Canada cannot sidestep the preponderance of American might, University of Alberta political science professor and author Tom Keating told an attentive audience on Nov. 29. In his lecture Playing in the Bush League: American Unilateralism and Canadian Foreign Policy, Keating stressed Canada’s role in maintaining a global balance of power.
“We are living in a period of American insecurity,” Keating said. “Within that context, it becomes more difficult for governments like Canada to try and restrain the U.S. and remind them of the long-term relevance of international institutions and international law.
“..But, for that reason, it’s an even more important project that Canada needs to undertake because of the potential risks involved with American unilateralism.”
Keating, who was invited to Concordia to participate in the political science department’s fall seminar series, said the strongest single entity influencing the orientation of Canadian foreign policy is the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner and one of its closest political allies.
Nevertheless, that need not affect Canada’s more multilateral political agenda, said the Canadian foreign policy and security studies expert.
The framework of U.S. multilateralism, which thrived in the 1990s, began to erode in January 2001, when President Bush took office. The new administration wasted no time in announcing it would not be involved in the Kyoto Accords or any international convention on small arms. This indicated an early unilateralist inclination, he said.
Yet, unilateralist proponents pre-date the Bush administration. Keating noted that American unilateralism “is not merely a reflection of the personality or idiosyncrasies of George W. Bush.”
However, he pointed out, the unilateralism of the Bush administration has taken on previously unseen anti-multilateralist characteristics. In some instances, Bush’s policies are “a blatant attempt to undermine the foundations of multilateralism,” Keating remarked.
He believes concerns with sovereignty, stemming primarily from the events of 9/11, have lead to bolder American unilateral resolve, which has resulted in a preoccupation with defense.
The problem with that is a dangerous one. “It gives them a permissiveness to respond in a preemptive way,” Keating said.
“Moral absolutism,” or good versus evil, is another American strategy aimed at strengthening the unilateralist vision. Keating noted that it allows the U.S. “to build a degree of political support as it assumes responsibility for defending the forces of good in the international community.”
Nonetheless, Keating firmly believes Canada can advance the multilateralist cause. He said faced with the U.S.’s current “a la carte multilateralism,” Canada must challenge its neighbour’s self-interest based policies and guide it towards a steadier reliance on international co-operation.
That’s no easy task for Canada, Keating noted, saying the Americans could move even further away from multilateralism if pushed too hard.
He also explained that there was a greater, homegrown obstacle to promoting multilateralism. “In many cases, Canada fundamentally agrees with what some of the American objectives are.”
Canada is also not a significant contributor of foreign aid, and support for an international Canadian diplomatic presence is decreasing. “Canada’s credibility to speak authoritatively and effectively has been diminished as a result,” Keating added.
Despite these hurdles, he sees a positive future, built on strong relationships with pro-multilateralists. “Primarily, we need to work at improving our relationship with the Europeans as a way of building a constructive coalition that will be more able to influence American foreign policy.”
He also suggested engaging existing multilateralist institutions as well as Bush cabinet members who oppose strict unilateralism