Burney and Hampson on Canada and Afghanistan

Defence & Human Security, News

No, the title isn’t wrong.

Former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney and well regarded Carleton international affairs professor Fen Osler Hampson currently are in the news1 for their provocative article in Foreign Affairs, “How Obama lost Canada.”2

The gist of the article is that Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is deteriorating. Among the long list of examples and incidents that illustrate how Washington’s “neglect [of Canada] has grown so much as to be malign,” Canada’s sacrifices in Afghanistan are notably stunning.

Burney was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government transition coordinator in 2006 and a member of its Manley Panel on Afghanistan in 2008. From his Ottawa perch Hampson frequently praised this government’s approach on defence and foreign policy. Yet these Canadian foreign policy insiders effectively eviscerate the government’s rationalizations for the Canadian Forces combat mission in Afghanistan. Canada was there to maintain its influence and advance its interests with Washington. And it failed.

Burney and Hampson start by calling into question the Obama Administration’s leadership in the war. “In Afghanistan, Canada is now rapidly scaling back its substantial commitment to the military mission, thanks to the United States’ increasingly erratic, if not embarrassing, direction.”

The desire to maintain a Canadian seat at the tables of influence in NATO, and more particularly with the U.S., has driven Canada’s going-along-to-get-along response to many military decisions in Afghanistan. The result? “Canada has spent billions on the war and lost over 150 soldiers, proportionately more than any other ally, but has received no tangible dividend for its support on bilateral or multilateral issues of concern to it.”

Burney and Hampson combine Canadian contributions to the war in Afghanistan with Canadian involvement in the Libya campaign in 2011 and effectively dismiss the high-minded rationales Canada advanced for both (allowing girls to enter school in Afghanistan, freeing the oppressed from Gadhafi’s dictatorship in Libya), and even for prosecuting the war on terror. “Canada also participated in NATO’s mission in Libya—where a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, commanded military operations. Canada has no tangible interests of any kind in Afghanistan or Libya.”

(No tangible interests in Afghanistan or Libya? Such analysis from eminent public commentators would have been most helpful before Canada plunged into these wars.)

Having laid bare their understanding of the real reason Canadians fought and died in Afghanistan, Burney and Hampson conclude that it all came a cropper. “[Canada’s] participation in those countries, proportionately larger than any other ally, was intended primarily to strengthen the partnership with the United States on the theory that solid multilateral commitments would engender more productive bilateral relations. That proved not to be the case.”

To sum up: The U.S. fumbled the ball in the Afghanistan war, but Canada went along anyway. Canada spent billions participating in that war and lost over 150 soldiers plus non-combatants, with thousands more  injured. All of this to advance Canada’s standing with the U.S.—a strategy that failed.

In the Canada First Defence Strategy (2008) and in speeches following the Conservative government’s majority election win in May 2011, the Prime Minister and foreign minister John Baird pounded the rhetorical drum, chanting how Canada demonstrated international strength in both foreign and defence policy by showing willingness to employ military might.

If Burney and Hampson are correct—that using a strong military as the first foot forward in Canadian foreign policy has not met its primary objective of winning friends and influencing people in Washington—then maybe it’s time to look at other approaches.


1. Campbell Clark, 2012, Argument that Obama ‘lost Canada’ puts envoy on defensive, The Globe and Mail, June 27,

2. Reprinted in Derek Burney and Fen Hampson, 2012, How Obama lost Canada, iPolitics Inc., June 25,

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