Balancing Foreign and Domestic

June 2, 2005
Michael Ignatieff

The Toronto Star

My subject is the relationship between Canada's foreign policy and its domestic agenda, between the way it governs itself at home and the way it projects power and influence abroad.

My message is simple. Foreign policy is not social work; it is the promotion and defence of our citizens and their interests overseas. If we are distracted and divided at home, we cannot project power and influence abroad. Canada matters to the world only to the degree that Canada remains united at home.

We can't get the balance between foreign and domestic policy right unless both are aligned to serve the fundamental purpose of national government: maintaining the national unity of our country. This is what distinguishes the functions of the federal civil service from those of provinces and municipalities.

In every decision you make, there are two questions to ask: Will this policy weaken or strengthen the capacity of the federal government to maintain a united Canada ? Will this policy strengthen or compromise the equality and indivisibility of Canadian citizenship?

I tell my students that good public policy is built on a stubborn respect for facts, however inconvenient they may turn out to be. But good public policy is also disciplined by the art of the possible.

When an official has presented the available options, it is up to elected representatives to make the choice. All the choices are hard. Often they are between lesser evils. In making these choices, the public's expectations are unforgiving: Give us leadership, they clamour, provided none of us pays any price.

But politics is not just about making friends, it is also about defeating enemies. We measure greatness in politicians, not just by the number of their friends, but by the quality of their enemies, by the types of interests they are prepared to buck, in the name of the public interest.

A true leader expands the boundaries of possibility. Pierre Trudeau did not give us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we were clamouring for. He gave us the Charter we never thought was possible.

If leadership is the heart of good public policy, accountability is its soul. You owe an account of our stewardship. You exercise power, not in your name, but in the name of citizens.

An equal partnership requires respect by the federal government for provincial jurisdiction and equal respect by the provinces for the key federal jurisdiction: maintaining the equality of citizenship for all Canadians.

The test that our political system and our federal bureaucracy must pass is whether it represents us all. The public service has been a vital ladder of social promotion for all Canadians. Equality is not just an ideal in Canada : It's a necessity.

The federal civil service has to prove - every day - that all Canadians are equal, and that all Canadians can serve.

Now let me say something about the ethics that ought to guide public service. My inspiration here is a lecture on Politics As A Vocation by the German sociologist Max Weber. He distinguished between the "ethics of ultimate ends" and the "ethics of responsibility." The ethics of ultimate ends were what the French students in the streets of Paris had in mind when they chanted, "Soyons realistes, demandons l'impossible" (Let us be realistic and demand the impossible).

A public servant's job is to reconcile the impossible and the real; the electoral promises of politicians and the resource constraints and constitutional limitations of government.

Reconciling ultimate ends and responsibility, as Isaiah Berlin emphasized, can be a difficult, sometimes tragic affair. We have to choose, with insufficient evidence, time and insight, just as we are, here and now, and whatever we do, we are bound to lose something. But we must choose.

Political indecision destroys bureaucracies, weakens their esprit de corps. Leaders must lead, and they often have to do so utterly in the dark.

An ethics of responsibility also identifies that a public servant has a duty of care to invisible strangers, the people who are never in the room when the key decisions are made.

You must speak for your fellow citizens in the places where they cannot speak for themselves. When the Auditor-General found out the people's money was being wasted on a sponsorship program in Quebec , she came out and said so, and let the chips fall where they may. . She did her job and the country is better for it. That is the ethics of responsibility in action.

An ethics of responsibility is no recipe for risk avoidance. If it were, the public service of Canada would never have helped create medicare, aboriginal self-government, the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution or our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The opposite of responsibility is irresponsibility: making spending commitments that weaken our federation, that tax our grandchildren, that stifle innovators and wealth creators. Responsible government solves problems; it doesn't pass them on to future generations.

The battle in provincial politics between spending on health or spending on education is a battle between the generations for control of the public purse. Wise public policy must be anchored in intergenerational equity, and that means the generation in power has to have the wisdom to moderate its claims for the sake of those who are coming after.

A key element of an ethics of responsibility is making sure that, in our public policy, we don't allow a gap to open up between our rhetoric and reality. As The New York Times headline asked last week, "Was Canada just too good to be true?"

Good public policy is not a politics of propaganda and national self-delusion. It is an attempt to match our national self-image and our capabilities as a people. The present government is struggling to close the gap between pretending to be a good international citizen and failing to fund our foreign aid commitments; pretending to be a peacekeeper and failing to fund our defence establishment; pretending to be green and failing to fund our investment in environmental sustainability.

It is as if we conquered the deficit in the 1990s, at the price of starving those areas of core responsibility - foreign and defence policy - that are essential to the maintenance of federal authority at home and abroad. The government is now putting this right, and it is to be hoped that, pressures of minority government notwithstanding, they will stay the course.

A strong foreign policy is essential to the maintenance of national unity at home, just as a strong federal government at home is critical to our influence abroad.

If we are committed to a "responsibility to protect" strangers from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and fail to fund, equip and deploy a combat capable military, it is not just our foreign partners who will start to think we are a joke. Our fellow citizens will lose confidence in their country.

When our national government fails to persuade our partner to the south to abide by NAFTA arbitration mechanisms, millions of Canadians, not just the people in the lumber industry, question whether government can protect the economic sovereignty of the country.

When a federal government is unable to pry the American market open to our beef producers, it is not just beef producers who suffer. We weaken public confidence in government, not just for them but for all Canadians.

When a Canadian citizen, born in an Arab country, finds himself arrested in the U.S. , deported to a foreign country, where he is tortured, what are the rest of our new Canadians to think about the capacity of our government to protect them? The Canadian passport must confer indivisible rights and protection to all its bearers, regardless of their origin and place of birth.

Confidence in government does not require a big bureaucracy. The number of federal employees in relation to the country's labour force has dropped by almost half since the 1950s. The percentage of total government revenue taken by federal authorities has fallen from 60 to about 40 per cent since the 1950s.

This figure cannot and should not fall further. Unless we want a government that is just a headwaiter to the provinces, we need to ensure that the federal government's revenue capacity and effective areas of jurisdiction remain what they are now. We need to fully fund its constitutionally uncontested areas of jurisdiction and maintain its mandate, not to manage social programs, but to guarantee that however they are managed in each province, they deliver Canadians' equality of rights and entitlement.

Our federation depends on burden sharing between rich and poor provinces, but let's look at equalization with an unsentimental eye.

In the Maritimes recently, I was struck by the number of people who find the rhetoric of equalization condescending, as if the only way to keep the Maritimes in Confederation is to maintain EI, even when it means disincentivizing the hard work Maritimers have always been ready to put in. We need to figure out how to unlock the economic potential of poorer parts of Canada so that we can get beyond equalization to equality.

Our federation has embarked on a trial of aboriginal self-government. This is a worthy experiment, but aboriginal Canadians have the same right to accountable, efficient, well-designed services, delivered by their order of government, as any other Canadian.

We do not want a system that turns over large parts of the country to governments that lack the capacity to deliver rights, justice and equality. The federal government must not only end the tutelage of the Indian Act but ensure that aboriginal peoples finally get government as good as any provided to other Canadians.

The key to our foreign policy influence is get our own domestic policies right. Spaniards avidly follow Canadian politics, because it is full of lessons for meeting the challenge of Basque and Catalan nationalism. Canada matters to Spain and every society in the world seeking to share a political community among peoples of different languages, religions, traditions and cultures.

Our job on the international stage is to show that we can. If we fail at this, nobody will care what we do about anything else.

From the mid-1960s through until the 1990s, we wasted a huge amount of time and energy trying to reinvent federalism to meet the demands of Quebec and other provinces. We turned inward and lost our capacity to speak out to the world. Let's not make that mistake again.

What has made the sponsorship scandal in Quebec serious is that it makes us - and the world - ask whether we have weakened our capacity to remain a model. Damage has been done, but let us never give up.

I believe in identifying problems when they are still on the horizon. I do not believe a new national unity crisis is inevitable, and if it comes, I do not believe that the battle cannot be won.

But those of us who care about the public service of Canada have to make our position clear years in advance. And we need to win a prior victory. We need to revive faith in the political process itself.

This is the core task of the political class: to maintain the people's faith in the system that governs them. If this is the criterion by which to judge our political class - are they meeting this test? The past few months have been a good show, but have they been good politics?

The nobility of public service is that you do attempt the impossible - every day - managing a country as magnificently complex as this and doing so peacefully.

As you balance the ethics of ultimate ends and the ethics of responsibility, I urge you to keep faith with those students in Paris . Soyons realistes. Demandons l'impossible.

Michael Ignatieff is Carr Professor of Human Rights, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This is an edited excerpt of a speech Michael Ignatieff delivered in Ottawa yesterday to senior managers in the Canadian public service.

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