Should the primary purpose of Canadian foreign policy be the promotion of corporate interests?
Canada’s business class certainly seems to think so. And with little political or ideological opposition to this naked self-interest, Harper’s Conservatives seem only too happy to put the full weight of government behind the promotion of private profits.
Recently, the Conservatives announced that “economic diplomacy” will be “the driving force behind the Government of Canada’s activities through its international diplomatic network.” According to their Global Markets Action Plan (GMAP), “All diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector to increase success in doing business abroad.”
The release of GMAP is a crass confirmation of the Conservatives’ pro-corporate foreign policy. In recent years the Conservatives’ have spent tens of millions of dollars to lobby US and European officials on behalf of tar sands interests; expanded arms sales to Middle East monarchies and other leading human rights abusers; strengthened the ties between aid policy and a Canadian mining industry responsible for innumerable abuses.
While some commentators have suggested that GMAP is a “modern” response to China’s international policy, it actually represents a return to a time many consider the high point of unfettered capitalism. Often in the late 1800s wealthy individuals not employed by Ottawa conducted Canadian diplomacy. The owner of the Toronto Globe, George Brown, for instance, negotiated a draft treaty with the U.S. in 1874, while Sandford Fleming, the surveyor of the Canadian Pacific Railway, represented Canada at the 1887 Colonial Conference in London.
From its inception the Canadian foreign service reflected a bias towards economic concerns. There were trade commissioners, for instance, long before ambassadors. By 1907 there were 12 Canadian trade commissions staffed by “commercial agents” located in Sydney, Capetown, Mexico City, Yokohama and numerous European and U.S. cities.
Despite this historic precedent, in the 21st century it should be controversial for a government to openly state that economic considerations drive international policy. Yet criticism of GMAP has been fairly muted, which may reflect how many progressives feel overwhelmed by the Conservatives right-wing aggressiveness in every policy area.
Or perhaps there’s a more fundamental explanation. The mainstream political/media establishment basically agrees with the idea that corporate interests should dominate foreign policy.
In response to GMAP, Postmedia ran a debate between John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and a member of the advisory panel that helped draw up the Conservatives’ plan, and former foreign minister and leading proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, Lloyd Axworthy. While Manley lauded the Conservatives’ move, Axworthy criticized it as “bad trade policy. The best way to enlarge your trade prospects and to develop a willingness for agreements and to improve economic exchange is to have a number of contacts to show other countries that you are a willing and co-operative player on matters of security, on matters of human rights, and on matters of development.”
Axworthy did not express principled criticism of the Conservatives’ move; he simply said that “trade prospects” — a euphemism for corporate interests — are best advanced through a multifaceted foreign-policy. Widely lauded by the liberal intelligentsia, Axworthy reflects the critical end of the dominant discussion, which largely takes its cues from the corporate class. And Canada’s business class is more internationally focused than any other G8 country.
Heavily dependent on “free trade” Canadian companies are also major global investors. The world’s largest privately owned security company, GardaWorld, has 45,000 employees operating across the globe while another Montréal-based company, SNC Lavalin, has engineering projects in 100 countries. Corporate Canada’s most powerful sector is also a global force. The big five banks, which all rank among the top 65 in the world, now do a majority of their business outside of this country. Scotiabank, for example, operates in 45 countries.
The mining sector provides the best example of Canadian capital’s international prominence. Three quarters of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada or listed on Canadian stock exchanges. Present in almost every country, Canadian corporations operate thousands of mineral projects abroad.
With $711.6 billion in foreign direct investments last year, Canadian companies push for (and benefit from) Ottawa’s diplomatic, aid and military support. As their international footprint has grown, they’ve put ever more pressure on the government to serve their interests. There is simply no countervailing force calling on the government to advance international climate negotiations, arms control measures or to place constraints on mining companies.
There’s also limited ideological opposition to neoliberalism. Few in Canada promote any alternative to capitalism. Until unions, social groups and activists put forward an alternative economic and social vision it’s hard to imagine that Canadian foreign policy will do much more than promote private corporate interests.