Talk shops

The Harper government keeps announcing its intention to promote democracy, but doesn’t seem interested in talking about it

So there’s this thing called the Community of Democracies. It’s truth in labelling: it’s a loose international assembly of countries that at least claim to be democracies. It’s not perfect — Egypt and Yemen signed its founding declaration in 2000, apparently with a straight face — but it puts democratic freedom at the heart of its mission and makes that aspiration a guiding principle for its existence and action.

Every year the Community of Democracies has a ministerial meeting. Steven Fletcher, who was then the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, attended on the Harper government’s behalf in 2009. “I appreciated the opportunity to meet with experts on democracy assistance and government officials to share Canada’s commitment to take on a more active role in supporting democracy on the world stage,” he said at the time. Lawrence Cannon, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs, attended last year’s ministerial conference. “The Community of Democracies is an important forum for supporting and strengthening democracy around the world,” Cannon said then.

You know where this is going, don’t you. This year’s meeting of the Community of Democracies is in Vilnius, Lithuania, right now. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, is attending, as is his colleague Radek Sikorski from Poland. The Finnish president will be there, and the prime ministers of Slovakia and Kosovo. So, perhaps more significantly, is Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State. State Dept. officials told reporters yesterday: “During the last two years, the Community of Democracies has undergone a transformation from a forum where democracies could get together into a platform where democracies are getting things done. And that shift from an aspirational body to an operational platform has occurred with strong support from Secretary Clinton and at a time when there is a real need for international backing for civil society and newly emerging democracies.”

Canadians at the conference include Kim Campbell, who had a summer job as Prime Minister 18 years ago; Jeremy Kinsman, a retired diplomat who isn’t really in this government’s good books; and Senator Reynell Andreychuk, who chairs the Senate committee on foreign affairs. Sen. Andreychuk has an M.C. role on a panel where other people will do most of the talking.

This isn’t a catastrophe, but we can throw it on the pile of missed opportunities. The Harper government keeps announcing its intention to promote democracy. I see no reason to doubt its sincerity. I’m amazed, however, when Canadian leaders don’t show up at the “operational platform” where Canada’s values are supposed to be put to practice. Especially when they did so last year and the year before.

In an interview in the new issue of Maclean’s, Prime Minister Harper says, “We don’t fund talk shops anymore, we fund aid that actually makes a difference.” Perhaps it’s naïve to suggest talking can make a difference.