Dec. 18, 2003. 01:00 AM
Canada can't strut on the cheap

GORDON BARTHOS

Paul Martin preached a sturdy nationalism during his bid for the Liberal party leadership back in 1990.

Proudly styling himself a "Canadian nationalist," he warned we'd become an American possession — by 2000, no less — unless we staked out distinct foreign, economic and social policies.

"The country has 10 years in which we are going to become either a colony of the United States, de facto a political groupie of the Americans, or we really are going to be an independent nation," he told the Star at the time.

"If we continue to muddle through then that is what is going to happen."

Discounting the alarmist hyperbole — Brian Mulroney had that effect on some people — Martin was making a point that seems more relevant today than it did back then.

Canada must boldly assert its interests. Muddling through isn't on.

Such is the sheer military power of the U.S. since the Soviet collapse in 1990, and the imperial power of George Bush's presidency since 9/11, that other countries must step smartly or be dragged along in the wake.

Martin takes over promising to recapture "Canadians' sense of international purpose," and urging us to "make history once again."

Ironically, given these comments, his first priority is cultivating warmer ties with Bush after a chilly season, and reorganizing the civil service. Citing Ottawa's shrinking surplus, he has deferred spending that's vital to making our mark. We won't know before the 2005 budget how seriously he takes his own rhetoric.

That's not what Canadians expected from a Liberal leader who had a decade to chart a fresh course. We had reason to hope for swift, decisive action.

It is not to be. Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham will conduct "a comprehensive review" to develop "an integrated international agenda" by next fall.

But that might dictate merely how we divvy up the paltry $18 billion we currently spend from our $1.2 trillion economy on diplomacy, defence and aid. It won't necessarily change the fact that we are investing less today than we did a decade ago, when Martin cautioned against losing our way.

Of course, spending money isn't the only way for a nation to make its mark.

Jean Chrétien affirmed Canadian values in 2003 by rejecting Bush's bogus reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein. He urged the Commonwealth to press for political reform in Zimbabwe and Pakistan. And pressed Africa's case for help with AIDS and poverty.

But some things carry a price tag. We're spending $10 billion on security, post-9/11. We have 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, and 1,200 in the Balkans. We're funding Iraq's reconstruction.

If Martin envisages aiming higher, he must also reckon with higher costs.

Ottawa could double the $1.5 billion we spend on diplomacy, in the next decade, to beef up our ability to influence the White House, government, Congress and U.S. public opinion, and policy-makers in other countries. Our diplomats not only make our case abroad, but also ferret out intelligence affecting our security and commercial interests. They are under-resourced.

A case can be made as well to double our $13 billion military budget, to equip the Canadian Forces to field two robust combat brigades of 5,000 regular troops, and one peacekeeping brigade drawn in part from the reserves, to far-off places on short notice. This would demand a wrenching reallocation of spending. But we'd have the punch to help the United Nations prevent crises and save lives in places like Rwanda, and to assist our allies.

And while Ottawa plans to double our impoverished $3 billion foreign aid budget, we'd need to double it again to claim a leading place among donors.

If spending $40 billion on diplomacy, defence and aid by 2015 sounds too rich for Martin's blood, he should not have raised expectations that Canada ought to shoulder a bigger role abroad. He can count on being judged on these numbers, or something close.

For he's right. Canadians do want to play a stronger role helping the U.N. and our allies keep the peace, thwart terror and deliver hope.

They deserve a truly "nationalist" prime minister who's prepared to invest in success.


Gord Barthos writes editorials on foreign affairs. gbarthos@thestar.ca This column resumes after the holidays.

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