Canada’s Soft Power and Public Diplomacy

Soft power, the term popularized in the 1990s by Harvard Political Science Professor Joseph Nye Jr., is hardly a new concept. As long as there have been states, and perhaps even before that, there have been choices with respect to how to pursue the national interest and promote the role, status, and standing of the state. I would argue that there is a continuum, from soft to hard, if you will, with the projection of power through the use of military might on the one end of that spectrum and the structured use of various diplomatic instruments on the other. When Nye talks about soft power, he is clearly alluding to the ‘ability to persuade through culture, values and ideas, as opposed to doing so through the use of coercion.’

For Canada, the predisposition to privilege diplomatic options has been the hallmark of its foreign policy since the end of WWII. Canada played a disproportionately large role in shaping and defining the postwar world order and consciously portrayed itself as a peacekeeper, a helpful fixer, and an honest broker. Canada was the arch-typical middle power, especially during the so-called golden age of Canadian foreign policy (the Pearson era) from 1945 through 1957, and again in the late 1990s, when Lloyd Axworthy was the Foreign Minister. Pearson virtually invented peacekeeping as a diplomatic instrument, and was instrumental in bringing the development agenda to the attention of the world. Similarly, Minister Axworthy was all about defining Canada as a leader in values and principles, particularly through his campaign to reduce the number of land mines in the world.

Foreign policy typically reflects deeply held national preferences, both philosophical and ideological, while, at the same time, remaining sensitive to political and economic realities. It is shaped, inter alia, by the habits of minds of its citizens, by previous policies and practices, by the personal preferences of leaders and the priorities of parties, by institutional realities, and, to a very great extent by structural realities. Canadian foreign policy was, moreover, influenced by two basic and inter-related facts: the disproportionately large role that the United States has played in the economic, social, cultural and political lives of Canadians, and the very significant commitment that Canada has made to the principles and practices of multilateral diplomacy and multilateral management. Canada‘s voluntarist impulse, and its commitment to a soft power strategy, reflected in its foreign policy practices and priorities, was particularly pronounced during periods when its relations with the United States were most secure, which is to say in the late 1940s and the 1950s, and again in the 1990s. This impulse was decidedly less pronounced during periods when the relationship with the United States required more attention, particularly in the 1970s and after 2001. In any event, the pursuit of a soft power strategy was anything but serendipitous; rather, it was a carefully constructed strategy designed to influence the minds and the hearts of foreign nationals and allow Canada to play a larger role (economically, socially and politically) than its material circumstances and its military might would suggest. 

The events of 11th September 2001 triggered a global debate on both soft power and on public diplomacy. On the one hand, hard power, or at least the notion of national security, returned to prominence in the United States and beyond. On the other, managing the perceptions of the public (both at home and abroad) became key for many states. As Ministries of Foreign Affairs around the world scrambled to develop a public diplomacy policy of their own, soft power became increasingly fashionable. Changes in diplomatic practices were driven by the desire for transparency, for security, and for transnational collaboration. “The new public diplomacy is thus much more than a technical instrument of foreign policy. It has in fact become part of the changing fabric of international relations.” Branding, policies aimed at clarifying and promoting national identity, student exchanges, edu-marketing, along with the othertools in the public diplomacy toolbox, became more and more popular.

Interestingly, in the early part of the new century, Canada seemed to have lost its way.  Foreign nationals, especially Americans, no longer saw Canada as a peacekeeper, a helpful fixer or an honest broker.  And, given the Canadian decision not to participate in the Iraq War, there was even some question as to whether Canada was a trusted ally, which was a cornerstone of Canada‘s postwar foreign policy. Canadian commentators bemoaned the decline in Canada‘s standing and stature on the world stage.  What was equally interesting is that Canada‘s liberal stance on key social policy issues, its success in coming to terms with both deficit and debt, and its apparent solution to the intractable ‘Quebec problem‘, led to the famous Economist Magazine cover, featuring a moose with sunglasses. The cover story declared that Canada was cool again! All of this led Canadian governments to rethink their public diplomacy or branding strategy and get back on track. It is instructive to note, however, that the term public diplomacy fell from grace in Ottawa … perhaps because it was too closely associated with the former government and its most famous Foreign Minister or because it lacked a unique Canadian flavor.

In the end, I believe that the argument in favor of a well organized, highly structured, and effective strategy of public diplomacy is both simple and compelling.  Soft power and public diplomacy are both critical and increasingly important elements in the foreign policy arsenal of all governments, and reflect a changed and changing world which is characterized by growing social networking and a communications and technology revolution that has profoundly reduced the distance between and among the peoples of the world. Moreover, this is especially so in Canada where our two top priorities, a strong and stable relationship with the United States, and an ability to play a significant role in the success and the management of the multilateral world order, are best served by a carefully crafted and systematically orchestrated strategy of public diplomacy.

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