A review of Navigating a New World: Canada's Global Future, by Lloyd Axworthy

Where the 49th parallel meets the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, there is a large white monument, the Peace Arch, in the midst of a well-tended park. At the top of the monument is an inscription, "Children of a Common Mother." The Arch marks the terminus of a long and scarcely defended border that stretches to the Bay of Fundy. For most of the 20th century the sentiments expressed in the inscription were routinely accepted as a suitable way to commemorate the end of the last serious conflict between the two countries, the War of 1812. There have, of course, been disagreements over the years. Recently, however, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to a degree that cannot be explained by conventional accounts of divergent interests or bad chemistry between chief executives.

For the past decade or so, many Canadian commentators have declared that Canada-U.S. relations have fallen to their lowest ebb in the history of the two countries, which presumably would include both the War of 1812 and the Pig War of 1859, which took place on San Juan Island a few miles west of the Peace Arch. It is not clear how one measures hostility between neighbors, but there can be no doubt that 21st-century relations between Ottawa and Washington have been acrimonious and unpleasant. The expected competitiveness of junior officials has turned into a mutually dismissive animosity; what is worse, senior officials and their political masters have also developed deep personal antipathies.

Because Canadians are compelled to be much more aware of America than Americans are of Canada, the current state of affairs has been the cause of considerable concern north of the border. If Americans think of Canada at all, and if they wonder what has gone wrong between the two countries, Navigating a New World by Lloyd Axworthy will help provide an answer.

The author, a Princeton Ph.D., served as the Minister in charge of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT, pronounced Dee-Fate in Canadian) between 1995 and 2000, a period when Canada-U.S. relations went from bad to worse. His book is not, however, a conventional anti-American polemic, though Axworthy has little positive to say about the United States. Moreover, it must be treated with greater caution than is provided by a commonsensical skepticism most readers bring to an examination of the invariably self-serving reflections of politicians. Axworthy's book expresses other, more complex problems as well.

Most scholars have undergone the experience of exchanging views with ideologists. These conversations are not really debates because neither agreement nor honest disagreement is possible. It soon becomes apparent that the putative partner to the discussion has a profoundly different attitude towards the basic questions of human life. On such occasions reasonable discussion is excluded because the partner does not accept the structure of reality that provides the context for serious conversation. Instead, he has created in his imaginations what Robert Musil called a second reality, which he finds more congenial, and conducts his conversation in this imaginary mode. Lloyd Axworthy's book is a splendid example of the genre. Its significance therefore goes beyond his narrow and spiteful opinions of the United States, and his celestial view of Canada and of himself.

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Axworthy's fantasies can be understood in the context of a central reality of international politics: over the long term, states and equivalent political units typically do not get along harmoniously. They fight; they make war; the innocent die. For Axworthy, when this fundamental attribute of international politics appeared to him in the course of his official duties, it was an occasion for "personal soul-searching" because of his "aversion to military action." As a consequence, he consulted a spiritual advisor about his "feelings" before his conscience would allow him to support a military operation in Kosovo against the ethnic cleansers directed by Slobodan Milosevic.

A commonsensical appraisal of such exquisite sensitivity might suggest that Axworthy could better have employed his talents in ways other than in the conduct of foreign policy. Instead, however, he chose to generalize his idiosyncratic sentiments into a blanket condemnation of "military adventures" even "in the name of fighting terrorism" because, he said, military action does nothing but create "a growing sense of grievance in many parts of the world," including "the street children of Ulaanbaatar…the Inuit and Sami of the North, the migrants of sub-Saharan Africa, the slum dwellers of Calcutta, the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca." All are "victims" of a "global governing system that does not work in their interests [and] does not provide the security and well-being that is their right to enjoy."

Axworthy's solution to the problem of military violence and the victimized urchins of Ulaanbaatar is "soft power," which has, for him, a special meaning. When Joseph Nye invented the term, it presupposed the existence of a robust military; his point was that America did not necessarily have to use its overwhelming military power to conduct an effective foreign policy. For Axworthy, however, soft power was to be a substitute for military power. 

According to him, the seat of soft power is in civil society, which, we learn, "is a form of superpower in the making." At present, the articulation of this emerging superpower is chiefly by means of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), a novel kind of extraparliamentary opposition, more moderate, for example, than the Students for a Democratic Society that so impressed young Lloyd, fresh from Winnipeg, when he was a grad student during the '60s. Today, he says, NGOs have had their greatest triumphs in the Kyoto Protocol and the Land Mine Convention. Axworthy held out great, but unfulfilled, expectations that his work on the land mines agreement might win him a Nobel Peace Prize, which then might be used as a springboard to the office of Prime Minister. 

His great hope for tomorrow, however, is not a softly powerful coalition of NGOs, but the United Nations—or rather the U.N. suitably reformed and democratized. Even today, sitting in the General Assembly "always filled me with awe and reverence." Unfortunately, the U.N. system is flawed: the Security Council and the veto available to its permanent members reflects differences in the power of states, which is almost as offensive to him as military action. The U.N. would be vastly improved, in Axworthy's opinion, if the Security Council were accountable to the General Assembly. Indeed, awe and reverence levels could be improved enormously if the Assembly were transformed into a real decision-making body, a "form of People's Assembly" directly elected by the citizens of the world, which he says, is "an idea whose time is surely coming," even though the "big countries" wouldn't like it. Best of all, a "rewired" U.N. "would be able to deal assertively with terrorist threats…based on law and full cooperation" rather than unilateral military power. What is greatly needed therefore is "a standing U.N. constabulary," which could deal with "the dark side of globalization" by being deployed against drug dealers, arms, diamond, and people smugglers, and, Axworthy says, against pedophiles as well.

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At the symbolic center of the United Nations lies Canada, the honest broker, the mediator, the peacekeeper, the interlocutor, the middle power, and all the other clichés and euphemisms designating weakness that Canadians enjoy applying to themselves. Canadians, says Axworthy, "are on the road to global citizenship" because "the world is our precinct" and because "we occupy the global village"; and, because the country chose not to build nuclear weapons when it could have done so, Canada has a "special vocation." Canadians are especially adept within the U.N. at creating "an embryonic civilian equivalent to our military peacekeeping forces." Canada, "the only country in the western hemisphere in the Kyoto agreement," has "a chance to build bridges," perhaps across the North Atlantic. Alone among the nations of the world, Canadian defense expenditures are to be devoted to keeping the peace and promoting global citizenship, not waging war. In short, in the second reality created by Lloyd Axworthy, the (imaginary) righteousness of Canadians is a counterweight to the (real) responsibility of Americans.

Finally, at the equally symbolic center of DFAIT is Lloyd Axworthy himself, traveling from New York to Zaire and all places between, sharing recipes for vegetable soup with Fidel Castro, and taking part in the endless joy of international conferences. Someone has to do it, of course, but that is no excuse for living in a fantasy world. Even so, it would be otiose to note that there is no serious discussion of (for example) why the U.S. rejected his land mines proposals nor why Canada didn't produce nukes (nor where Canadians working on the Manhattan Project found employment afterwards). It is hard to consider with sobriety his opinion that the politics of North Korea is "tragic," or that the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was "Byzantine." There is simply no point in arguing with one who thinks that interoperability between the Canadian and U.S. Navies means a takeover. The fact is, this is not a book containing views that might be analyzed, considered, and criticized so much as a symptom of the author's refusal to apperceive reality.

There is a second inscription on the Peace Arch. Inside there are gates, open to permit the free flow of ideas, people, and goods across the line, and above them it is written: "May These Gates Never Be Closed." If Axworthy's fantasies generate in the minds of Canadians even more excuses to dislike America, it may be time for Americans to consider disregarding that noble injunction.