Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Praise of Internationalism

In At Home in the World, Jennifer Welsh makes a series of arguments about Canada's relationship with the United States and the grounds on which it should be conducted. Welsh is an impressive scholar, whose work might be viewed as a realistic voice of reason. She is neither anti-American nor slavishly pro-American. In this work her interests lie laying out a blueprint for a renewed Canadian foreign policy that can advance Canada's interests. I see no reason why anyone would not take Welsh at her word, at least in terms of the position from which she writes and the good faith she manifests.

Perhaps for this reason, her work serves as a useful point of engagement for considering the character and scope of Canada/US relations, necessarily a key axes in any discussion of Canadian foreign policy. And, that is precisely what I want to do over the next several blogs I will post: consider the character and scope of Canadian/American relations and some key points in this regard. I won't address "everything"; manifestly that is impossible. What I will do is to select a series of key points and address these. As always, comments, criticism, suggestions are welcome.

What prompted me to begin this blog was a specific statement Welsh makes near the end of the first chapter of At Home in the World: "What we [Canada, and potentially Europeans] cannot do is use multilateral forums as tools for reining in the United States." This statement summarizes part of Welsh's argument for what she views as the realistic alternatives facing Canada when controversies over foreign policy erupt between Canada and the US, the key example here is the Second Gulf War (and Canada's refusal to participate in it). Welsh sketches out two options Canada has in such a circumstance: (1) support the US if we feel their actions will enhance international peace and security, or (2) get out of their way if we feel they will not. She views Canadian and European efforts to use the UN -- to follow this particular example -- to stall or stop US actions are both doomed to failure. We need to focus on results, Welsh tells us, and those results will not be advanced by attempting to impose multilateralism on the US because, quite simply, the US will never accept limits on its scope of authority. The reason for this, she suggests, is rooted in history and democracy: as a sovereign state with a revolutionary history of anti-imperialism the US refuses to accept outside direction of American actions.

I don't agree. I don't agree with Welsh's interpretation of history but that is ... well, a matter of interpretation and we can leave it there. We can agree to disagree. What I don't agree with is the idea that Canada should stop using multilateral institutions to "rein in" US policy but instead, get out of the way, if we disagree with it. In other words, the options Welsh give us are: (1) support the US (in this case contribute militarily to the invasion of Iraq), or (2) do nothing so that the US has a nearly completely free hand to do what it wants. By US here, I should note, mean that American government, something different from the American people. Why? Why should we abandon multilateral institutions? Why should internationalism mean nothing to the US government? And, from our perspective, why should we abandon it must because the US government has decided to? Is there no benefit to an international consideration of a particular issue? Is there no benefit to considering multilateral and diplomatic solutions? I find it hard to consign the whole idea of international cooperation and multilateral deliberation (with all its admitted weaknesses) to the garbage can simply because the US government disagrees with it.

Let's remember a few things. First, US governments change. The current government -- the Bush administration -- hardly reflects American writ large thinking. In other words, this is not a Canada v. the US issue. Americans are deeply divided on the issue (on foreign policy and the best way to approach it). It is more than possible that the US government will change and bring to power a government that has a great deal more support than the current government for multilateralism. If this happens -- as seems likely -- Welsh puts Canada in the odd position of ignoring multilateralism to support a US government that itself would be supportive of multilateralism. In At Home in the World Welsh notes that Canadians need to take a longer-term perspective in considering the dynamics of Canada US relations. It is, therefore, odd that she does not and bases her argument for ignoring internationalism on a specific and, in her own words, "extreme" American government. I don't think we should do this.

Second, as it turned out, with regard to Iraq, the international community was right and the Bush administration was wrong. Let's not create hypothetical Utopias. Before the US invasion of Iraq, the country was governed by a brutal dictatorship that itself frequently and in an on-going way defied the international community. The former government of Iraq slaughtered its own people and maintianed a regime that created widespread poverty, imposed crushing censorship, and promoted ethnic and religious animosities. It is the most drastic type of understatement to say "this was not a good government."

We need to remember this because we also need to remember that before the American invasion of Iraq no one believed anything different. No one who opposed the invasion believed that the Hussein regime was a good regime. The question was not "is this a good government?" but what is the best way to modify its policies. The Canadian government argued that a combination of diplomacy, UN supervised weapons inspection, and sanctions of various sorts combined with "oil for food" programmes could be used effectively to change the situation in Iraq. The US government argued it could not. It argued that only military intervention could produce changes in Iraq that promoted peace and security for the international community and the people of Iraq. It argued that Iraq posed an immanent threat and that it maintained supportive connections to terrorist groups, such as those who had attacked the US on 9/11. The international community countered that even a successful military intervention -- in the sense that it displaced the Hussein regime -- would be disastrous. Americans would not be treated as liberators but rather an occupying power (the fact that the Iraq people disliked the Hussein regime did not mean that they liked the US government. To believe that the one follows from the other is a flawed logic), that it could unleash ethno-religious tensions, that it might produce the dismemberment of the country, that it would not necessarily improve the quality of life for Iraqis, that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the US, and that it maintained no connections with al-Qaeda.

We don't know how effectively further diplomacy would have been (or, sanctions or other non-military measures) because these were short circuited by the US invasion. I don't think we should speculate about what might have happened because what might have happened is simply that: might have. In the absence of evidence anyone can suggest anything might happen and there is no way to say they are wrong or right. What we do know is that the US government was wrong about its ability to manage a post-war Iraq, it was wrong about the threat Iraq posed to the US, it was wrong about terrorist connections, and it was wrong about its ability to ensure the peace and security of Iraqis. On all these points, there was good evidence before the invasion (hence, the reason some of us opposed the invasion). And, all these matters are now conceded by the US government itself.

What does this have to do with internationalism? Well, it also means that Welsh is wrong. Instead of saying that we should stand out of the US's way because internationalism will not work, we should recognzie that the international consensus (such as it was) with regard to Iraq was in fact right. Rather than telling Canadians to stand out of the way, we should be telling the current American government that they should have listened to what they were being told. In other words, what we needed was more -- not less -- internationalism.

Finally, what kind of standing will Canada have in the world if we treat the international community as a "flag of convenience", as it were? If the only time we support internationalism is it is also supported by the US government, because that government feels internationalism can advance its interests, then what does this say to other countries about Canada? It will tell them that we are not an honest broker (hey, I know this is a myth of Canada but it is an aspiration at which we should aim). It tell other counties that the only time we will be interested in their views is if the US is. It will, in short, zap our credibility and tell other countries that we have no independent foreign policy. We do what the US wants us to do or we get ouf of their way; nothing else. If you were running another country, would you want anything to do with Canada if this is the way Canada behaves. Canadians want international credibility. To get it, we need to create the international community as credit.

Let us be clear: internationalism/multilateralism is not some Utopia. It is strewn with problems, power politics, and perceptions of national self interest. Is it a better course of action that doing what we are told and/or simply keeping our mouths shut? If those are the options, I pick internationalism.
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