Canada’s humanitarian-based approach to foreign policy is being tested by the multipolar world, which faces an expanding number of international conflicts and crises.

Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, left, and Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron at the G20 summit in Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti / Valery Melnikov

A new study of the humanitarian aspects of Canadian foreign policy by Natalia Yevtikhevich and Yevgenia Israelian sheds light on an important question: To what extent can humanitarian principles and imperatives of national interest be reconciled with each other in the practice of international relations?

The issue is particularly salient now, with nations looking for new models of international development in a multipolar world.

The monograph by Israelian and Yevtikhevich, entitled Humanitarian Aspects of Canadian Foreign Policy, presents a dynamic picture of the formation of Canada's foreign policy strategy, from the "golden decade" of Canadian diplomacy (1945-1957) until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, which drew to a close with the country's armed forces on active duty in Libya under a NATO-led operation.

Values of Canada's foreign policy tested by globalization

In the bipolar world, Canada earned a well-deserved reputation as peacemaker, mediator, human rights advocate, and supporter of multilateral diplomacy. In some sense, its efforts to develop the tools of international peacekeeping can be viewed as a purposeful attempt to prioritize world peace at a time of head-on military, political, and ideological antagonism between East and West.

But, as the authors note, the collapse of the Soviet Union undermined Canada's role on the world stage, reducing its diplomatic activity and humanitarian aid. A vivid example of this was the curtailment of Canada's participation in UN peacekeeping missions.

It was here, perhaps, that Canada suffered its most tangible political losses. In the period 1947-1992, Canada's "blue helmets" were an ever-present part of all UN peacekeeping operations, without exception. However, as of March 2012, Canadian peacekeepers numbered just 168, of which only 38 were service personnel and military experts.

Today, Canada, along with other members of the international community – including Russia - faces the task of adapting its foreign policy to the rapidly changing global environment and the accompanying threats and challenges, rising instability and economic dislocation, and search for ways to promote world peace and security.

In the book, the authors pose an important question — "Are Canadian values universal?" — and place it at the center of their discussion. On the whole, the authors' conclusions appear well-balanced and persuasive: the value-based focus of Canada's foreign policy is sufficiently robust to allow itself to be largely defined by public consensus on relevant issues over a period of time.

"Humanistic realism" in foreign policy

The book's analysis of the "transgression" of the humanitarian, value-based orientation of Canada's international development aid shines the spotlight on the present situation and the search for the most forward-looking solutions to foreign policy problems created in the post-bipolar world. Especially, of course, when those problems affect Canadian interests.

Of particular interest are some specific areas of Canada's development programs, such as the promotion of gender equality and women's interests, both of which traditionally enjoy a high priority in Canadian foreign policy.

As for international protection of human rights, the authors show their boldness in exploring this under-developed and politically-sensitive topic. The historical analysis of the human rights component of Canadian foreign policy is based on a scrupulous study of the vast array of factual material collected in the book. The authors highlight the ups and downs that Canada has faced — and continues to face — in its attempt to remain true to the principle of "humanistic realism."

In this regard, the investigation of how Canada has shaped its foreign policy in recent decades, during a period of major upheavals in the global balance of power, is particularly salient. The authors skillfully manage to avoid both extremes and ambiguities in their assessment of the causes of the "gap between rhetoric and practice" in Canada's human rights policy.

In response to the question: "Trade or human rights: which is more important?" Israelian and Yevtikhevich convincingly argue that Canada cannot wash its hands of the common problem of double standards in international affairs.

“Peace building” as a counterweight to the use of force


Canada's peacekeeping forces in Haiti. Photo:The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces

The last two sections of Israelian and Yevtikhevich's monograph are devoted to the evolution of Canada's peacekeeping operations and its experience of military intervention in conflicts. Using Canada as a template, the authors present a profound and systematic analysis of the complex contradictions that define global security today. Among other things, they touch upon controversial issues relating to humanitarian intervention, the fate of the institution of the state, the peacekeeping roles of the UN and NATO, and the effectiveness of armed intervention in internal conflicts.

Their overall assessment of the global trends in the field of security does, however, contain some inconsistencies. The authors state that, "in today's world, value-based approaches are becoming a common trend," and the "force vector" is being replaced by non-combatant, humanitarian tools for dealing with threats to international security. In our view, this is not entirely consistent with the political realities and does not match the authors' generalizations about the results of humanitarian intervention through military force.

The triumphal procession of pacifism and humanism is far from obvious in the modern world. For that reason, some of the conclusions, particularly about the "shift in the center of gravity" of humanitarian activity towards protecting civilians caught up in armed conflicts, do not ring true. Even the authors themselves note the exceptional complexity of these controversial - and as yet unresolved - issues.

Tellingly, this so-called shift more likely reinforces (through the development of protective technologies) entrenched patterns — namely, the excess number of civilians killed in conflicts in comparison with service personnel, for whom such technologies are intended. As for reducing the role of the "force vector" in international affairs, the argument that the use of force cannot be a panacea for the comprehensive settlement of conflicts is certainly cogent.

At the same time, "peace building" as a counterweight to the use of military force in the resolution of internal conflicts can hardly be considered effective. Suffice it to mention Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria. Nevertheless, the authors' principled approach to the inclusion of humanism in international relations achieves its aim: citing Canada, they show just how important and contradictory the processes of humanizing foreign policy are during a time of global instability.

Of course, the rapid transformation of international relations also includes a certain amount of progress in the development of humanitarian approaches to solving world problems. However, this transformation generates new problems and contradictions, both in the development of humanitarian law and in relation to the underpinning of humanitarian principles in the practice of foreign policy.

The example of Canada and its focus on humanitarian approaches to foreign policy also illustrates the weakness of international security mechanisms, especially in view of the global scale of the socio-economic and political processes taking place. Despite Canada's commitment to the principles of humanizing international relations, against the backdrop of crises and conflicts in recent decades, sooner or later the nation has to realize the need to adjust its approach to foreign policy.

The review first appeared at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) website.