Stéphane Dion's policy is a mess. But that’s okay.

Why Scott Gilmore has some sympathy for the Foreign Affairs Minister's jumbled plan

Canada's Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 27, 2016. Chris Wattie/Reuters

Canada’s Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 27, 2016. Chris Wattie/Reuters

In a speech he gave last week at the University of Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion unveiled his foreign policy doctrine; something he has christened “responsible conviction.”

Since the election, Dion’s portfolio has arguably been one of the most newsworthy. It’s a rough and tumble world, and Global Affairs Canada (GAC—my God, who thought this new name was a good idea?) has been roughened and tumbled.

Two issues, in particular, have dominated Dion’s agenda. First, the new government decided to change course in Syria, and withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the war against the Islamic terrorist franchise, ISIS. This decision stayed in the news for months, as the government at first failed to defend the decision, and then stumbled through a series of often contradictory explanations that never did convincingly clarify why the Canadian Forces should do everything possible to facilitate bombing, even though they insisted bombing was counterproductive. It was unclear how this meshed with our “responsibility to protect” commitments, long hallowed by the Liberals.

Then there was the decision to allow the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country that is currently doing a very brisk trade in bombing Yemeni hospitals. During the election, the Liberal party had self-righteously attacked this sale, piously (and rightly) criticizing the Tories for shamelessly doing business with a country that beheads dissidents and threatens to crucify bloggers.

As Dion defended these choices over the last few months, he gave the impression these were not decisions he supported with enthusiasm. The Syrian withdrawal (or expansion, depending on whether you are listening to the Prime Minister’s Office or the Department of National Defence), was obviously driven by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And assuming the Liberal Party hasn’t suddenly become passionate supporters of Wahhabi realpolitik, the Saudi LAV deal was done to avoid job losses at the assembly plant in London, Ont.

So, Dion, who is not famous for his flexible opinions, has probably had a rough few months, stretching himself into new yoga poses every month, each more exotic than the last. In that light, his “responsible conviction” presentation begins to make sense. It was less a speech, and more an internal monologue, an attempt by Dion to explain to himself how his contorted foreign policy decisions make sense, how they fit into his Cartesian world view.

Like any internal monologue, it tended to wander. As Dion set out his foreign policy vision, you almost expected him to stop midsentence and ask, “Did I leave the kettle on?” And, as is the case with all of us, Dion’s inner voice mostly tried to explain some inexplicable choices. But alas, even Dion didn’t seem entirely convinced. At one point in the monologue he even tried to rationalize the Saudi arms deal by claiming if we didn’t sell it to them, someone else surely would. (“Your honour, I had no choice. If I didn’t sell the thief that handgun, someone else would’ve!”)

I could take the details of the speech apart clause by clause, but many other commentators beat me to the punch. It’s a mess. But, I would argue, that’s OK. Successful foreign policy is always a mess. The hurly burly of international relations always defy rigid doctrines and hard principles.

Let me use Bangladesh, where I just spent the last two weeks, as an example. It is ruled by a democratically elected government . . . that gleefully stuffs ballot boxes and jails opposition leaders. It is an important Canadian trading partner . . . with a private sector that ruthlessly exploits its workers. It receives over $80 million in aid from Canada each year . . . and has one of the most corrupt governments in the world. It has a significant diaspora in Canada . . . but is nowhere near any Canadian geopolitical interests. If one must decide whether to engage or isolate, invest or withdraw, aid or reallocate, this doctrine of  “responsible conviction” provides absolutely no help. Instead, you will have to make a series of untidy judgment calls, where the right decision will leave everyone unhappy. As foreign minister, having “the judgment of Solomon” often requires cutting the baby in half.

I am sympathetic toward the minister. We are always trying to find order in chaos, to see patterns and build frameworks. It’s human nature. But in international affairs, it is a snipe hunt, a fool’s errand. Everything is sui generis. There are despots you will trade with, and others you will boycott. There are terrorists you will bomb, and others you will ignore. Each country and each issue will require subjective choices to balance international commitments, economic realities, departmental capabilities, security objectives, domestic politics, public perceptions and perhaps the Prime Minister’s latest hobbyhorse. Each decision must be defended on its own merits. If you try to pretend it is otherwise you will just tie yourself up in knots, like Dion did last week.

Scott Gilmore writes on international affairs and public policy. He is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and is married to Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment.