Canada’s Presence in the World: A Discussion with the Right Honorable Joe Clark

By Andrew Sopko and Sarah Dougherty

Clark w Carleton SeminarOn January 31st 2014, the Right Honorable Joe Clark came to Carleton University to discuss his new book, How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change (Random House, 2013), with students in Professor Norman Hillmer’s seminar on nationalism, internationalism, and political culture. This book, by the former prime minister and foreign minister is, in his own words, “a reflection on what Canadians have accomplished at our best, specifically in international affairs.” (p.4) In his book and the discussion which followed, Clark expressed his desire to see Canada re-engage with international issues, to re-take its position as a global leader. He agreed with the Carleton students that Canada has abandoned its impressive tradition of global leadership.

How We Lead outlines the dramatic dismissal of activist international policy that has taken place under the watch of the current government. Throughout the work, Clark argues that it is necessary for Canadians to be more vocal about their desire for meaningful engagement with the international community. These sentiments were reiterated in the seminar discussion, in which Clark stated that he hopes to bring about a new national discussion about Canada’s place in the world. He sees an opportunity for Canada to lead the way by partnering with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), and by forging new alliances with the “forward looking and outward reaching… problem-solvers” of the world (p. 176).

While the students in the seminar agreed with Clark’s sentiments, many were skeptical of how such co-operation would be achieved, and what shape such alliances would take. Are organizations similar to NATO, an organization deeply shaped by its Cold War origins, feasible in a world of increasingly relative power? Or, as Clark conceded, is something less concrete and more fluid essential in a world defined by economic interaction? Indeed, one of Clark’s most interesting points was his discussion of the internet’s fostering of individual power, and the subsequent weakening of central governments.

At the core of the discussion was an interesting evaluation of the ways in which history has shaped the global stage. It was agreed by all that Canada’s so called ‘Golden Age’ of internationalism was made possible –but not inevitable– by the circumstances which existed in the wake of the Second World War. Clark, both in writing and in discussion, pointed out that the end of the Cold War remade the stage once more, and Canada struggled to find its place in this new world. As Clark makes certain to point out in How We Lead, the current Government of Canada has shown almost no interest in pursuing the multilateral policies of the past, at least not in the way previous governments sought to lead, rather than lecture.

While the problems are many, and the proposed solutions are problematic, it was refreshing to see such an impassioned discussion of Canada’s place in the world. It is far too easy to focus inwardly and forget that we live in an increasingly connected world. Discussions such as these ought to help foster a new national discussion about our place in the world. Otherwise, Canada will surely continue to fall behind its past.

Andrew Sopko is currently an MA student in History at Carleton University, under the supervision of Dr. Norman Hillmer. His research focuses on Cold War conceptions of power and nuclear survival as viewed through Continuity of Governance policy.

Sarah Dougherty is currently an MA student in History at Carleton University, under the supervision of Dr. Norman Hillmer.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.