What is Canada’s reputation, really?

Paul Wells on the impact of foreign policy on our reputation, and Canadians’ outsize sense of anxiety about how the world sees us

Darren Calabrese/CP

Darren Calabrese/CP

How are you feeling about Hungary these days? Earthy, mitteleuropäische old country, redolent of paprika, graced by the meandering Danube, nice vacation getaway, maybe? I would totally get that. Me, I’m leery about the place these days because its prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a bit of a mess, governing in a country where anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment are spiking, scrupulous journalists are on the outs, and Vladimir Putin is warmly greeted.

But that’s just me. You have to be fairly well-read on international news to have caught most of that stuff about Orban, and you need to be obtusely focused on high politics to let any of that taint your view of what is, after all, largely the same Hungary this year as five years ago or five years from now. 

Much the same point could be made about Canada, which shone this week in two new international rankings. Portland’s “Soft Power 30,” a measure of international influence, ranks Canada fifth — ahead of Japan, Brazil and China to list only the most surprising few. And the Reputation Institute’s 2015 Country RepTrak, which measures “the reputation of 55 countries based on levels of trust, esteem, admiration and respect,” has Canada in first place.

This news aligns poorly with a certain current of thought in foreign-policy circles to the effect that the Harper government has shattered Canada’s reputation and that the world snickers behind our back as we drag our knuckles around like a bunch of baboons. I am hardly even paraphrasing. In a news story on the weekend about some pro-Western Ukrainian protesters who holed up in Canada’s embassy in Kyiv for a few days in 2014, retired diplomat Bob Fowler was called in to provide some familiar discourse. “We’re not the considered, intelligent players that we used to be… We have been all mouth and no brain… I would argue we have very little credibility within NATO…. Our posturing is utterly vacuous.”

My purpose is not to take issue here with Fowler’s general line of analysis. (Although I really wonder what whip-smart Bob Fowler would have done if he’d been Canada’s ambassador in Ukraine in 2014, an hour after his staff told him a bunch of protesters were squatting in the lobby. Kick them out? Snipers from the fading Yanukovych regime shot 100 other protesters where they stood in the street less than two days after the protesters rushed the embassy gate. But perhaps my question is utterly vacuous.) My point is that most people don’t follow politics anywhere very closely. Not even at home, and certainly not in other countries. That countries’ reputations are made, for the most part, over many years by their populations, not in a few years by their governments.

Last week I sat for quite a long time while a documentary film crew asked me questions about Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. I said the government’s record is mixed, that its motives have been complex and that its effect on big international challenges has sometimes been helpful and other times less so. I got the impression my answers would be difficult to reconcile with the Fowleresque line the doc crew had been fed, before my arrival, by a succession of Fort Pearson lifers.

The last question was about what I thought Canada’s reputation in the world is these days. I said, approximately, that it would depend who you ask. If you ask career diplomats from Canada, many would say the current gang have pushed our once-proud nation off a cliff for giggles. Career diplomats from other countries would note, sometimes with dismay, divergences from long-held positions on climate change, Israel and several other questions. But if you stop a stranger on the street in Frankfurt or Rio or Cape Town, you’d probably get a distracted and reasonably familiar opinion: that Canada remains a country of relative fairness and welcome, whose people don’t fuss much and can usually be relied on to help when asked. The Harper government, like its predecessors, has affected this vague impression mostly around the edges. And sometimes for the good — as, indeed, when its embassy staff refused to push some kids into the Kyiv streets out of excessive regard for neutrality while an obnoxious regime was busy collapsing onto the slag heap of history early last year.

Mostly Canada is a big country whose direction any government can nudge, but not much more. A big, generous country — a little too generously bestowed with a compulsion toward anxious self-regard perhaps, but on the scale of human weakness, that’s far from the worst after all.


What is Canada’s reputation, really?

  1. As a quantitative measure, I would say the Security Council election in 2010 tells us everything we need to know. About 183 nations hung around for the final run-off (out of 193) and Canada got stomped in favour of Portugal.

    • A painful episode that stings even more now, given how successful the Security Council has been in bringing peace and harmony to the world in the intervening years.

  2. Perhaps Mr. Fowler was referring to Canada’s influence in diplomatic circles, which no doubt matters more than whether Joe Blow of the street knows anything about us. That is, if you want the country to have influence with foreign governments.

  3. It’s just that on the whole I’d rather be mildly comfortable with my government’s foreign projection rather than consistently embarrassed by it.

    Too much to ask?

  4. I agree with all the posters:
    1. Diplomats matter in international politics. Citizens matter for tourism.
    2. The UN vote sucked. I wish they’d just continued to not care rather than try and win the week before. Of course I’d rather we’d both earned it and cared about it.
    3. Our foreign policy is mostly frustrating to witness because it seems to lack rigour.

    • A new report from the government of Canada, on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2013, is making news. And as usual, the bad news leads.The media focus is on the probability that Canada will miss its Copenhagen emission-reduction targets from 2009. (Canada agreed to cut emissions by 17 per cent from a 2005 base-year by 2020). In reality, however, this is less about Canada being an environmental laggard, and more a problem with agreeing to politically derived targets you have no idea how to hit. But, fair enough, a miss is a miss—whether you think we should have accepted that target or not.So that’s the bad news. Now let’s look at the good news. Emissions are indeed up 18 per cent since 1990. But real GDP went up by 71 per cent, meaning there was a 31 per cent decrease in the amount of emissions per unit of economic production over that same time period. That’s actually a great trend in emissions intensity. And before people pooh-pooh emissions intensity, remember that China and India were lauded not that long ago for agreeing to eventually improve their emissions intensity back in 2009.Per-capita emissions in Canada also dropped by more than 14 per cent (from a 2000 peak) by 2009, and has stayed at a record-low level ever since. That’s a success story, not a failure.The same story has played out in Canada’s transport sector, which is responsible for about as much greenhouse gas emissions as are the oil and gas sector. Emissions there showed a significant increase (up by about 31 per cent) since 1990. But even there, the glass is half full. While vehicle kilometres travelled rose by 12.5 per cent, emissions only went up by 3.7 per cent since 2005. The report discusses similar (though less pronounced) trends for heavy-duty truck transport, doing more with less: “Emissions from heavy-duty diesel vehicles (large freight trucks) rose by 22.7 Mt (112%) between 1990 and 2013. Growth in emissions reflected a 137% increase in tonne-kilometres shipped by trucks between 1990 and 2003.” Tonne-kilometres shipped by trucks fluctuated from 2004-2011, but there was no net trend in that time frame.So, you can read the new Environment Canada Report as a glass half empty, or you can read it as a glass half full. What you can’t read it as, and what environmentalists will no doubt insist it shows, is that Canada is some kind of international laggard that has grossly shirked its responsibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.Canada’s emissions intensity will continue to improve, and eventually emissions will peak and then decline simply due to the evolution of new technologies. It’s happened in the U.S., and it’s a matter of time before it happens here.Emission rates may not peak and drop as fast as some politicians and environmentalists demand, but then, letting markets do what they do best— drive efficiency through competition—is never fast enough for those who don’t trust markets in the first place.Canada’s small share of global emissions isn’t completely irrelevant, nor is Canada’s reputation as a global thought leader. But Canada’s emissions are sufficiently small that there’s no reason to insist on radical reduction at high cost, rather than letting technological growth drive emissions down over a slightly longer time at much lower cost. – See more at: http://www.fraserinstitute.org/article/canada%E2%80%99s-greenhouse-gas-story-better-advertised#sthash.fIA47gUB.dpuf

  5. This news aligns poorly with those who have an agenda and would like to make us think Canada has become some kind of hell, The claim is hardly verifiable so one can throw it around for a while or until some organisation comes out with a real study.

  6. So this is just your opinion about our world reputation….based on……..

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