We're sidelined by soft power

What ever happened to soft power? Its advocates seem to be flourishing professionally. But what have they to say about the affairs of the day, such as nuclear proliferation or Haiti? On nuclear proliferation, we all know now that the Americans, and almost everyone else, badly overestimated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But we also know now they badly underestimated the international trade in nuclear materials to rogue states (and most Western governments still would if the American invasion of Iraq had not frightened Libya's Col. Gadhafi). You can't just chant "BUSH LIED!" History, as is its wont, has moved on. What shall we do?

We need better intelligence or, if we decide that's not really possible, some plan for dealing with inherently inadequate intelligence. Yet Canada basically doesn't do foreign intelligence. We also need some sort of firm plan for dealing with nuclear proliferation. Even in Europe, the realization that biting America's ankles doesn't qualify is painfully sinking in and policy is changing.

In a story I don't recall seeing in Maclean's, in late January Germany's foreign minister told Britain's Daily Telegraph that of course there were no plans for a European superstate. Two days later, "senior German officials" told the Telegraph the quarrel with the U.S. over Iraq had been "catastrophic" for Germany and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had become "a prisoner" of French President Jacques Chirac's anti-war campaign. (Also, the implosion of its fledgling democracy makes Russia an increasingly unsuitable third partner in this supposedly enlightened alternative to America's yee-haw foreign policy.)

Moreover, while many Canadians seem to regard the American concern with militant Islamism as redneck xenophobia, in France they've voted to ban headscarves in schools while the ultra-liberal Netherlands is trying to expel thousands of illegal immigrants and Denmark is undertaking immigration reforms openly aimed at radical imams. Such policies put those governments at risk from terrorism that won't be diminished by insulting George Bush especially since, unlike Canadians, they don't secretly know the U.S. must defend them no matter what.

The New York Times, not exactly pro-Bush, recently noted that despite "headlines around the world about how American credibility has been reduced to tatters," its allies are now seeking to work more closely with the U.S. to keep WMDs out of the hands of rogue states. Even Hans Blix now says "We Europeans cannot simply resist forceful action by the United States and leave it at that. We have to take positive action also. We have to push the United States to use international organizations to face threats to our common security."

Right. We must face the threats not deny them. And only the U.S. has the hard power to do so. Yet Canada's government dithers on whether to make a typical "all aid short of help" offer on missile defence involving neither money nor sites, while our foreign minister pushes hard for a treaty to ban weapons in space. The high-tech U.S. military relies on satellite communications, which it must protect from bad guys who laugh at treaties. We're trying to make sure it can't. And we will fail. So far soft power looks like weakness.

What about Haiti? It should be the ideal spot for a kinder, gentler Canadian intervention. First, it's in serious need not of a clean military operation to oust the villains but of some of the sensitive nation-building liberals tend to favour. Second, such an intervention would have the quality appealing to liberals of having almost no relevance to our national interest, unless you believe (a) all failed states are breeding grounds for terror and (b) we as well as the Americans are threatened if terror comes to North America. Third, Haiti is a French-speaking nation, and we have francophone regiments (OK, we're down to one francophone regular force regiment). But we can't do it.

We haven't got the ships or the planes, and the Van Doos, as horribly overextended as everyone else in our military, just left for Afghanistan. On the TV news Monday night, the prime minister said we were monitoring the situation in Haiti closely and were concerned. In other words, we're impotent and frustrated. I'm not sure they give Nobel Peace Prizes for that.

There was a time when leftists were prone to expansive, even daffy visions of remaking the world. But they knew, as only a few like historian Jack Granatstein now seem to, that such plans require even more robust military capabilities than realpolitik is likely to. In his excellent new book Who Killed the Canadian Military? Mr. Granatstein says that because "soft power" meant military neglect, "Canada has ceased to matter internationally." Ooops.

Lloyd Axworthy promised us a world transformed, not ignored. Well? What can "soft power" do on nuclear proliferation, or even Haiti? Guys?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson