Thursday, April 7, 2016

Picking on the Liberals and Responsible Convinction

As an academic residing in Canada's capital, focused on IR, I think I have a conviction that it is responsible to pick on all governing parties.  Yesterday, I raised some questions about the defence review.  Today, I pick on the doctrine of responsible conviction

The foreign minister, Stephane Dion, explained basically the doctrine he will follow: Responsible Conviction.  What does that mean?  Well, first, it meant talking about Weber, so as a social scientist, I have to salute.  Weber is our grandfather.  Why Weber?  Because Weber distinctioned between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility.  The shorthand is: one needs to do the right things to defend a cause or principle BUT one must be aware of the consequences so that the pursuit of what is right does not do too much damage.

This is excellent ... for fudging pretty much everything.  We need to do what is right unless it is inconvenient.  What does this mean for Canada-China relations?  Does it mean pandering and selling out Canadian principles?  Some think so.  Does it mean calling out China's undermining of the international order except when Canada might pay a cost?  Or does it mean that Canada should do what is right unless it is really self- or other-destructive?  See the gray?  Embrace the gray?

The fun part here is how it essentially defines the previous government as having the same principles (we are all good Canadians) but didn't factor in the consequences.  So, not engaging Iran, and, indeed, opposing the Iran arms deal and other stuff was not good, in Dion's mind.  Which is fine and good politics--to position the opponents as thoughtless ideologues.

The call is essentially for pragmatism, which means going along with the Saudi arms deal. The costs of breaking the agreement are too high, even the Saudis are, um, reprehensible.  I feel the Liberals' pain as they got this poison pill and are stuck with it.  Spitting it out would probably not solve much but cost a lot.  So, sure, that is fine.

The responsible conviction doctrine is then applied to the ISIS mission, which shows how elastic the concept can be--bomb or not bomb?  Either way is responsible and convicted. There is a hint here--what are the negative consequences of bombing?  
certain changes that have been made in recent months to Canada’s foreign policy spring from the actual government’s greater concern to take the consequences of its actions into account.
Really, how about a specific or two?

I do agree that Canada needs to engage authoritarian regimes, but how much of that is responsible?  Again, going back to China, how much support of Chinese positions on various fora makes sense when China is actively undermining the international order?  That is, building islands and then arming them; provoking confrontations with neighbors, etc? 

I basically support the thrust here: that Canadian foreign policy should be less dogmatic than under Harper.  But confused with moral relativism?  Pretty easy to do since ethics of responsibility and ethics of conviction are often in contradiction and there is no clear identification of how to manage these contradictions. 

So, gussied up pragmatism is not a bad thing, but it is exactly that--gussied up pragmatism.  Saying it is something more high falutin' might just create expectations that are hard to meet.

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