What internationalism means

May 10th, 2012
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 Prime Minister Harper was criticized for saying, in the 2004 election campaign, that there were institutions that would counteract a Conservative government. If memory serves, he mentioned the judiciary and the Senate specifically. He might also have included international organizations and agreements.

This came to mind the other day with a story that the UN was planning to investigate Canada regarding her “food supply issues”. We can expect the imminent visit of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter. If you made up that name and title you couldn’t have done better. There are, no doubt, hundreds more where he came from. They must rank close behind beer and chocolate amongst Belgium’s most expensive exports.

So it is that, in a remarkable feat of focus and prioritization, the UN is investigating snags in Canada’s food distribution system rather than say, problems in sub-Saharan Africa. That provided Bob Rae the opportunity to get on his soapbox and blame “Harper government cuts” for the prospective UN visit.

As tempting as it might be to impugn the high-minded motives of UN officials like M. de Schutter, we’ll set the specifics of this case aside. More troubling is the general pattern of behavior characterized by de Schutter and Rae, namely the affinity of “progressive” politicians for fine-sounding international agreements and un-elected technocrats from international agencies. They are, after all, cut from the same cloth.

It is awfully convenient for those of Rae’s ilk, when they cannot get a mandate from Canadians to implement their political agenda, to reach out – in the name of internationalism – to extra-national agencies for support. Similarly, when they don’t dare reveal certain policy directions domestically they can enter into international agreements, or simply make international pronouncements, while claiming they will not be binding on Canada. So why enter into them then? In reality, this is often like stashing a card up your sleeve to retrieve it at an opportune moment.

I experienced the effect of this during my sojourn in Ottawa.  In policy discussions with officials, one would frequently hear the comment “that contravenes the spirit of” such and such an obscure agreement, ruling or statement made years before and known only to them and the international bureaucratic community. The fact that it was the elected government of Canada, at least one or two steps of democratic legitimacy closer to the public, seeking to implement the policy seemed to get lost much of the time.

So it is that Leftish politicians and activists seek to bind Canada in myriad international entanglements, in cooperation with their like-minded confreres overseas. More importantly perhaps is that Canadian judges have made a habit of alluding to these international “commitments” when ruling on domestic legislation. As they have “read in” certain things into the constitution, so have they used aspects of international agreements to overrule or modify domestic legislation.

Ironically, much of the Left has been vocal in its opposition to internationalism of a different kind, namely economic agreements. Their enthusiasm for extra-national control in areas such as social policy and environment evaporates when it comes to externally-imposed fiscal austerity. The Euro-left, for example, seems to have re-discovered nationalism in the face of the EU’s financial strictures.

Internationalism can cut both ways. The main problem with it is the erosion of national sovereignty and the binding decisions made by unelected officials, between cocktails parties in distant capitals. Limited international governance should be a corollary to limited national and local government. The further removed from the individual citizen, the less democratic legitimacy. Local through national representatives are at least directly elected.  Not so officials in Brussels, Geneva or New York.

The Harper government has tended to pursue individual trade agreements they believe are in Canada’s best interest, while shying away from sweeping international undertakings of uncertain scope and impact to Canada. This is prudent. Unelected officials like Monsieur de Schutter seem all too eager to stick their nose into our business. Don’t call us, we’ll call you Olivier.

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By John Weissenberger