A new rallying cry

Jessica West Defence & Human Security

English/Anglais IS2009-8499-03 October 16, 2009 Port-au-Prince, Haiti  Reminisce of past soldiers who served on the United Nation mission MINUSTAH. This montage of Name tags and badges in displayed in the canteen of the Port-au-prince, Haiti’s United Nations Headquarters Lunch hut known as the “Teaki hut”. Photo: Corporal Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Combat Camera French/Français IS2009-8499-03 16 octobre 2009 Port-au-Prince (Haïti)  Souvenir de militaires qui ont participé à la Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH). Ces bandes patronymiques et insignes sont affichés dans la cantine, connue sous le nom de « Teaki Hut », du quartier général de l’ONU, à Port-au-Prince, en Haïti. Photo : Caporal Shilo Adamson, Caméra de combat des Forces canadiennes

Photo : Caporal Shilo Adamson, Caméra de combat des Forces canadiennes

Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 4 Winter 2015

It’s time to reformulate Canada’s foreign policy

The ongoing, complex war in Syria, with its violent tentacles and humanitarian shockwaves, is a harsh reminder that the global security context needs rethinking. The focus on counterterrorism, which has dominated foreign and security policy in the West both at home and abroad, has failed. Despite the temptation to rally around it in the aftermath of the attack on Paris in November, a new rallying cry is needed—one that is capable of seeing beyond war to the long-term demands of peace.

Back to the future: A nostalgic call for change in Canada

Canada’s new Liberal government could lead this effort as it seeks to change the course of Canada’s foreign and security policy. While the precise form and implications of this policy shift are still to be seen, there are early indicators of the direction it might take.

The federal election was fought largely over the values and identity that shape Canada as a nation. And although the Liberal Party ran on a platform of “Real Change,” it was imbued with nostalgia for the past and a desire to return to traditional Canadian roles (Marche 2015). During the pre-election Munk Debate on Foreign Policy, Justin Trudeau invoked memories of not only his father, but also Liberal legacies, including peacekeeping and human rights (Lum 2015).

This nostalgia was perfectly captured when Trudeau announced Canadian withdrawal from the combat mission against the Islamist State in Iraq and Syria, declaring, “We’re back.” The Guardian described this moment as a return of Canada’s compassionate and constructive voice in the world (Murphey 2015).

While largely symbolic thus far, the changes under way are more than rhetoric. In an op-ed published by The Huffington Post, Trudeau (2015) argued that “the world needs Canada to be a meaningful member of the UN,” while providing a detailed plan to resume Canada’s contribution to UN peacekeeping. Meanwhile, the appointment of Stéphane Dion as Minister of Foreign Affairs has been interpreted as Canada’s return to its ‘honest broker’ role on the international stage (Gormley 2015). Roland Paris—an advocate of peacebuilding—has been appointed a senior advisor.

Under the new government, Canada has also pledged to sign the landmark Arms Trade Treaty, regulating international trade in conventional weapons. Canada’s conspicuous absence from this treaty has left it standing alone among friends and allies in NATO, including the United States, leaving civil society as the sole Canadian voice in the process.

Canada’s human security moment

Despite various nods to prior Liberal attributes of Canadian foreign policy, the new government has skirted any explicit references to the notion of human security, which once constituted a key foundation of Canada’s foreign policy.

The United Nations Development Programme coined the term in its 1994 Human Development Report. Even before this, protections for individuals had had standing in international human rights law. While not a uniquely Canadian concept, for a decade the idea of human security animated Canada’s international role and self-image—one the country was proud to champion around the world.

Human security was most famously articulated in Canada by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. His 1997 article, “Canada and human security: The need for leadership,” promoted a renewed definition of security that went beyond the absence of military threat to include the comprehensive safety and well-being of the individual. Axworthy argued that Canada had both “the capacity and the credibility” to lead this effort (p. 184).

Human security resonated with a government in search of a new lens for international security in the post-Cold War world. Human security also provided the glue to bind together the multiple threads of security policy that emerged at this time, including environmental degradation, migration, and ethnic conflict. And it resonated emotionally with a country in search of unity and inspiration following the 1995 referendum (Donaghy 2003). It also conjured up familiar images of Canada from its “golden era” as a “peacekeeper,” “honest broker,” and “helper fixer” (Bosold c.2006), at a time when peacekeeping was literally under fire.

The focus on human security, both in Canada and abroad, was criticized. The concept was sometimes viewed as a largely rhetorical tool. While some argued that it substituted talk for investment and action (Oliver & Hampson 1997-98), others claimed that, while it was aspirational, it proved challenging to operationalize (Nossal 1998-99; Paris 2001). It was hard to resolve the tension between state security and human security. Human security seemed a spur to intervention in events and situations that those involved in state security were sometimes eager to avoid. Although generally positioned as complementary to state security, in practice human security was often caught between the protection of people and the rights of states, particularly when states harmed or failed to protect their own citizens.

Decisions to intervene—or not to intervene—were often influenced by political interests, revealing an underlying instrumental view of human security that tied security abroad to security at home. Human security mattered because “our own security is increasingly indivisible from that of our neighbours” (Axworthy 2001, p. 20).

Finally, human security advocates were perplexed by the question of when to use force. As Ernie Regehr (2015, p. 6) noted, the option to “turn to military action to set things right” remained a possibility, particularly when prevention failed and vulnerable people needed protection. And yet “the resort to force, even to military force that is clearly superior in every way to that of an adversary, is predictably ineffective when the objective is stable governance in a deeply divided society” (Regehr 2015, p. 3). Perhaps in practice, human security did not go far enough in reimagining security.

Nonetheless, Canadian global promotion of the vision of human security resulted in concrete efforts by the international community of states to better protect individuals. Consider the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and the subsequent Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which for the first time sought to articulate clear guidelines for the limits of state sovereignty when the state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens. Canada also took a lead role in the Mine Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Committee on Small Arms, which eventually led to the Small Arms Treaty. Ernie Regehr (2015, p. 140) characterized these efforts as “less than perfect, but more than worthwhile.”

But the most significant impact of human security went beyond these examples of implementation. What was commonly described as a weakness—its amorphous, often ambiguous meaning—was critical to its power. As Roland Paris (2001) argued, human security worked best as a rallying cry. This cry was rooted in a consistent moral imperative to protect all individuals (Hillmer & Chapnick 2001, p. 69).

Human security offered a new way of conducting foreign and security policy. It was based on multilateral cooperation that extended beyond the military and beyond the state itself to include a broad coalition of NGOs, academics, citizens, and likeminded countries (Donaghy 2003, p. 43). In 2001 Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade established the Canadian Consortium on Human Security to “facilitate the exchange of information, analysis and dialogue on human security issues” among actors including government, academics, and civil society (FATDC 2007). Canada’s international achievements during this era are in large part due to the type of cooperative, multilateral diplomacy that was enabled by human security’s broad, unifying vision.

A new foreign policy framework for Canada

In the aftermath of 9/11 the landscape for foreign and security policy shifted once again. The comprehensive approach of human security was severely restricted in response to the dominant, narrow focus on counterterrorism. The rallying cry was replaced with a war cry.

The salience of human security in Canadian foreign policy decreased as the world came to be seen by many around the globe as one that was divided into good and evil, friends and foes. The relative value of diplomatic/humanitarian and military approaches to international security challenges shifted toward the military. As a consequence, Canada lost standing on the global stage. In 2010 Canada failed to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Its role in Middle East peace processes shrank. Contributions from civil society, academia, and multilateral partners lost value.

The post-9/11 strategy has failed on the most basic level while raising a host of moral questions. Writing in the aftermath of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, John Siebert (2014, p. 3) argued that “Canada has been blinded by its preoccupation with a military response to the War on Terror and misguided attempts to transform Afghanistan, without paying attention to the fundamental principles of building a sustainable peace in a conflict zone.”

The massive flight of refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the recent attacks by ISIS in Paris are reminders that counterterrorism is an insufficient strategy. Canada—and its friends and allies—need a more comprehensive policy response to current humanitarian crises.
Canada thus finds itself in another moment of flux. How can Canada “build on Canadian foreign policy traditions so as to adapt Canada’s international contribution to this changing world” (Axworthy 1997, p. 185)?

In recommitting to the United Nations and to peacekeeping, the Trudeau government has signaled its readiness for this challenge. However, other tools and forums are needed to respond to ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as such pressing issues as climate change, migration, and disease. Finally, the new federal government needs to engage the broad coalition of actors that made Canadian foreign policy under the mantra of human security successful.

It is unlikely that the concept of human security will again take centre stage. The world has changed. And Canada has been changed by the world, particularly by its experience in Afghanistan, which called into question the very values and ideals that many Canadians believed were at stake.

If Canada is to demonstrate global leadership and new thinking, it needs a renewed, unifying vision of security. Building this vision is a job not just for government, but for civil society and academia. Together let us start to imagine the long-term conditions of sustainable peace.



Axworthy, Lloyd. 2001. Human security and global governance: Putting people first. Global Governance 7, pp. 19-23.

—–. 1997. Canada and human security: The need for leadership. International Journal 52:2, pp. 183-196.

Bosold, David. c. 2006. The politics of self-righteousness: Canada’s foreign policy and the human security agenda.

Donaghy, Greg. 2003. All god’s children: Lloyd Axworthy, human security and Canadian foreign policy, 1996–2000. Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 10:2, pp. 39-58.

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2007. Canadian Consortium on Human Security.

Gormley, Shannon. 2015. Gormley: Selection of Stéphane Dion sends strong message to the world. The Ottawa Citizen. November 9.

Hillmer, Norman & Adam Chapnick. 2001. The Axworthy Revolution in Fen Osler Hampson, Norman Hillmer & Maureen Appel Molot, eds. Canada Among Nations 2001: The Axworthy Legacy (Toronto: Oxford University Press).

Lum, Zi-Ann. 2015. Munk debate highlights: Trudeau defensive after NDP attack against father. The Huffington Post. September 28.

Marche, Stephen. 2015. Trudeau won because the youth want the old Canada back. The Huffington Post. October 21.

Murphey, Jessica. 2015. Canada to end airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, new Prime Minister Trudeau says. The Guardian. October 21.

Nossal, Kim Richard. 1998-99. Pinchpenny diplomacy: The decline of “good international citizenship” in Canadian foreign policy. International Journal 54:1, pp. 88-105.

Oliver, Dean & Fen Osler Hampson. 1997-98. Pulpit diplomacy: A critical assessment of the Axworthy doctrine. International Journal 53:3, pp. 379-

Paris, Roland. 2001. Human security: Paradigm shift or hot air? International Security 26:2, pp. 87-102.

Regehr, Ernie. 2015. Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot be Won on the Battlefield. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Siebert, John. 2014. Time for a new Canadian security and defence policy. The Ploughshares Monitor 35:2, p. 3.

Trudeau, Justin. 2015. The world needs Canada to be a meaningful member of the UN. The Huffington Post. September 27.

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