.  After all, it was the US that aided the Taliban and al-Qaeda to “liberate” Afghanistan, an undertaking that succeeded beyond Washington’s wildest dreams.

Heinbecker observes that “the Americans cannot run the world and afford their domestic priorities at the same time.”  That fact has twofold implications for Canada.  On the one hand, the refusal of Canada and the rest of the world to do Uncle Sam’s dirty work in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere will lead to his inability to continue his lording it over everyone.  Is that not a good thing?

The other implication is for Canadian wellbeing.  Can we afford the $16 to $18 billion wasted on useless jets to deter. . . whom?  Peter MacKay warns ominously that the Russians are coming.  Our playing camp follower to American adventurism costs us dearly.  Just as the US cannot afford both guns and butter, neither can we. 

Heinbecker goes into some detail in describing how Canada does and how it can play a role in bodies such as the UN, the G8, and the G20.  He suggests approaches to UN reform, but he does not discuss the lost moment when reform may have been put at the top of the world’s agenda: the implosion of the Soviet Union.  That event created an opportunity to reconsider the role of the Big Five in the Security Council.  Instead, what was the privilege of permanence on the Council, along with a veto, was simply handed over to Russia, losing the opportunity.

While Heinbecker has produced a thoughtful book demonstrating a wide breadth of knowledge and understanding of diplomacy and world events, this reader is hung up on his fundamental assumptions and priorities. 

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