Andrew Cooper on Stephen Clarkson’s Foreign Policy
The following is a contribution in the blog series on the exceptional contribution of Stephen Clarkson to Canada. Stephen Clarkson died in 2016.
This piece is by Andrew F. Cooper, who is a Professor at the Balsille School of International Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. He is also the Director of the Centre for the Study of Rapid Global Change. Andrew Cooper is the author of 9 books including Group of Twenty (2013) Internet Gambling Offshore (2011) and Celebrity Diplomacy
Stephen Clarkson’s ‘Foundational Text’ on Canadian Foreign Policy
Andrew F. Cooper
Canada and The World Then
We collectively miss Stephen Clarkson but our individual intellectual understanding and appreciation of his work are quite different. Stephen was idiosyncratic, in the sense that it is difficult to typecast him too tightly via a particular framework although the new Canadian political economy comes closes (Cameron, 2016). He was hopeful for Canada’s future, but his analysis led him to pessimistic conclusions. He despaired about the limitations of Canada’s ‘mandarins’ (especially its diplomats) but had high expectations for both citizen based activity and some technocratic driven policy solutions. And he appreciated ‘big’ individuals in a manner rare for a political scientist, but was duly worried about the nature of that personalism, especially emerging from the US with bouts of go it alone zealousness.
To try to tease out some of these fascinating features about Stephen’s thinking with regard to Canada’s position in the world, I have gone back to what is his foundational work – his edited collection An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? Published in 1968 this volume attracted attention not only from established academics but aspirant scholars (including myself as an undergraduate). Although I didn’t know Stephen at the time, I was intrigued and to some extent inspired by his animation of this collection.
Organizationally there is a lot about An Independent Foreign Policy that speaks to Stephen’s personality. This was not a work with one tightly controlled view. Rather it was a pluralist endeavor containing chapters by many of the big highly argumentative academics of the day (if with only a single female contributor, Pauline Jewett, a gap Stephen made up later in life with an array of female collaborations).
Substantially the topics especially in the opening section remain – in a time of Trump – highly relevant. The Myths of the Special Relationship, Quiet Diplomacy revisited, Retaliation? Confronting Uncle Sam!
Stephen’s own contributions in binding the collection together are significant in locating major points of continuity and adaptation in his later (prolific) writings. Therefore, although not as well-cited now as many of these subsequent works it is a valuable exercise to go through An Independent Foreign Policy as we remember Stephen and celebrate his contribution.
Canada’s Potential versus Structural Limitations
At the core of Stephen’s work is what he considers the Canadian conundrum, the tension between Canada’s (unrealized) potential versus the formidable structural limitations (Clarkson, 1968: x). Indeed, it was this tension that underpinned An Independent Foreign Policy.
In general mindset Stephen was an optimist. Indeed, in many ways, he was the godfather of a wave of books (many decades later) that advocated Canada go beyond its traditionally cautious and modest habits, and go big in terms of ambition. A primary example of this evolution is Jennifer Welsh’s book, At Home in the World (2004), framed by the aspiration that Canada should be a model international citizen. Another example of this ambitious construct comes from Michael Byers, of the University of British Columbia, in his Intent for a Nation (2007). The core themes of this ‘model citizen’ approach is to look to a fully post-colonial Canada, with a deep distrust for the status quo.
What is striking from the start then is a rejection of the positioning of Canada as a quintessential middle power, at least how that framework has been identified and utilized by practitioners and mainstream academics. While of course he comes back to the middle power notion later on in his career, he never embraces the middle power model in terms of its familiar diplomatic toolkit.
The Search for Alternatives
Nor however does Stephen embrace the alternative notion that Canada is destined to be a principal or foremost power. Although this school – led initially by James Eayrs (also at University of Toronto) gained some strength by the mid-1970s, Stephen kept his distance. Stephen was extremely interested in institutions, but the institutions that grabbed his attention were almost always exclusively economic (and in large part continental) in nature. Unlike other University of Toronto colleagues (such as Bill Graham and John Kirton) he did not engage deeply in the debates about the G7/8.
What was salient to Stephen – and increasingly so after the publication of An Independent Foreign Policy – was the substance of political economy rather than the practice of diplomacy or geo-politics. In this shift we can see a fundamental split between Stephen and other key individuals that advocated a revisionist foreign policy in the mid to the late 1960s.
It is pertinent here to also note the divergence between Stephen and Lloyd Axworthy. Akin to Stephen, Axworthy departed from the established tenets of the past with considerable impatience with the static quality of Canada’s traditional middle power diplomacy. Explicitly, Axworthy wanted to liberate the middle power model from its identification with the fixed ‘order’ driven worldview of the Pearson era. This impatience was a long-standing condition, which may be traced back to Axworthy’s younger days as a critical observer of Pearson’s “worth[y]” but “grey and oh so solid” diplomacy. As neatly captured, for instance, in a series of newspaper articles that Axworthy wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press in September 1965, this sense of impatience pointed – like Stephen’s – toward diplomatic activity that was more noisy and public-oriented (Axworthy, 1965).
But the divergence between Stephen and Axworthy after the late 1960s is illuminating. Shut out of the NAFTA debates, Axworthy’s focus as minister was towards a more fluid focus on ad hoc, normative driven issue-specific coalitions of the willing. The most dynamic expressions of this narrative come on the issues of land mines, the ICC, and the advance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) The narrative of the Axworthy doctrine puts orthodox conceptions of security and national interest on the defensive; at the same time, it is an implicit criticism of traditional Pearsonian conception of middle power diplomacy, as it regards this approach as being too slow and too cautious.
Stephen retained an interest in these sorts of diplomatic initiatives. In a 2010 talk he pointed to how the land mines and ICC initiatives were examples to how pressure from civil society could influence government (Clarkson, 2010). Yet, this was not at the heart of his concern, as he privileged less specific cases of diplomatic success but the need to address structural conditions.
Such ambition fitted into his original desire and optimistic spirit to reach Canada’s unrealized potential but also to highlight his enveloping concerns (even pessimism) that the structural constraints were simply too great. As he suggested: “These examples give some sense of how citizens have tried to correct the constitutional imbalance that is constraining the regulatory state, exacerbating global inequalities and threatening the planet’s survival as a hospitable environment for human life. But activism is not enough. If the market’s capacity to self-destruct is to be contained, governments must get in step with their citizenry to give clear priority to human emancipation” (Clarkson, 2010).
Stephen’s appreciation of the structural constraints facing Canada pushed him further into the analysis of political economy. If the Independent Foreign Policy volume was animated largely by the Vietnam war, over time it was the issue of how ‘Continentalism’ compromised the Canadian economy and constrained the Canadian state that dominated his work.
Clarkson: The North American Political Economist
Others in this collection will deal with Stephen’s association with the study of new Canadian political economy in greater depth. What I will add is above all my appreciation not only of the depth of Stephen’s knowledge but also the extent of his normative commitment on these issues. Even scholars who disagreed with Stephen acknowledge the nuanced approach that Stephen used to tease out the contours of Continentalism, and the full implications of these conditions. As rehearsed most specifically in his book 2008 Does North America Exist? Stephen revealed the highly varied nature of those contours, with some sectors, for example, water management and the steel industry, far more integrated than would be expected. In others (like intellectual property and financial services), bilateral relations and globalization are more powerful forces than regional convergences (Clarkson, 2008).
In terms of normative concerns where Stephen has had the most influence of later debates is his showcasing “Canada’s Secret Constitution” Consistently, Stephen emphasized the undemocratic manner by which NAFTA – along with the WTO – “create a new mode of economic regulation with such broad scope and such unusual judicial authority “that it entrenches certain inviolate principles or norms that are above the reach of any politician to alter.”(Clarkson, 2002).
As always with Stephen he continued to expand his intellectual horizons, moving from a concentrated focus on Canada to extended studies of the trilateral North American relationship including in considerable detail Mexico, and the comparative study of NAFTA and the European Union. In both cases not only did he tap into some valuable themes, not least the huge asymmetries among the three partners, and the absence of a European-style system in North America of multi-level governance.
Gaps in the Clarkson Oeuvre
All of this is not to leave Stephen free of criticism (although he would be quick to debate these issues). His focus on structural conditions has a mercantilist air about it, with a conflation between US state and commercial interests. As we see to some extent through the Nixon years, and more robustly at the beginning of the Trump administration, however, this connection can be broken. It is not only the asymmetry between the US and its North American partners that needs study, it is also the asymmetry between different winners and losers in the US as well as Canada and Mexico that merits attention. Stephen put a heavy weight on the ‘hollowing out’ of corporate Canada, but without the same appreciation of how corporate America has hollowed out investment and jobs in the US, leaving space open for a populist backlash. Stephen could argue that, “NAFTA cannot be blamed for the growing income inequality within the US economy [- whereas] free trade appears causally related to the various factors increasing economic disparities within Canada and Mexico” – this is not the message drummed home with considerable impact by Trump (Clarkson, 1998).
A second criticism at least for liberal internationalists is the disjunction between Stephen’s normative-oriented criticisms about NAFTA, the WTO and indeed many other institutions and the hold of the more pragmatic attitude of Canadian citizens and politicians. Dealing with the US in terms of institutions might be bad, but dealing with the US without institutions is worse. The Trump attacks on NAFTA, the WTO, and NATO brings this embedded attitude out. Whatever the difficulties of having NAFTA in place – with a US imposed Chapter 11 highly prominent in terms of policy output – are the difficulties of dealing with a unilateral ‘rogue’ US without some ‘insurance’ from increased risk of arbitrary and unfair treatment.
And finally, there is the question of the EU model as a suitable alternative design. Stephen is highly laudatory of the EU model, both in terms of “the strength of its institutions or the sophistication of its jurisprudence. Yet, no less than in North America, the process towards continental integration could be viewed by the peripheral countries as “fast but secretive, controversial, and divisive, privileging business interests and excluding social partners” (Clarkson, 1998).
All of this is not to detract from Stephen’s contribution. On the contrary, in many ways what we find with the Trump phenomenon is a reinforcement of the accuracy of many of the other themes that Stephen concentrated on. No less than when he edited An Independent Foreign Policy, it is the centrality of the US relationship to Canada that comes to the fore. When there is space – for example – in the aftermath of the Cold War Canada could downplay this relationship as it main game. But when things get tough, as in the Reagan years or with Trump the main stream dominates. So, in this sense, Stephen’s work remains a crucial guide for understanding Canada’s position in the world.
The Deficiencies of Canadian State Practice Still Haunts Us
A second major theme that comes out of An Independent Foreign Policy is an intense frustration with the bureaucracy ‘managing’ Canada’s place in the world. If the structural conditions imposed enormous constraints on Canada’s freedom of action, these limitations were exacerbated by a combination of “traditional elitism and secrecy” (Clarkson, 1968: xi). Such a culture immobilized big creative thinking and action.
As in later eras, Stephen was appreciative of some of the contextual difficulties, especially the need to work under conditions of the communications revolution. But there was a deep concern whether under any circumstances Canadian mandarins had the will to things differently beyond a crisis management approach.
This critique was another sign of Stephen’s distance from orthodox scholarship about Canadian foreign policy. For most academics up to the late 1960s celebrated Canadian diplomats and policy makers more generally for their skills.
Stephen punctured this sense of pride and image of superiority. Not for him the art of the possible, or mere problem solving. In many ways, this distaste connected with his suspicion that the functional approach in regard to institutions undersold Canada, with an onus on joining and status enhancement as opposed to a transformative ethos.
Stephen came to see Canada as a middle power in terms of its place in the hierarchy of nations (a semi-peripheral country) but he never embraced middle power diplomatic techniques. In some areas this was by omission, as there was only brief mentions of mediation as a primary focus of attention.
The main cause of contestation was on the primacy of quiet diplomacy in the Canadian repertoire. For the traditional ‘External Affairs’ mandarin this was the dominant practice in the tool kit. What was important was access and influence in Washington DC. Urges to criticize the US and US leaders should be tempered. Changes in US policy should be anticipated before they go public in an atmosphere of controversy. And there should never be the utilization of retaliation via linkage of issues.
In hindsight much of Stephen’s critique in An Independent Foreign Policy seems quite moderate. After all he played down the revolutionary dynamics. Arguing that Canada did “not need the mountain moving voluntarism of Mao. simply needs a leadership that can make it clear to the public – if not in a little Red book at least in a White Paper- what role Canada can play and how its objectives are to be achieved.” (Clarkson, 1968: 268).
Moreover, some of the changes pushed for by Stephen were coming into being albeit unevenly. One of the first things the government of Pierre Trudeau did was to start a conversation about foreign policy – a conversation that continued in a variety of structured forms in later years. Plus, we can see bursts of activity trying to do things differently in foreign policy, from the Third Option to the National Energy Program (NEP) related initiatives in the early 1980s.
Stephen was supportive of these efforts, and of course distressed when the momentum for both opening up the debate on Canadian foreign policy and the implementation of robust policies dried up first in the Mulroney years and then the Harper years. In doing so he became a key source of memory in the championing of an open autonomous foreign policy.
Yet as with any robust template for foreign policy there are points of contradiction and gaps. For the paradox of moving towards an autonomous and robust policy template in the early 1980s was that the actual policy making process reverted to the closed format that Stephen was so frustrated about in the 1960s. The only difference was that instead of a generalist elite dominating foreign policy it was now a centralizing cohort of technocrats inside central agencies.
Trudeau’s Failed Third Option: The Reagan Cowboys
The NEP shows off this problem of reconciling dialogue among Canadians and the pursuit of robust policy making. As Stephen appreciated the process of decision making was secretive not only in the context of public dialogue but bureaucratic interaction: “remov[ed] from the normal process of interdepartmental consultation..[with DEA] ‘not informed until the last moment” (Clarkson, 1982: 79).
At the same time US retaliation showed itself to be no paper tiger. With the US first Reagan administration in place retaliatory pressures increased, with the Trudeau Liberals shifting from the practices of accommodation of the past to a “complacent and superior” positon that was premised on the notion that the “Californian cowboys” needed time to learn their job (Clarkson, 1982: 32).
The hard-line position of the Reagan administration was complicated further by the fact that the Trudeau government had expected some support for a global initiative on North-South relations. Not only were these (unlikely hopes) dashed but Canada found itself under pressure from Washington’s “institutionalized and unpredictable vulnerability” a doctrine of reciprocity that pushed the Trudeau government (again to Stephen’s frustration) to seek again the “advocacy of indirect means of influence” on issues such as Cruise missile testing. As Stephen suggested – very much in the mindset of An Independent Foreign Policy– this backtracking marked “a striking resemblance to the old quiet diplomacy approach and offers as little concrete evidence of its effectiveness” (Clarkson, 1982: 282).
Where the mantra of retaliation did creep into the Canadian agenda was at the sub-national level, a domain allowing for some considerable fragmentation on issues of provincial responsibilities. This type of action was of course most recently highlighted by BC Liberal leader Christy Clark, who on the eve of the recent election pushed for retaliatory trade threats to pressure for a softwood deal: “With our ban on moving thermal coal, we have got the Americans’ attention…We aren’t going to be weaklings” (Bailey and Hunter, 2017).
Stephen’s main contribution to the debate about Canada’s own practice was as a catalyst for change in change. Arguably more than any other text An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada opened up the debate about how accepted practices had run their course. Few pushed back to defend the Department of External Affairs as the core ingredient in the making of foreign policy. And the manta of quiet diplomacy lost ground accelerated over time to new and sophisticated practices of public diplomacy and national branding designed to cushion Canada from retaliatory activities).
Nonetheless, Stephen set himself a high bar to pass in terms of wanting both an open citizen based and coherent technically sound foreign policy. As the experience of the Trudeau government showed in the early 1980s robustness commonly combines with a revised form of elitism. What is more, under the structural constraints that Stephen so ably depicted, any departure in the traditional habit by legitimizing retaliation runs risks especially in the context of an America first administration – whether Reagan or Trump.
Continentalism and Canada’s Perennial Leadership Dilemma
Arguably the main point of departure of Stephen with most of his counterparts studying political economy – or International Relations more generally – is his appreciation for not only agency but the individual agency. Although to be sure a good deal of his work focused on the structural imposed by Continentalism, space opened up over time concerning how of major individuals influenced policy making decisions.
Here it is not so much An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada that acts as the foundation for this appreciation, but arguably his earlier work on Nehru and other ‘third world’ leaders focused upon in his thesis and subsequent publication on The Soviet Theory of Development (Clarkson, 1978: 265).
As alluded to by the reference to Mao and Canadian public policy, Stephen did not show expectation in An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada for a dynamic form of personal leadership in Canadian public policy. Nonetheless, he clearly expected more in terms of leadership than what was on offer by Lester Pearson in the 1960s.
To Stephen, Pearson’s instincts for quiet diplomacy (if useful at the time of the Suez crisis) had become a weakness weighing Canadian foreign policy down. As he writes Pearson’s has turned an “unobtrusive” style of diplomacy – “tactics which lead to his own international successes in the mid 1950s into a dogma that frustrates” (Clarkson, 1968: 265).
As well rehearsed in a host of later publications, Pierre Trudeau was far more Stephen’s image of a leader. And although on many specific occasions frustrated by his actions, Pierre Trudeau was the model that Stephen used to judge other leaders right up to the time of the government of Justin Trudeau (Appel, 2015).
If he found Trudeau fascinating (and in many admirable) Stephen became just as taken up by the personality types of American leaders. An indication of this shift from structure to agency in studying Continentalism is his tile of Canada and the Reagan challenge (as opposed to the neo-conservative challenge).
NAFTA and Market Integration
As a consequence of this shift Stephen became a close observer of bilateral (and later trilateral) summits between North American leaders. In the actual benefits of these summits Stephen was ambiguous. In some appearances, he supported greater institutionalization: “it’s amazing actually to think that, given all the attention spent on NAFTA, the three heads of government don’t meet regularly. They didn’t even meet after September 11, 2001, when the borders were blockaded, which put the whole notion of NAFTA in jeopardy” (Clarkson, 2005). At the same time, though, he was as worried as other observers that such meetings could be highly problematic, animating a securitization of North America.
But the importance of Stephen’s bringing individual agency in is that he was (or could have been!) well situated to take into account new unanticipated and disruptive changes at the apex of the US political system. A major contribution of his in the 1980s was to capture the individual importance of the Reagan challenge: “Reagan was serving notice on the world that America’s decade of instability and indecision was over [with a) simplistic and self-serving moralism” (Reagan, 1982: 21).
While a topic never allowed to be elaborated upon, Stephen was early on aware of the “tsunami” like implications of a Trump victory (Metro, 2015). In a December 2015 public event in Toronto he signaled that the Trump revolution would go beyond that animated by Reagan or George W. Bush “He’s off the map, even for conservatives”. Stephen stated, adding that Trump would “create an earthquake with Canada suffering tidal wave” (Metro, 2015).
The Clarkson Legacy
From his editorship of An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada, therefore, Stephen indicated his unique attributes as a scholar and a commentator. While building on his expertise in political economy in comparative perspective, he honed in on the Canadian continental condition. Although immersed in theory of economic development, what jumps out is his eclecticism: his concern with history and his blend of an analysis of structure and over time an appreciation of big personalities, albeit not always in a positive fashion.
For all of these of reasons– and many more- Stephen stands out among Canadian intellectuals. Yet if we miss him, we can still learn from him, not the least about how to balance tough interrogation of what is happening in everyday politics and policy making with an enthusiastic expectation that we can move beyond cautious and limiting habits.
Appel, Jeremy. 2015. “The Harper Doctrine in Red? Justin Trudeau’s Foreign Policy” Canadian Dimension, 1 June < https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-harper-doctrine-in-red-justin-trudeaus-foreign-policy>
Axworthy, Lloyd. 1965. “Canada’s Role as a Middle Power.” Winnipeg Free Press, 8-9 September.
Byers, Michael. 2007. Intent for a Nation: What is Canada for? Madeira Park, BC :Douglas & McIntyre.
Cameron, Duncan. 2016. “Why is Justin Trudeau invited to the White House?” Rabble, 8 March 2016 < http://rabble.ca/columnists/2016/03/why-justin-trudeau-invited-to-white-house>
Clarkson, Stephen. 2010. “The unbalanced world of global governance,” Globe and Mail, 19 March https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-unbalanced-world-of-global-governance/article4311549/
Clarkson, Stephen. 2008. Does North America Exist? Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11. Washington, D.C., Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
Clarkson, Stephen. 2005. Presentation to the 38TH PARLIAMENT, 1ST SESSION STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE, 2 November < http://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/38-1/FAAE/meeting-66/evidence>
Clarkson, Stephen. 2002. “Canada’s Secret Constitution: NAFTA, WTO and the End of Sovereignty?” CCPA, October < https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National_Office_Pubs/clarkson_constitution.pdf
Clarkson, Stephen. 1998. Fearful Asymmetries: The Challenge of Comparing Continental Systems in a Globalizing World http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~clarkson/publications/fearful_pub.html
Clarkson, Stephen. 1982. Canada and the Reagan Challenge. Toronto: Canadian Institute for Economic Policy.
Clarkson, Stephen, ed. 1968. An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? Toronto: McClelland and Stewart for the University League for Social Reform.
Metro (Toronto). 2015. “A president Donald Trump would be a ‘tsunami’ for Canada: Prof”, (Toronto) Metro, 2 December < http://www.metronews.ca/news/toronto/2015/12/08/what-president-donald-trump-would-mean-for-canada.html>.
Welsh, Jennifer (2004) At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century. Toronto: Harper Collins.