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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mark Zeitoun, "Now is the Time for Canadian Leadership - A View from London," July 24, 2007.

London UK. Canada is rapidly losing its influence in world affairs. The perception from London is that the change derives not from leadership boldly charting out a new foreign policy direction on the Middle East, but from a weak cabinet following the US lead. Prime Minister Harper’s characterization of the assault unleashed by Israel on Lebanon as “measured” is the latest and most serious example of this point. Similarly, DFAIT’s first official statement sounds suspiciously partial for failing even to mention the suffering inflicted upon one of its allies by another. The effect of being so squarely in the American camp will be understood in the Middle East – and to the detriment of Canadian interests.

The rest of the world - as well as millions of Canadians - see the excessive use of force and disregard for human life in a completely different manner: as irrational, punitive and in violation of the rules of war. They also recognize the futility of these actions. A situation that may have been contained through negotiations - prisoner swaps have been efficiently agreed to by stronger Israeli governments in the past - has instead transformed to a violent conflict that civilians bear the brunt of. Calling the Israeli response “measured” is absurd, and effectively abandons Lebanon to the whims of military might.

The direction that the Prime Minister is taking Canadian foreign policy seems more determined by the deterrence effect of negative headlines in New York dailies than by the interests of the Canadian public.

Those less bothered by Canada copying the US approach to diplomacy ignore how Canada’s reputation and influence in the world has been garnered. Up until recently, our reputation in the Middle East has been perceived as one of an independent state that stands on guard for international law and consensus-building, and against knee-jerk military reaction. Peacekeepers rather than puppets.

Whether it is shifting Nixon's policy towards China, or the impressive peace effort of Pearson in the Suez Canal crisis or even as far back as Mackenzie King's attempt to offer an alternative to Truman’s approach on Palestine, Canada has always offered the world a much needed alternative view to the American perspective. Our influence is fed by independence and our willingness to engage with complex issues, as well as our resolution to support allies in times of need.

Joe Clark learned the hard way what a simplistic and ideological approach can lead to when he suggested moving the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv some thirty years ago.

Canada’s reputation and influence started truly eroding in 2005 following the shift in voting patterns at the UN on matters related to Palestine. The decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is perceived - rightly or wrongly - as cover to enable the US, to send more troops to Iraq. Such moves remain deeply unpopular throughout the Middle East, but Canada is not picking up the signals. Speaking at a conference grouping British and Canadian foreign affaris and defense officials in London recently, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs recently dismissed such claims as baseless. Canadian diplomats on the ground likely hold different views.

Canada will become increasingly irrelevant on the global stage if this trend in foreign policy continues. We will be incapable of pursuing our own interests when these do not align with the interests of those who lead our leaders, as most here in the UK now bitterly attest to. On a more immediate level, Lebanon’s development and political stability may regress to the chaos of 20 years ago. Lebanon may very well resemble Iraq in 2006, and Canada will be remembered as a nation that did nothing to prevent it.

Blink, and we are all occupying Syria. The UK has learned how its relations with the US have been largely futile at tempering the US administration’s positions in the Middle East. Predictions here are that Canada will be even more ineffective. This is an important period for Canada to establish its place in the world. Canadian interests are best served through informed engagement, not following the lead, through commitment to allies, not abandonment.

* Ottawan Mark Zeitoun works in international development and water conflict analysis, dividing his time between the United Kingdom and the Middle East.

© 2006 Al Bawaba (
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