When Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier told a Toronto audience this week that Canadian diplomacy centered on "international realism," a combination of national interests and values, he focused on tough new sanctions against Burma's military regime.
But ears perked up among foreign policy experts who wondered if the new term symbolized a major strategic shift, or simply an updated, partisan interpretation of longstanding Canadian objectives for a domestic audience.
Traditional realism typically shuns utopian goals for a more pessimistic, self-interested view of human nature, power, and national interests.
But "international realism" has gained more traction in academia in recent years, said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia political science professor and author of Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For?
"From an intellectual perspective, this is encouraging and reflects a certain contemporary linkage between thinking on foreign policy in Ottawa and where academics are, in terms of having a more complex and nuanced approach to these issues," he said yesterday.
However, Mr. Byers said this task grows murkier when values and interests don't coincide, such as the balance between trade and human rights in China, or the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region.
Mr. Byers also argued that Mr. Bernier's definition of Canadian foreign policy values -- freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law -- overlooked traditional concerns such as peace, global health and poverty, and the environment.
Lloyd Axworthy made similar arguments about Burma during his late-1990s tenure as Liberal foreign affairs minister, but would have shuddered to speak of "realism," according to George MacLean, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba.
"I think the language is new," he said. "(Mr.) Axworthy would have made the same point, and did, based on his liberal sense of human rights. Whereas (Mr.) Bernier is saying this is our national interest."
Other labels abound in the United States, especially since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with the potential to exhaust even the most enthusiastic word lovers.
There are democratic globalists, democratic evangelists, and democratic imperialists. Chicken hawks, liberal hawks, neoconservatives, and dovish conservatives. Liberal, conservative, American, or pro-democracy internationalists.
A closer fit to Canadian international realism could be "liberal realism," touted by several American scholars before the 2004 presidential election: national interests and values, tied to international co-operation.
Source: The Ottawa Citizen