Review of Yves Engler’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy

Engler, Yves. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Fernwood and RED. 2009.

Reviewed by Murray Cooke []


Multinational corporations pillaging the developing world, a trail of human rights and environmental abuses, repressive regimes propped up by foreign economic and military assistance, leftist and nationalist governments undermined by imperial interference, aggressive military actions via gunboat diplomacy, secretive special forces and ultimately ‘humanitarian interventions,’ destructive structural adjustment programs that undermine local economies by enshrining free trade and the rights of foreign investors. For many progressive Canadians, these images bring the USA, and perhaps the American Empire, to mind. Fewer would immediately recognize that we are referring to Canada’s international role as detailed by Yves Engler’s new book, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy.

Canadians have tended to embrace a much different image of their own country’s role in the world; an image of peacekeepers and foreign aid provided by an ‘honest broker’ and ‘middle power.’ This Canadian self-image (or delusion) has become increasingly untenable for a variety of reasons, most obviously Canada’s invasion and on-going occupation of Afghanistan. It has been relatively rare, however, for anyone to directly and methodically take on this Canadian delusion. Therefore, this is a book that has been desperately needed for a long time.

Engler is an activist and journalist, rather than an academic or foreign policy expert. His previous book (co-authored with Anthony Fenton), Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, explored one case of Canada acting as “an imperial bully” in overthrowing the elected Haitian government. As Engler describes, “Events in Haiti made me question Canada’s peacekeeper self-image…I began to question my assumptions of Canada’s role in the world.” He was also faced with the challenge of explaining the reasons for Canada’s role in Haiti.

This new book presents a vast range of case studies on Canada’s foreign economic, diplomatic and military relations from the pre-Confederation period to the present. Within chapters covering the various regions of the world (the Caribbean, the Middle East, Latin America, East Asia, Central and South Asia, and Africa), Engler provides sections on various specific countries, over 50 by my count. Hidden amidst the country-specific commentaries, there are more general discussions of Canadian foreign aid, the arms trade, the nuclear industry, peacekeeping, missionaries, NGOs and the complicity of Canadian universities and researchers. There is also a chapter on Canada’s role within multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

Engler’s exhaustive documentation requires us to abandon the myths of Canadian foreign policy benevolence, both past and present. The historical and geographic sweep of the book discourages us from seeing Canada’s imperial role as only a recent development, perhaps due to the Harper government. Just as American imperialism cannot be reduced to George W. Bush, Canadian imperialism cannot be reduced to Stephen Harper. Engler summarizes his finding by stating that “Canada’s role in world affairs has been revealed as consistently pro-empire (whether British, U.S.), pro-colonial (whether British, U.S., French, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.) and serving narrow corporate interests.”

Canada is a significant source of foreign direct investment, which the Canadian state encourages through the Export Development Corporation (EDC) and the negotiation of bilateral investment treaties. Increasingly, many of those Canadian MNCs, particularly the mining companies, have been encountering significant opposition to their activities due to their negative implications for local environments, indigenous communities and workers. The Canadian state has long sought to protect the interests of Canadian foreign investors and protect global investment and trade opportunities more generally. As a result, Canada has maintained friendly relations with tyrants such as Batista (Cuba), Pinochet (Chile), the Shah of Iran, Somoza (Nicaragua), Mobutu (Congo) and Suharto (Indonesia).

Canada’s military record is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Canadian foreign policy. Engler provides examples of Canadian “gunboat diplomacy” from the Central America to Asia. Furthermore, he critically examines Canada’s military role in Korea, Egypt, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The peacekeeping mythology is widely embraced by Canadians. “Popularly viewed as a benevolent form of intervention” Engler writes, “peacekeeping missions have generally been motivated by larger geopolitical interests…Most often, peacekeeping was Canada’s contribution to the Cold War…Since the end of the Cold War…there has been a resurgence of peacekeeping in the interests of Western imperialism.” Similarly, rather than being altruistic, Canadian foreign aid policy is shaped by domestic economic interests, geopolitical aims and counterinsurgency strategies.

In a book that includes so much, one hesitates to suggest that more is needed, but there are some notable limitations in terms of content, analysis and format.

First, Engler understates the degree to which the Canadian state has actively pushed neoliberal corporate globalization by aggressively pursuing multilateral and bilateral agreements on trade (in goods but also, very notably, in services), investment and intellectual property rights.

Second, despite a concluding chapter entitled “Why our foreign policy is what it is and how to change it,” the book lacks a clear theoretical analysis. The country-by-country focus works well, but the book lacks an overview of Canada’s role and its evolution over time. In particular, the nature of contemporary imperialism and North-South relations remain unclear. Is Canada an imperialist power? Rather than referring to Canadian imperialism, Engler repeatedly describes Canada as a “junior partner” to the US and argues that Canadian economic and military integration with the US explains our support for American imperialism. Is the problem “Americanization” or “capitalism”? Would an independent Canadian capitalism (whatever that means) be benign? These are issues that need greater attention. Engler provides valuable food for thought, but not the analysis. This remains to be done.

Related to the lack of theoretical clarity, his proposals for change are limited and lean toward a globalized version of social democractic, regulated capitalism. Engler is very critical of Canada’s relationship with the Global South, but he is not explicitly critical of capitalism per se. Understandably, Engler tends to focus on the most notorious MNCs. But if Canadian MNCs were not displacing indigenous people, smashing unions and destroying the environment, would their investments in the Global South still be problematic? Engler argues for improving the rule of law in developing countries so that MNCs are more constrained as (he argues) they are in Canada. He also recommends the strengthening of the rule of law at the global level, which raises a serious question about who will be setting and enforcing such laws. Engler argues that the influence of corporate interests over Canadian foreign policy needs to be counterbalanced by heightened foreign policy activism by domestic progressive forces. While undoubtedly true, what are the limits to this within a capitalist framework?

Third, on a practical level, it is frustrating that such a detailed book has no index. This book is an amazing source for progressive researchers on Canadian foreign policy and Canadian MNCs. However, without an index it is more difficult to find all the references to Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) or peacekeeping or the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) or specific MNCs like Barrick Gold or the big banks. Similarly, Engler’s unorthodox and incomplete style of endnoting makes it a challenge to follow up his leads on specific topics. That said, Canadian activists/researchers would be well served to launch into Engler’s useful list of the 22 best books on Canadian foreign policy.

These weaknesses don’t discredit the vitally important work that Engler have provided us. Does the world really need more Canada? Well, no. Engler clearly makes the case that Canada, the Canadian state, Canadian NGOs and Canadian MNCs have repeatedly played a destructive role around the world. This is a message that Canadians and, in particular, the Canadian left desperately needs to hear.