A vision? Yeah, it's around here somewhere...
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 April 2005)

It's just as well that Canada's International Policy Statement, issued yesterday, begins by praising itself; certainly no one else will praise it. The first page brags that it "delivers on the Government's commitment to invest in our international role." Obviously, official Ottawa has grown so drunk on bureaucratic babble that it believes words and actions are much the same thing. In fact, these pages deliver nothing except pious declarations of intent.

Four major departments have put their brains together to design a "vision" for global engagement that will (as the subtitle says) lead us to A Role of Pride and Influence in the World. Unfortunately, there's little in these pages that anyone could call a vision. It is a rule of bureaucratic prose that simply mentioning the word "vision" proves you have one, somewhere, if only the public will look for it.

The review announces that we will employ more soldiers, give more foreign aid, and greatly increase our diplomatic corps. The soldiers will presumably go where they are needed, but every deployment will require making a decision, not this government's strong point so far. And the foreign aid? The report says we will concentrate on about 25 countries where Canada has some knowledge and experience rather than following the something-for-everybody policy that now has us spending in 150 nations.

Unfortunately, no one can say for sure whether the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) can make the tough choices that such a policy demands -- or, in fact, whether CIDA really wants to. And the statement doesn't provide much encouragement when it says we'll focus on "the key sectors that drive development -- health, education, governance, indigenous private sector development and the environment."

That's not a set of priorities, that's a wish list. It covers almost everything that foreign aid touches, except the part about Swiss bank accounts for dictators.

As Paul Martin writes in the introduction, his government will deal with everything from terrorism to disappearing fish stocks. Under government guidance, Canada will maintain its prosperity by being what we have to be: "Smart, focused, agile, creative and dogged in the pursuit of our interests." (That must be a description of our enlarged diplomatic corps.)

Martin also wants to help prevent conflict, or halt it after it starts. We'll improve human welfare around the world and get down to the hard work of building health, education and justice systems in foreign lands.

There just isn't any damn thing we won't do. And all of it, by the way, will be good for us. As Martin writes, "Remember: There is no contradiction between Canada doing well and Canada doing good." Canada's International Policy Statement offers something for everyone. The altruistic can take heart from all the good we will do in the world. Meanwhile, the selfish can count on making money.

It's said that Martin tried to inject some life and authority into this document by importing Jennifer Welsh, the Canadian Oxford scholar who wrote At Home in the World: Canada's Global Vision for the 21st Century. If so, she left no noticeable impression on the ideas or the tone of the statement.

It appears to be written in the manner we know as Martinian, a way of projecting admirable intentions without saying anything significant. Martinian is a literary style constructed by civil servants and consultants who imitate the way Martin himself might write if he had the time and inclination.

It leans heavily on the cliches favoured by consultants. "The world is changing," we read. (When was the world last seen to be not changing?) It also says, "The future belongs to knowledge-based economies." What business page hasn't already bored us silly with that self-evident mantra? Is there even one citizen who doesn't know it by heart? Will someone now step forward and defy Ottawa's finest intellectuals by claiming that the future belongs to ignorance-based economies?

Moreover, the statement says, "We must build today for the world of tomorrow." Where could anyone find an idiot so dim as to write that sentence? In Ottawa, of course.

Much bureaucratic effort went into this report, during 16 long months. The anonymous authors, after all, had complicated problems to solve. How to say nothing while appearing to say something. How to encourage the citizens to be proud when there's little to be proud about. And now the labours of the policy-makers in the Pearson Building are done. Having failed to explain what they will probably not do in future, they can now go back to not doing whatever it was they were not doing before.

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