Stéphane Dion: On ‘responsible conviction’ and Liberal foreign policy

For the record: The Foreign Minister’s remarks today on ‘a guiding principle for Canada in the world’

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion delivers a statement as he is joined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right to left, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right to left, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan during a press conference at the National Press Theatre on Feb. 8, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick, CP)

For the record, prepared remarks for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion at the opening of the Canada in Global Affairs, New Challenges, New Ways international conference on March 29 at the University of Ottawa: 

Chancellor Rovinescu, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for providing me with an ideal opportunity to set out, in front of this distinguished audience, the guiding principle that I intend to follow in delivering the mandate given to me by the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau.

To demonstrate transparency, the Prime Minister has made public the mandate letters of all of his ministers. You may be aware that he has asked me not only to advance Canada’s security and economic interests in the world, but also to “support the deeply held Canadian desire to make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world.” To that end, the Prime Minister has given me specific objectives, to be achieved in collaboration with my colleagues in Cabinet. These include:

  1. Making Canada a leader of international efforts to combat climate change;
  2. Increasing Canada’s support for United Nations peace operations and its mediation, conflict-prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts; and,
  3. Championing the values of inclusive and accountable governance, peaceful pluralism and respect for diversity, and human rights, including the rights of women and refugees.

I think we can all agree that such a mandate reflects the values and convictions of a Liberal Canadian. But I believe that these objectives are also shared by a number of my fellow citizens whose political affiliations differ from my own.

The guiding principle that I will follow in fulfilling this mandate is something I call responsible conviction. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I refer you to the traditional distinction that Max Weber made between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. Weber contrasted behaviour that remains true to one’s convictions, regardless of what happens (ethics of conviction), and behaviour that takes the consequences of one’s actions into consideration (ethics of responsibility). In isolation, the ethics of conviction of course lead to pure action, defending a principle or a cause, while ignoring the consequences. Pacifists who recommend unilateral disarmament in the face of the enemy are inspired by the ethics of conviction: they advocate non-violence at all times.

Such behaviour is rejected from the point of view of the ethics of responsibility. For example, although Gandhi’s pacifism delivered results in the face of a British democracy that doubted the legitimacy of its empire, it obviously would have had disastrous results in the face of Hitler’s army.

Max Weber did not claim that those who support the ethics of responsibility lack conviction. But since this is how he is often misinterpreted, I prefer to go beyond his rigid distinction to create a more syncretic concept – the ethics of “responsible conviction.” This formulation means that my values and convictions include the sense of responsibility. Not considering the consequences of my words and actions on others would be contrary to my convictions. I feel I am responsible for the consequences of my actions.

Let us look at how the ethics of responsible conviction inspires the Trudeau government’s foreign policy.

Certain policy shifts made over the past few months reflect the different convictions of the Liberal and Conservative parties:

  • Because we Liberals firmly believe that human activity-induced climate change is one of the worst threats humanity is facing, the Prime Minister sent his Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Catherine McKenna, to play a positive role in finalizing the Paris Agreement at COP21;
  • Because we Liberals oppose capital punishment, we put an end to the previous government’s case-by-case policy and will seek clemency for all Canadians facing the death penalty anywhere in the world; we will demand clemency for all to maximize the possibility of obtaining it for some;
  • Similarly, we Liberals support all sexual and reproductive health rights and therefore ended the previous government’s policy that prohibited Canadian assistance for pregnancy terminations, even in countries that authorize them.

In another area, our government shares the same conviction as the previous government, but it assesses the consequences of its chosen method of promoting this conviction differently. I am referring to freedom of religion or belief, which we will defend tooth and nail, but not through the office that the Harper government specifically set up for this purpose.

We believe that human rights are better defended when they are considered, “universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated,” as set out in the Vienna Declaration.

In another case, we are honouring a contract concluded under the previous government, as breaking it would lead to damaging consequences. The Harper government supported the sale of military equipment by a Canadian company to Saudi Arabia. During the election campaign, the Liberal Party made a commitment not to end this contract.

Cancelling this $15 billion contract could result in Canadian taxpayers having to pay costly penalties and damage the credibility of the Government of Canada’s signature. This would have a ripple effect in an industry on which 70,000 jobs in Canada directly depend, including many veterans. At least two-thousand workers, primarily in London, Ontario, would be out of a job. Similar equipment would almost certainly be sold to Saudi Arabia by a company in another country. Riyadh does not care if the equipment comes from a factory in Lima, Ohio, or Stirling Heights, Michigan, rather than one in London, Ontario.

Of course, I would like to live in a world without weapons. But my peaceful conviction must take the real world into account if I want to be a responsible decision maker.

Here is what needs to be done: export permits for this type of equipment must be examined rigorously and with greater transparency by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in consultation with the Minister of International Trade, in order to assess whether they will be used in a manner that is consistent with international law, with human rights and with our national interests. This is what the Prime Minister asked of me and I am working on it with my officials. That is what responsible conviction demands.

In yet another area, the fight against terrorism, we share the same conviction as the Conservatives, and of all parties represented in the House of Commons, regarding the absolute necessity of defeating terrorism. But we have legitimate disagreements about the best way of eradicating the horrible terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

To summarize: same conviction, same objective, but disagreement about the probable consequences of the means chosen.

We Liberals are convinced that Canada’s contribution within the Global Coalition against ISIL will be more effective by tripling our military training effort for local forces and doubling our intelligence capacity. In addition to our military contribution, as part of our government’s new strategy we will be increasing our humanitarian and development aid, as well as our security and stabilization assistance, to respond to the crises in Iraq and Syria, and strengthen our support to Lebanon and Jordan. We are expanding our efforts regionally in this way because we believe in taking a long-term holistic approach. The new Canadian plan has been well received by our local and international partners, including within the Global Coalition.

But I would say that certain changes that have been made in recent months to Canada’s foreign policy spring from the actual government’s greater concern to take the consequences of its actions into account.

This is already clear in our most important bilateral relationship—with the United States. Our government is too conscious of our responsibilities not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors who, in a strident, awkward, and finally, inefficient way, focused almost all their efforts on the single pipeline issue. We will spare no diplomatic effort to promote, in a wise and professional way, Canada’s interests in all aspects of our complex and vital relationship with our American neighbour. It is out of a deep concern for the consequences of our actions that we are re- engaging with the UN and with some countries with which the Harper government had cut ties.

We take no more joy than our conservative friends in keeping open channels with authoritarian regimes. Of course, we would like it if the world were made up of nothing but exemplary democracies. But our world is highly imperfect, and to improve it we must engage in it with our eyes open, not withdraw from it. The consequences of withdrawal are not good for anyone.

It is often a mistake to sever all ties with a regime that we dislike. On the contrary, we must speak to such regimes frankly, and clearly express our convictions, with a view to effecting positive change. Engagement is not to be confused with agreement or warmth.

Furthermore, we must endeavour, as often as we can, to act together in a complementary fashion with our allies. Isolated action will rarely have the desired effect.

The minor role that Canada has played at the UN in recent years had no positive consequences for anyone. Other countries, including democracies similar to ours, are asking us to return to the UN. In the wake of our sizeable contribution to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Trudeau government will ensure that Canada resumes its position in the UN, from the Commission on the Status of Women to the Security Council.

True, the UN is an imperfect institution, but it is the one we have, and we must not neglect it if we want to advance our objectives of democracy, human rights, peace, justice and sustainable development.

Canada’s severing of ties with Iran had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the people of Iran, not for Israel, and not for global security. It was our allies within the P5+1 who moved things forward, who negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to establish international control over Iran’s nuclear program. The deal has significantly constrained and rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and ensured ongoing and robust verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Canada should have strongly supported the efforts of our allies.

Following the implementation of the nuclear deal by Iran, the UN Security Council decided to lift some of its multilateral sanctions against Iran. Canada has a legal obligation to implement UN Security Council decisions and amended its multilateral sanctions accordingly. The sanctions that we have maintained or added are being applied in conjunction with allied countries in order to maintain control over Iran’s nuclear programs and ballistic missiles.

In line with the approach taken by the majority of our allies and like-minded, we also amended our unilateral sanctions. Unilateral sanctions maintained by Canada alone would be ineffective against Iran, and would have negative consequences for many Canadian families and businesses.

Canada’s embassy in Iran has been closed for over three years. With which results? Is it right to need to count on Italy to protect our interests in this country? Let’s not forget that the world was lucky that Canada had an embassy in Iran at the end of the 1970s so it could come to the aid of the American hostages. Two films have been made about this, one not very good, made by Hollywood, and the other much better, called Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper.

Today, Canada must return to Iran to play a useful role in that region of the world, while remaining vigilant about embassy security issues in Tehran and elsewhere. We are being asked by all sides to reengage, and we are doing so.

But this does not mean we will be silent or inactive when we see Iran move in the wrong direction. We will maintain our firm commitment to the human rights of Iranians. Canada will continue to steadfastly oppose Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, its threats toward Israel, and its ballistic missile program, while also monitoring Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Canada’s severing of ties with Russia had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the Russian people, not for Ukraine, and not for global security.

The sanctions imposed on Russia in retaliation for its aggression against Ukraine are effective only because they are being imposed by a large number of countries. Canada must continue to require that these collective sanctions be maintained, or even strengthened. But Canada must stop being essentially the only one practising an empty chair policy with Russia, because by doing so, we are only punishing ourselves.

As long as we refuse to engage Russia through diplomatic and political channels, we preclude any opportunity to support Ukraine through negotiations. In Syria, the Canadian policy of limited engagement with Russia has severely impaired Canada’s ability to influence the peace talks. On numerous Arctic issues, it has restricted Canada’s influence, given that Russia is an Arctic power with fifty percent of the Arctic coastline, the largest northern population base, and significant northern infrastructure.

Yet cooperation is often in our interest – on environmental issues, for example – given that we are Arctic neighbours, facing similar challenges due to our shared geography. It makes no sense to prevent our scientists from working with their Russian colleagues to protect the northern ecosystem.

But under the previous government, Canada isolated itself. Across the whole range of multilateral venues, from the OECD and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to various Coast Guard fora and international Fisheries Organisations, Canada has since 2014 voluntarily foregone the opportunity to chair and/or host a number of sessions and working groups in which Russia participates. There is a cumulative cost to our failure to convene, chair, and host multilateral meetings because of Russia’s presence.

That cumulative cost has a negative impact on our ability to influence and demonstrate leadership in those multilateral organizations, in addition to impairing our credibility with our partners, with no benefit to Ukraine.

We must remember that even during the Cold War Canada continued to speak to the Soviet Union. Under the “disengagement” policy of the Harper government, it would have been impossible to organize the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR, which saw the famous Paul Henderson goal, and which helped build cultural and people-to-people ties during a time of great tension.

It would have been impossible to invite a young Mikhail Gorbachev to Canada in 1983. Gorbachev was then Party Secretary in charge of Agriculture and a rising star. As he has written in his memoirs, it was in Ontario and Alberta that Gorbachev first came to see the great inefficiencies of the Soviet agricultural system compared to ours, and the potential for “perestroika,” which became his vision for “reform”. And it was in his frank and open discussions with Canadian politicians and citizens that the early seeds were planted for “glasnost.”

To disengage would have also meant forgoing the potential for dialogue and confidence-building within Europe’s collective security institutions. Three years ago, the former government tried to end Canada’s membership in the OSCE, an organization that has played a crucial role in dialogue and conflict resolution in Europe over the last half-century.

It was left to our allies to remind us of our history, and to pressure us to stay in. Today, it is only the OSCE that has access to volatile Eastern Ukraine, where it is monitoring the terms of the fragile ceasefire. It’s a good thing, thanks to our allies, that Canada is still a part of it.

Canada will continue to oppose Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Eastern Ukraine, and we will continue to stand strongly with our NATO allies. But doing so is entirely consistent with re-establishing diplomatic discussions with Russia, just as our allies do. This reengagement will aim to help Ukraine, help Europe and help stabilize the situation in the centre of the continent. And it will serve Canadian interests by allowing us to talk to Russia on key issues like the Arctic.

In conclusion, I can sum up my central argument easily. It is an immense honour to have been appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau as Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. To accomplish the ambitious mandate that he has given me, my guiding principle will be responsible conviction. One of the convictions that drives me is the sense of responsibility. I will make my decisions by taking into account their foreseeable impact on others.

Canadian foreign policy has lacked responsible conviction in recent years. It must be principled, but less dogmatic and more focused on delivering results. Responsible conviction must not be confused with some sort of moral relativism. Since the classic concept of the honest broker is now too often confused with moral relativism or the lack of strong convictions, I prefer to say that Canada must be a fair-minded and determined peace builder.

Armed with its strong convictions, mindful of the consequences of its words and its actions, the Trudeau government is resolutely engaging with the world, on a quest for peace, security, sustainable development, respect for diversity and human rights, peaceful pluralism, and justice for all.


Stéphane Dion: On ‘responsible conviction’ and Liberal foreign policy

  1. Brilliant. Finally a cogent plan from a brilliant man.

  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/28/thousands-died-when-the-u-n-brought-cholera-to-haiti-heres-why-its-getting-off-scot-free/

    Well, he did voice some truths. The “UN is a flawed institution.” Why Trudeau is salivating at the thought of being on the security council is questionable. Canada is trying to be a climate change leader. Few if any of the big emitters are following Canada’s lead but this seems immaterial to JT and his government. What was the quote JT made “if you kill the enemy, he wins.” So does that mean if the enemy kills you, you win? Great. Meanwhile Iran is taking out a man’s eyeball today as a state sanctioned punishment. Let’s engage….

  3. This is a fine speech: I agree wholeheartedly with it. I think this is exactly how Barak Obama has tried to conduct US affairs in the world, without any support from the Republicans and many Americans who just don’t get the subtle but very real difference between the ethics of conviction and responsibility. I’m very proud to be represented by a governing party who respects this difference.

  4. The question to me, is M. Dion being sincere ?
    Really , or is he just very naive ? Canada is now looked at as a puppet country to Obama’s USA.
    Canada is not a leader in climate change, nor is Canada universally respected. The Europeans’ say one thing publicly and another, very different, privately. Not just the French.
    Is it because our prime minister has become an international joke? A subject of derision ?
    The Aussies are laughing, and not politely. Latin America, except Cuba, sees Canada as a failed state. Yet brothers Castro have publicly said (en espanol) that Canada is following the right path (or “true path” depending on your translation)
    In 1995 I feared for Canada’s future. In 2016 my fear is greater.
    I am but one, ………..

  5. If M. Dion and the liberal government are such champions of human rights, why have the abducted Azer children not been returned safely to Canada? What about the rights of these four beautiful Canadian citizens that have been so grievously violated for the last eight months? findazerkidsnow.com #dowhatittakes #findazerkidsnow #usemyphone

  6. Accusing Russia of “aggression” in Crimea may be a conviction, although I even doubt that, it’s more of obeisance to the powers that be, but in any case, it is irresponsible. If there is a movement to impeach Dion, I will join it. What a disappointing, slavish, double BS speaking lot the Liberals have turned out to be.

  7. Liberal, Russophobic policy is ruining Ukraine, but Canada has become so compliant and brain-washed, few will notice. And BTW, had Hitler, and even according to his own assessment, been denied Western oil it would have been all over before it started, with 50 million people escaping death and many more, horrific mental and physical disability. War is profitable for some: that’s the only reason it is a recurrent nightmare for most. If Dion is referring to
    “responsibility to protect”, that’s another huge crock of it.

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