Chest-thumping and a bellicose break with Tehran robs Ottawa of mediator role
More chest-beating out of Ottawa begs the question: Can Harper's Conservative government maintain a legacy of successful international relations?
At the height of US military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that infamously cost $4 trillion and 225,000 lives, my foreign reporting professor at a New York journalism school gave us what seemed then like invaluable advice about traveling abroad.
"Just tell everyone you're Canadian. Everyone loves Canadians," she said.
That was 2010. And like a lot of what I learned there about journalism and the international community, that lesson seems evermore dated and naive.
Canadian presses swell with praise for the Harper administration's decision last week to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran, as a rash of violent attacks sweep Western embassies across predominantly Muslim countries, upset by a mysteriously bad-quality Islamophobic video mocking their prophet.
"Canada’s move suddenly seems prescient and cautious," an article in The Montreal Gazette said, triumphant.
Iran's embassy in Ottawa is closed, as is Canada's in Tehran -- there is now no formal channel for Ottawa to mediate international conflict -- as it successfully has in the past -- with the leader of of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a union of 120 largely anti-Western countries in the global South.
It was a decisive move that skirted any formal attempt at diplomacy -- and preceded any formal explanation. The Gazette was all for Harper's decision to send "Iran's diplomats packing, without so much as a by-your-leave."
Experts in Canada's international relations with the Muslim World are vastly opposed to a gesture they see as a wholesale breakdown in Canada's tradition of foreign diplomacy and peacemaking.
"No other Western power has done this... This is taking us one step closer toward war with Iran," warned director of research for the Canada Research Chair in Islam, Pluralism and Globalization at the University of Montreal, Roksana Bahramitash.
Washington acts, Ottawa follows suit. Sort of.
Premier Stephen Harper's Conservative government has infamously echoed the sentiments of its Republican counterparts to the south.
The US has engaged its partners, from Britain to Japan, in sanctions and countless other efforts to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, which it fears aims to produce weapons for use against ostensible enemies of the Islamic Republic, like Israel.
The US has no diplomatic representation in Tehran, and vice versa. There are no channels for the US to mediate a conflict with its adversary in the Middle East, after a nearly decade-long war in Iraq that, if anything, was evidence of the perils of Washington's diplomatic failures: the costs in human capital and federal funds, at the height of a crippling recession that still has young Americans unemployed and angry.
But Bahramitash says there isn't even any US precedent for Ottawa's bellicose, chest-thumping break with Tehran.
"The US embassy in Iran closed during the hostage crisis. What happened in Canada?" Barhamitash said, referring to the 1979 captivity of US foreign diplomats at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution.
"Ironically, it was the Canadian embassy that finally got the hostages out of Iran" after 444 days of captivity, Bahramistash added.
Who now will mediate between the West, Iran and the NAM nations -- to include North Korea, Venezuela and Somalia?
A paradigm shift
A full break with Iran's Eastern bloc is not the only sign that 2012 marks an end of days for Canadian international diplomacy. Ottawa is putting Canadian tax dollars where its paradigm shift is.
In March, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented Parliament with a budget that cut a whopping $5.2 billion over the next three years.
A CBC article decried cuts to the national defense budget, which lost the largest amount overall at $1.1 billion -- a five per cent decrease in national defense spending, compared with the 7.5 per cent drop in foreign aid funds.
The national defense budget, at around $20 billion, is already roughly four times the amount of the foreign aid budget. And the Canadian Coast Guard is slated to receive $5.2 billion in little over a decade as part of this year's budgetary reapportionment.
Maintaining stealthy defense funding aims to combat the threat to Canadian and international security posed by terrorism.
"In the past ten years... the Government of Canada has made considerable investments in countering terrorist threats," Public Safety spokesman Jean Paul Duval told The Vancouver Observer.
There is some debate over the merits -- for Canada's image in the international community and counter terrorism -- of replacing funds destined to economically develop societies struggling with terrorism with funds for drones and bombs to kill militants and, perilously often, civilians.
"I'm not convinced that Canadian military presence is going to help reduce anti-Western feelings or any kind of terrorist activity," Bahramitash said.
"All the good that the aid is going to do is going to be counterbalanced by military action."
Can development solve terrorism?
Academics are conflicted about poverty's role breeding terrorism in the societies like Afghanistan's -- where economic woes mean weak civil society institutions to could counteract the inculcation of terrorists.
"I do not see direct or indirect relations between socioeconomic status and the commission of violence," said director of Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Osama Abi-Mershed, explaining that terrorism is better explained by political objectives.
Others feel the relationship between poverty and terrorism is complex.
"There is little evidence that poorer people tend to join terrorist movements or to commit terrorist attacks. What this means is that the relationship between socioeconomic factors and terrorism is just a bit more complex," said James Piazza, political science professor at the renowned Pennsylvania State University International Center for the Study of Terrorism.
"For example, while I have not found poverty or poor education overall within countries to lead to higher terrorist activity, I have found that countries containing ethnic groups facing economic discrimination and social exclusion to be more prone to terrorism."
Piazza noted that although economic development alone is not a sufficient response to terrorism, such gestures are "extremely important and do a lot of good."
Piazza noted that other key measures to prevent the spread of terrorism include work toward political development and human rights, some of the objectives of Canada's major foreign aid vehicle, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
CIDA remains sanguine about its ability to operate against terrorism and in the interest of Canada's image as a proponent of international development, despite budget cuts.
The cuts '"will ensure that Canadian tax dollars will continue to deliver value for money, and make a real difference in the lives of the people they are intended to help," CIDA spokesman Clement Belanger said.
Montreal's Bahramitash noted that the Harper administration's move away from diplomacy is ironic, given that the US -- after its costly wars abroad -- is only just realizing the dangers of might over diplomacy.
"Canada is building toward something the US now regrets," Bahramitash said.
"There was a time [during the Bush administration], when I was traveling to Mexico with Canadian scholars. We all wore Canadian pins to show that, even though we are English speakers, we were not Americans," she added.