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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aligning Words and Deeds

In a recent speech given by Foreign Minister John Baird in Ottawa on March 27th, an excerpt of which was published in the Ottawa Citizen[1], the Minister framed the Government’s positions on a number of foreign policy issues as being grounded in moral concerns around right and wrong. The positions taken by Canada vis a vis the Ukraine, the Commonwealth, and Israel, have all, according to Mr. Baird, been about promoting freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is absolutely right, he suggested, to pursue these ends and absolutely wrong to oppose them. For the time being, let’s ignore the fact that his comments suggest that there is only one absolute interpretation of “freedom”, “democracy”, “human rights” and the “rule of law” and also that the Canadian federal Government is in possession of that knowledge.

He then went on to say that diplomacy, which has traditionally been about trade-offs, finding common ground and negotiation, “is increasingly about public advocacy” and the “marketing” of ideas. “And as we think about what we to say and do, it’s just as important to think about how.” Canadian foreign policy is now about the marketing of ideas using digital technologies and the Internet. Admittedly he says this is a “very public arena” but “networked technologies make it easier than ever for people all over the world to share information and ideas, to assemble and organize, and to shape the course of global events… Governments are no longer the sole dominant actors in international affairs.” 

I believe the Minister’s comments about the changing environment in which all governments operate are spot on. Governments need to do the things that are good and right to do; there is a very public marketplace of ideas that are competing for both attention and efficacy; governments need to pay attention to “how” they do things as opposed to simply deciding and imposing; the internet does, like never before, enable the growth of new information but also its spread; and a host of digital technologies enables the ability of groups of individuals to self-organize and produce public goods and services that in the past have been the exclusive purview of governments. 

I believe the minister’s comments reflect a clear understanding of the changing landscape of government. What I don’t understand, however, is that given that understanding, why what’s apparently good and true for international affairs, is not equally good and true for national affairs. 

A marketplace of ideas certainly exists in Canada but for all intents and purposes the Government seems intent on turning it into a monopoly. A country as large and diverse as Canada will always have, to its strength, a broad mix of ideas and adherents to those ideas. Successful democratic governments embrace that diversity and build on it, seeing the validity of each and teasing out of their combination that whole which is more than the sum of the parts. In so doing, a democratic government is representative of all, not just the champion of one group’s dominance over others. Yet today's federal Government seems uncomfortable with diversity, preferring the certainty of ideological answers over the uncertainty of having to learn from others. How can you be a leader if you don't have the answer?

This Canadian marketplace of ideas is certainly public – more so with each passing day – yet the Government goes to inordinate lengths to stifle the flow of information, to obstruct the creation of new information that it finds inconvenient, and discredit alternative points of view. Its obsession with message control, its disdain for science, and its predisposition for negative advertising do not reflect what the Minister feels should be the case internationally.

The Government opposes the self-organization of the people’s elected representatives, especially those from within its own party. They are forced to read scripted answers in Parliament. They are consistently forced to put their party above their obligation to their constituents and they punished for cooperation. The Government further opposes and creates barriers to the self-organization of citizens who may be responding to a challenge or opportunity they see but who may find themselves on the wrong side of the views or priorities of the Government. Such self-organized communities are in Canada often labelled as “radicals”, “foreign agitators” or “enemies of the state” in much the same way that Russian President Putin has labelled those Ukrainians who toppled a corrupt, sclerotic regime.

And this brings us back to the notion that governments need to do those things that are good and right to do. The problem here is that there is no absolute definition of what is good and right to do in such a diverse country as Canada. What is “good” to do in one place, may prove unhelpful in another. What is deemed “the right thing” for one group, may seem perverse for another. The assumption implied by Minister Baird that the Government has a lock on understanding the notions of “freedom”, “democracy”, “human rights” and the “rule of law”  is really just Orwellian doublespeak. His focus on advocacy suggests that governing in a democratic state is a matter of imposing or selling one interpretation of these ideas on everyone instead of shepherding a collective intelligence. 

Despite the lofty words, for him to propose that the world should be persuaded solely on the basis of Canada’s words and not its deeds is both hypocritical and narcissistic -- for it is truly narcissistic to believe that only you have access to the truth

The reality of Canada and its relationship to its elected leaders is like the old story of the four blind men and the elephant. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant and “understands” what he is encountering. One feels the trunk and knows it’s a snake. Another feels the leg and knows it’s a tree. Another feels the elephant’s side and believes it’s a wall. Still another feels the curly tail and thinks it’s a pig. They can all argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, but it’s a totally meaningless and unproductive argument. All of the blind men suffer from incomplete knowledge in much the same way that our political leaders are often blind to the full story around any number of complex realities that governments must deal with on a regular basis. 

For our political leaders, as it is with the blind men, the “how” of a solution, lies in communicating with others who may have a different take on reality; and developing a trusted relationship with them sufficient to believe in the validity of each other’s partial view. Then it becomes a shared exercise in creativity to find that whole that allows each view to remain valid simultaneously – in essence, what can be a pig, a tree, a wall and snake all at the same time. In a modern complex democracy like Canada, this is the value adding job of our political leadership. It is not the selling of one view over another. It is a job of facilitating co-creation as much as it is one of enabling co-implementation. 

I think Canadians generally and honestly support the tenor of Minister Baird’s words. I just wish the Minister and his Government believed in them as much as Canadians do, to the extent that they would put them into practice.

[1] John Baird, “Clear values in a changing world”, The Ottawa Citizen, 28 March 2014: A11


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