University politics are more cutthroat than real politics, goes the thinking, because the stakes are so low.
A cynical observer could say the same thing about the politics surrounding Canadian foreign policy. Of late, they have been as vicious and contentious as anything in domestic politics.
But does Canada have enough international influence to justify the viciousness? And what are the stakes anyhow?
In Afghanistan, the stakes are arguably clear: The lives of Canadian soldiers. Decisions made by our political leaders have a direct bearing on the degree to which our society is willing to put those lives at risk in the service of a cause. The stakes of Canada’s Afghanistan policies are high for many people beyond our borders – for the Afghans themselves, obviously, but also for our NATO allies and for others in the region.
Whatever you think about decisions made and debates held in Canada over Afghanistan, they clearly have significant consequences, both domestic and international.
But can the same be said about Israel and Lebanon? Do the cutthroat domestic politics seen recently over the Middle East have any bearing on anything except… politics?
There is no doubt that politics in the Middle East is a high-stakes proposition. Many political decisions there have life-or-death consequences.
For those who live there.
But how important to Israelis or to Lebanese is Michael Ignatieff’s shifting opinion about the bombing of Qana? Or Stephen Harper’s opinion about Ignatieff’s opinion? Or Ignatieff’s opinion about Harper’s opinion about Ignatieff’s opinion?
George W. Bush’s opinions, sure. Tony Blair’s, probably. They lead countries whose politics have a palpable effect on events in the decades old Arab-Israeli conflict.
But is Canada a big enough international player for our political squabbles to have any consequences?
Or is that why the squabbles have become so vicious?
Domestically, the issue provokes passionate debate, but it does not have the same tangible effect on people’s lives as, say, the politics surrounding health care. Also, politicians sometimes use contentious issues like this to practice divide-and-conquer politics.
Internationally, Canada’s influence in the Middle East is probably limited. But it does have some. Witness Harper recently getting the Francophonie to back away from a resolution that recognized the suffering of Lebanese, but not Israeli, civilians in the recent conflict.
There was a time, though, when Canada played a central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fifty years ago this month, Canada’s External Affairs minister Lester B. Pearson proposed the first UN peacekeeping force to end the Suez crisis in Egypt. The creation of the UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force) won Pearson a Nobel Peace Prize the following year. The chairman of the Nobel committee said Pearson “contributed more than anyone else to save the world at that time”
For more on the Suez crisis and on Pearson’s accomplishment, check out an interview I produced of an erudite eyewitness – Sir Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary general at the UN. At the same link is an equally erudite debate about peacekeeping and Canada’s place in the world 50 years later.
(For an interactive map of the Suez crisis – click here)