What is Canada’s reputation, really?

Paul Wells on the impact of foreign policy on our reputation, and Canadians’ outsize sense of anxiety about how the world sees us
Darren Calabrese/CP
Darren Calabrese/CP

How are you feeling about Hungary these days? Earthy, mitteleuropäische old country, redolent of paprika, graced by the meandering Danube, nice vacation getaway, maybe? I would totally get that. Me, I’m leery about the place these days because its prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a bit of a mess, governing in a country where anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment are spiking, scrupulous journalists are on the outs, and Vladimir Putin is warmly greeted.

But that’s just me. You have to be fairly well-read on international news to have caught most of that stuff about Orban, and you need to be obtusely focused on high politics to let any of that taint your view of what is, after all, largely the same Hungary this year as five years ago or five years from now. 

Much the same point could be made about Canada, which shone this week in two new international rankings. Portland’s “Soft Power 30,” a measure of international influence, ranks Canada fifth — ahead of Japan, Brazil and China to list only the most surprising few. And the Reputation Institute’s 2015 Country RepTrak, which measures “the reputation of 55 countries based on levels of trust, esteem, admiration and respect,” has Canada in first place.

This news aligns poorly with a certain current of thought in foreign-policy circles to the effect that the Harper government has shattered Canada’s reputation and that the world snickers behind our back as we drag our knuckles around like a bunch of baboons. I am hardly even paraphrasing. In a news story on the weekend about some pro-Western Ukrainian protesters who holed up in Canada’s embassy in Kyiv for a few days in 2014, retired diplomat Bob Fowler was called in to provide some familiar discourse. “We’re not the considered, intelligent players that we used to be… We have been all mouth and no brain… I would argue we have very little credibility within NATO…. Our posturing is utterly vacuous.”

My purpose is not to take issue here with Fowler’s general line of analysis. (Although I really wonder what whip-smart Bob Fowler would have done if he’d been Canada’s ambassador in Ukraine in 2014, an hour after his staff told him a bunch of protesters were squatting in the lobby. Kick them out? Snipers from the fading Yanukovych regime shot 100 other protesters where they stood in the street less than two days after the protesters rushed the embassy gate. But perhaps my question is utterly vacuous.) My point is that most people don’t follow politics anywhere very closely. Not even at home, and certainly not in other countries. That countries’ reputations are made, for the most part, over many years by their populations, not in a few years by their governments.

Last week I sat for quite a long time while a documentary film crew asked me questions about Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. I said the government’s record is mixed, that its motives have been complex and that its effect on big international challenges has sometimes been helpful and other times less so. I got the impression my answers would be difficult to reconcile with the Fowleresque line the doc crew had been fed, before my arrival, by a succession of Fort Pearson lifers.

The last question was about what I thought Canada’s reputation in the world is these days. I said, approximately, that it would depend who you ask. If you ask career diplomats from Canada, many would say the current gang have pushed our once-proud nation off a cliff for giggles. Career diplomats from other countries would note, sometimes with dismay, divergences from long-held positions on climate change, Israel and several other questions. But if you stop a stranger on the street in Frankfurt or Rio or Cape Town, you’d probably get a distracted and reasonably familiar opinion: that Canada remains a country of relative fairness and welcome, whose people don’t fuss much and can usually be relied on to help when asked. The Harper government, like its predecessors, has affected this vague impression mostly around the edges. And sometimes for the good — as, indeed, when its embassy staff refused to push some kids into the Kyiv streets out of excessive regard for neutrality while an obnoxious regime was busy collapsing onto the slag heap of history early last year.

Mostly Canada is a big country whose direction any government can nudge, but not much more. A big, generous country — a little too generously bestowed with a compulsion toward anxious self-regard perhaps, but on the scale of human weakness, that’s far from the worst after all.