Saturday, October 21, 2006

Social Democracy and Foreign Policy

Canadian socialism has been dead for a long time, perhaps since the Winnipeg Declaration. There are still socialists in Canada, to be sure, b but the forefront of leftist politics long ago moved away from socialism to something called social democracy. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Social democracy is in some ways more inclusive than socialism, which was (in practice) economistic in its politics. Social democracy, as now practiced by the New Democratic Party, is more inclusive of a range of different subject positions and more attuned to the differential dynamics of power as these play out in terms of gendered, ethnic, and class, among others things, terms. One area where social democracy falls down, however, lies in its conception of Canadian foreign policy. From what I can tell, the public stands taken by the NDP leadership on foreign policy issues smack of 1960s left nationalism, more than anything else. There was a lot to be said for 1960s style left nationalism. As an historical development, it played an important role in alerting Canadians to the problems of dependent economic development, neo-colonialism, and the problems of the polarized international politics of the Cold War era. We now live in a different era and, because of this, social democrats need to rethink their foreign policy. The question is: in what ways?

Foreign policy is a big issue. Let's not believe that it can be reduced to slogans or flag waving anti-Americanism. What I'll do in this blog is consider the issue of Canadian/American relations and sketch out what I see as a way in which social democrats could approach this issue. Here are some basic considerations.

First, the relationship to the United States is and will continue to be very important to Canada. There is nothing for Canadians or social democrats to gain by riding the anti-American train. Anti-American slogans make good copy. The Bush government is mired in the worst foreign policy disasters since the Viet Nam War and so its also easy. Being anti-American sounds good and puts on one the side of an international consensus (with a few exceptions). Yet, it should be avoided precisely because of this. Good copy and easy slogans don't accomplish very much. One might want the US to rethink the Bush Doctrine. I do. By further criticism of Bush is not going to accomplish this. What Canadians and social democrats need to do is think about the nature of Canadian goals with regard to the US. Canadians and social democrats should abandon anti-American discourse and adopt a new discourse. This should be a discourse of difference and engagement. Instead of responding to US policy initiatives, a social democratic policy platform should take the initiative and try to put items on the agenda for consideration in terms of bi-lateral relations. What should these things be? The list is long but I'd be tempted to focus less on economic issues and more on social issues.

In this regard, a social democratic foreign policy platform should include a plank on constructive engagement with the US in several important areas. (1) Recognition of Canadian same-sex marriages (2) a targeted series of goals with regard to delivering free AIDS/HIV medications to the third world (3) encourage to the United States to "sign on" to the International Court of Criminal Justice.

Second, and following from the first, Canadians and social democrats need to re-assess the Canadian/American border as a point of interchange between our two countries. The policy of the Canadian government has followed with regard to American homeland security doctrines has been to seek exceptions to American policies for Canada and Canadians. It is, in short, an effort to maintain the now long-dead "special relationship" that flourished between Canada and the US in the post WW II era. I'd be so bold as to suggest that the special relationship was right for the time. It no longer is. Canada and the US necessarily have to deal with each other daily. Of necessity we will have a close relationship. This does not mean that we should, of necessity, attempt to find ways to exempt Canadians from US border controls. The US has a right to be concerned about its border. I think their concerns about the Canadian border are way overblown but it is the right of the American government to have those concerns. Instead of attempting to create exemptions, we should work on ways to facilitate Canadian compliance with American standards while implementing our own. Canadians, to be frank, are no threat to Americans, never have been and never will be. Showing that is the best way to demonstrate it. If the US wants Canadians to have passports, let's work on that while considering forms of ID we require. Canadian consulates the foreign affairs bureaucracy can work on ensuring that all Canadians meet these documentation standards.

Third, let's also start to push a wider agenda. That agenda may not be popular with certain sectors of the US population so Canadians and social democrats will need to accept this and allow a long lead time. My bet, however, is that in the longer run Americans will be willing to by into a new cross border and North American agenda. What might this agenda entail. I'll say a whole bunch of things but it should entail common (and high) standards for environmental protection and working conditions as well as gender equality and religious freedom. Right now, Canada and the US along with Mexico have established some sort of system of trading relations through NAFTA. Let's begin the process of establishing similar systems in other areas. Canadians don't like talks of integration with the US because they feel that it will result in downward policy harmonization on things like health care, gender equity, and ecological standards (among other things). It need not. Canada never has to accept any agreement with the US and Mexico but why not see what will actually go on. We can establish (in Canada) certain core principles that will not be "surrendered" in negotiations. These might include socialized medicine and protection for domestic culture. But, I don't see why negotiations need to be thought of in terms of give and take (we'll give you access to our health and culture markets in return for ...). Why not, instead, try to establish minimum standards, say, with regard to workplace safety and social commitments to gender equity. Canada can go above that, if it choses by why not work on this issue and work on a mechanism to enforce it.

Finally, let's bump up our cultural exchanges with the US, particularly in the sphere of education. Let's create meaningful educational exchanges that allow Canadians and Americans to talk to each other. I would not mind teaching in the US for a year. It would provide me with a learning opportunity and a chance to talk to Americans about how Canadians view certain issues. The reverse is true, too. Dialogue is the key to an effective future together.

Now, let me be clear, all of this is not possible right now. Some of it might not be possible in the long run. But, social democrats need to think about the nature of Canada's foreign relations if they ever hope to form a government. And, the first thing to think about is Canada's relationship with the US. Our question here should not be to oppose Bush or Republicans or the US but to enter into a series of constructive relations that expand the realm of freedom and work to promote peace, social justice, and ecological security. One can wonder about my priorities. Fair enough, but I think they do that. My focus on the recognition of Canadian same-sex marriage is intended to do precisely that. Same sex marriage is a social democratic issue because its recognition expands the realm of freedom, promotes equality, and is just. Rather than lamenting US opposition to it, let's start with something practical and concrete. The US recognizes Canadian straight marriages. Let's work toward recognition of same-sex marriages in the same. I'd make the same case for the other points I've noted. One might disagree, but the general policy I think: constructive engagement in defense of social democratic principles is the groundwork upon which a new Canadian foreign policy can be built.
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