Cohen: What is an ambitious Canada’s purpose?

Cohen: What is an ambitious Canada's purpose?
Sean Kilpatrick
/ Ottawa Citizen

Is Canada an “essential” nation in the world in 2017?

It is flattering to see ourselves this way, as Chrystia Freeland, the minister of foreign affairs, suggests in her recent address to Parliament. To think the world cannot get on without us. To assume that if we did not exist, the world would have to invent us.

Essential, though, to whom? To the United Nations, as one of 193 members, which rejected our last appeal to sit on the Security Council? To NATO, where we’re a reliable free-rider? To the fight against ISIL, where we began with six airplanes?

To refugees, who come here in fewer numbers, proportionately, than to Sweden, Norway and Iceland? To the negotiation of the Iran anti-nuclear agreement, which Canada doubted and disdained? To development assistance, at levels embarrassingly low?

When we speak of essential, do we believe that we are fundamentally important or absolutely necessary to life on Earth? Is “essential” here a level just below “indispensable,” reserved for the United States?

You could argue, yes, that we are essential by virtue of our wealth, our trade, our diversity, our democracy, our history and our geography. Still, we are less a great country than a good country, whatever our breathless politicians may say on Canada Day.

The Atlantic is so persuaded that Canada is essential that a naïve writer argued that an awakened Canada is “trouble” for Donald Trump. Rest assured, Canada is not keeping Trump up at night.

The power of Freeland’s address is that she reminds us that we were once essential in the world and that we could be again – if we find the means and seize the moment. This discovery of “hard power” and call to action is not new; critics have been saying so for the last 20 years under governments of both stripes.

It is refreshing – exhilarating, really – to hear a foreign minister rhapsodize again over Canada’s tradition of liberal internationalism. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives treated Lester Pearson, our greatest diplomat, as a pariah. As minister, John Baird ignored Pearson’s legacy and offered windy, disdainful lectures on the UN.

Now Freeland praises Pearson and Canada as soldier, peacekeeper, trader, humanitarian and architect of post-war institutions. She reminds us, as she should, of our recent role in fighting climate change, limiting landmines, and our worthy (if ineffective) tour in Afghanistan. At the same time, she allows that we’re not doing enough.

“Let us be agents of change,” she says. “Canadian liberalism is a precious idea,” she says. “Progressive values,” she says. All phrases unheard over the last decade or so. (Forgive her twice invoking “the middle class,” a statutory requirement of Liberal ministers musing on anything from the Middle Kingdom to the middle distance.)

This was a compelling speech, which could only have been written by Freeland, a former journalist, or one the government has recruited. It would be an unusual product of the bureaucracy.

Much commentary has fixed on her lament for a fading United States, now “America First,” whose withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, trade agreements and other elements of the international system create opportunity for Canada.

It does. But Canada need not wait for the United States to retreat. On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we can resolve to build the small peacetime army that we had in the 1960s; to return foreign assistance to respectable levels, focusing, like the Danes, on a few countries and areas; and to return to creative diplomacy championing institutional reform, a code of rules for mining companies, innovation in public health and the smart uses of science.

For this we must spend money. Freeland says we will, but we’ve heard this before.

The challenge is to see ourselves anew in a new world. As a mediator; an incubator of ideas; a Nordic nation; a recipient of not 40,000 but 80,000 refugees; a peacekeeper again if we can and a warrior if we must; a bold, engaged nation ready to embrace, for itself, a big idea, a projet de société, for the next generation.

Having declared our ambition, let us ask: ambition for what? That’s the essential question for Canada.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist and author of While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. Email:

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