Undervalued unAmerican activities: Britain will be the loser if we continue to presume too much upon Canadian benevolence, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
MENTION Canada in any Western foreign ministry today and you are guaranteed to get a benevolent smile. More than 1.5 million Canadian soldiers served in the First and Second World Wars and their feat is still honoured: Prime Minister Jean Chretien occupied a central position at the D-Day celebrations, and a monument dedicated to the Canadians who fought for the liberation of Europe was recently unveiled in London.

Yet opinion polls suggest that a miserly 2 per cent of people in this country consider Canada Britain's 'best friend', compared with 50 per cent for the United States. Gratitude is never a solid foundation for relations between states. But the neglect of relations with Canada is pervasive at the official level as well; nowhere is this more apparent than in London, and nowhere is it more foolish.

Where London feels the need to court Washington, it takes Canada's support for every Western policy for granted. Moreover, since Canadian politicians are not keen on baiting the British, by declaring a republic or using foul language in public, they do not benefit from the press coverage lavished on other former dominions, such as Australia.

This neglect is wrong. Canada is one of the few leading Western states that actually believes in fulfilling its international obligations and which continues to be of great importance to Britain.

Since the end of the Cold War, most governments have paid lip- service to the idea of transforming the United Nations into the linchpin of international security. Few Western leaders ever acknowledge that almost every proposal for the reform of the UN under discussion today has already been proposed by Canada at one time or another. Indeed, the major premises of Canada's foreign policy, so often dismissed in the past as Utopian or flaky, are now received wisdom - from the dangers inherent in the north-south poverty divide to the challenges of mass migration.

Canada's international devotion has not always been altruistic. Eager to dispel the view that Canadians are merely Americans denied US citizenship, Canada sought escape from Washington's shadow in multilateral institutions. For the Canadian military, participation in UN peace-keeping operations was also an insurance policy: since the US is bound to view any aggression against Canada as an attack upon itself, the only justification for the existence of Canada's armed forces was through higher international duties. In an attempt to defuse the dispute

between English- and French- speakers, Canada joined the group of French-speaking states as well as continuing its membership of the Commonwealth.

Yet, whatever the reasons for Canada's initial involvement, the country's contribution has been immense. No other government takes global duties more seriously; no other foreign ministry's officials spend so much time debating the future of international law and security. The least that Canadians could have expected was to be taken seriously by others - but this is not happening.

Food and natural resources continue to be Canada's chief exports, and both are greatly hampered by the European Union's tariffs, quotas and other protectionist measures, usually dressed up as health or environmental concerns. Disputes on fishing and timber products also have a direct impact on Canada's internal politics.

The impact of these problems can hardly be overestimated: no less than 28 per cent of British Columbia's gross domestic product is derived from logging and four provinces on Canada's Atlantic coast are devastated by the fisheries disputes, which may cost 100,000 Canadians their jobs. EU restrictions have managed to hit Canada's interests on its eastern and western shores in equal measure, just as the Ottawa federal government is trying to keep the country together.

Trade disputes may be unavoidable, but the gratuitous offence recently meted out to Canadian officials is of a different order. Canadians have participated in every UN peace-keeping operation ever mounted. Unlike the Europeans, who agonised for months over whether to deploy troops in former Yugoslavia, the Canadians were there from the beginning, in large numbers and in the most dangerous areas.

Unlike the Americans, who proclaimed high principles but refused to send any soldiers, the Canadians never presumed that they knew better than the Europeans what should be done in the Balkans. The result? Having assured Mr Chretien that he did not want air strikes in Bosnia, John Major changed his mind overnight and, without consulting the Canadians, fell into line with the Americans by advocating air attacks.

To add insult to injury, the Europeans and the US established a 'contact group' with Russia to impose peace on Bosnia. Canada was not only excluded from this group: it was not even consulted. Germany, which has sent no forces to Yugoslavia, is now fully engaged in Balkan peace negotiations while Canada, with soldiers on the ground, is expected to implement decisions taken secretly by others. Would Mr Major have accepted a similar arrangement for the British forces there?

The Canadians took the insult in their stride. For weeks, the UN debated its options for stopping the carnage in Rwanda. While Belgian troops ran away when the fighting started, Canada continued flying in relief supplies. It is a safe bet that when a UN operation is finally mounted, Canada's contribution will be brushed aside.

Privately, the British are keen to persuade Canada to remain engaged in Europe and particularly in Nato. But Ottawa's persistent inability to transform its large international commitment into any discernible advantage could ultimately have severe consequences: next time the UN seeks to recruit people to mop up yet another international crisis that no one wants to touch, it may find the Canadians less compliant. The resulting isolation could then draw Canada, by necessity, closer to the US - the very thing the Europeans supposedly want to prevent.

This may affect Britain more than many other Europeans. The UK is the second largest venue for Canadian direct investment and Canadian firms are the second largest group of foreign employers in Britain after the US. Nurturing friendly relations with Canada is therefore not a matter of sentiment but an utter necessity. Mr Major, though, in his now-familiar way, has managed to insult his Canadian counterpart in the worst possible way: by showing that he simply does not care.

During the D-Day commemorations, a banner on the Canadian High Commission in London proclaimed 'Canada Remembers'. It does remember indeed: all the contributions that the Europeans in general and Britain in particular are now so keen to forget.

The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)