Playing Politics, or the Paying the Price of Principle?

Explaining Canada’s Position on Palestinian Statehood

Following Thursday’s landmark U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, the excellent new(ish) blog Political Violence @ a Glance posed the following question: just why did the U.S. oppose the motion?

This seems like an appropriate question to ask of Canada’s position as well. I was a bit puzzled, not only with the content of Canada’s vote – which admittedly the government publicly telegraphed early and often in the months and weeks prior – but the intensity with which both Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Baird opposed the motion. (As it happened, I wasn’t the only student of international relations with this reaction. A few other academics spent a few hundred characters talking it over amongst themselves on twitter.)

So what motivated Canada’s stance? While we can’t answer the question definitively, it is possible to narrow down the range of options a bit, and get a sense of which explanations are most plausible.

In general, one can identify four stylized “types” of motivation for a given bit of international policy, which I’ve laid out in a handy 2×2 table.[1]

Types of international policy motivation
Domestic
Arena
International
Arena
Interest-based motivation Attempts to gain domestic political advantage Attempts to gain international political advantage
Value-based motivation Decision reflecting personal/communal ethical principle or norm Decision reflecting some international principle or norm

Obviously, it is quite possible, and indeed likely, that more than one type of motivation is in play. However, to keep things simple let’s consider each in turn.

1) International advantage

The most plausible version of this theory is that Canada is seeking to gain influence with the U.S. through support of its international agenda. There is some evidence to suggest that this is the case; since the Tories took office, Canada has in general been far more likely to support U.S. positions at the U.N. General Assembly than in years prior.

For instance, Canada voted with the U.S. 48% of the time in 2005, while in 2011, the two countries voted the same way on 91% percent of all motions.[2] In part, this represents a general trend in which U.S. positions came to enjoy broader global support; the average level of coincidence in 2005 and 2011 was 25% and 61%, respectively. Even considering the trend, Canada’s movement is more marked than other similar countries, however.  Germany, France, and the U.K. all had levels of U.S. coincidence comparable to Canada in 2005 – clocking in at 45%, 53%, and 55%. In 2011, though all had some form right-leaning executive, they voted with the U.S. 72%, 78%, and 80% of the time, at least 10% lest frequently than Canada. Thus, even among conservative governments, Canada stands out as a particularly strong supporter of U.S. positions at the U.N.

Despite this, there are reasons to doubt this theory in the specific context of the Israel-Palestine motion. While the U.S. staked out a clear position in opposition to Palestinian statehood, it is far from certain that it represented the true preferences of the Obama administration, rather than a response to U.S. domestic politics.[3] Canada was moreover more forceful in its actions in sending its Foreign Minister to speak against the motion, and in recalling its chief envoys to the U.N., the West Bank, and Israel for consultations following the vote.

More importantly, in subsequent days further daylight emerged between American and Canadian positions. Canada’s response to Friday’s Israeli announcement regarding future settlements in the sensitive “E1” region was very muted, saying only that “any unilateral action, from either side… is ultimately unhelpful.”  In contrast, the U.S. issued a far stronger response, while the U.K., France, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden all recalled their ambassadors in protest.

When one considers that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has referred to the announcement as representing “an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution,” it becomes clear that, far from parroting the U.S. position, Canada is actually mapping out an independent position that might constitute the strongest international support for Israeli policy found in the world at present.

2) Domestic advantage

The second set of interest-based motivations is domestic in nature. It is widely recognized that virtually every action taken by the Conservative government has been with an eye to winning and protecting a governing majority in government. Accordingly, it is quite plausible that the Conservative stance has been crafted to satisfy some electoral imperative.

One can identify three variants of this explanation. The government could be 1) attempting to define a wedge issue for use in the next federal election, 2) building support within its own base, or 3) appealing to specific ridings where support for Israel is particularly high

The first theory holds that the Conservatives consider support for Israel an issue they can campaign on effectively in the next federal election, possibly even using it in advertisements and speeches broadly across the country in an effort to distinguish themselves positively from the other major parties.

If that were the case however, it would appear to be an uphill battle. The most recent polling data on the subject that I came across, an Environics poll released in January 2012, revealed the following: while more than half (53%) of Canadians don’t have a clear opinion on the issue of Palestinian statehood, among those who did have a specific viewpoint, supporters outnumbered opponents by more than 3 to 1 (35% to 11%). Thus, while there is room to stake a position on the issue, a clear majority of Canadians who have looked at the issue of Palestinian statehood are in favour of it.

The second version of the argument holds that the government is interested in defining an issue to help motivate its own political base. It is possible – though I have seen no polling data to confirm this – that while the general population is either supportive of or apathetic to the idea of a Palestinian state, the Conservatives’ staunchest supporters are strongly against the idea. Accordingly, while most Canadians will not react to the news, it provides a strong motivation for government partisans to stay engaged.

The final form would argue that the Harper government sees the issue as a way to secure additional support in a few key ridings in the country where support for Israel runs particularly high. This type of activity matches well with previous Conservative government strategies; in years past the government has relied heavily on micro-targeted policies to win support in specific communities using instruments such as the federal tax code. (While circumstantial, for what it’s worth this theory has found at least some tweet-based support among foreign policy commentators.)

2 ½) Bureaucratic infighting

While it may seem less likely, it is at nonetheless possible that the Conservative cabinet is using the issue to clarify its relationship with the civil service housed at Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, reinforcing its control over the country’s foreign policy. Given that the government’s present policy constitutes a significant break with past Canadian policy on the conflict, which had long been focused on maintaining an even handed approach to both Palestinians and Israelis, the manner in which the vote was handled might actually have been intended to reduce DFAIT’s ability to continue with past practices through a strong demonstration of commitment to the government’s preferred course.

There is actually some precedent for such an argument. During a speech to the U.N. on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Baird significantly altered a draft he was provided by the department. The original text of the speech included language emphasizing Canada’s ongoing support for both sides of the conflict, but Mr. Baird removed language referring to Canada’s support for the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, while also inserting language that drew parallels between the attacks on Israel in the present day, and attacks on European Jews during the Second World War.

It may have been the department’s considered preference to abstain from the vote, as such a position would have been consistent both with previous Canadian policy and with the stance other allies such as the UK and Australia. If that were the case (and I wish to emphasize that I have no particular inside information to suggest it was), Baird’s decision to not only vote against the motion, but to do so in person, might have been intended as a message to policy staff in the department, a way to “tie their hands” and force them to maintain a similar line in future representations of Canadian policy.

In contrast to interest-based theories of motivation, “value-based” motivations (i.e. those grounded in a some ethical belief regarding how individuals or states “ought” to behave) constitute the other general class of explanations. Again, I’ll break these into two groups on the basis of the arena of focus.

3) International norm propagation or maintenance

Under this explanation, the government is attempting to advance some international norm at the international level, and is willing to do so even if it entails a cost of lost interest.

This is the theory that the government itself has articulated on the subject. Mr. Baird has referred to the government’s support for Israel, and the apparent political costs that come with it, as the “price of leadership.” As for the principles being defended, Mr. Baird has in the past referred to religious freedom as a key value, with the apparent implication that Palestinian attacks represent a threat to the practice of the Jewish religion in Israel.

The other major argument the government put forward in a speech prior to the vote was that the statehood motion represented a departure from “accepted international practice,” and an instance of an instance of “unilateral” action by one side in the conflict. This was in contrast to repeated affirmations in U.N. motions that the final status of Israel and Palestine ought to be based on direct negotiations.

There are certain problems with the logic underlying both these claims, however. With respect to religious freedom, it remains unclear why Palestinian statehood constitutes a threat to Israelis’ freedom of religion, unless one accepts the premise that U.N. recognition will make lasting peace between the two sides more difficult to achieve, and it remains unclear why this would be so.[4] It would also seem incumbent upon the Canadian government to evaluate the implications of Israeli policy for Palestinian freedom of religion, but there are no indications that it has done so.

As for the rejection of unilateralism argument, it only makes sense if it is grounded in an assumption of Canadian impartiality in the conflict. In actuality however, recent government pronouncements and actions repudiate this assumption. In the past week for example, the Canadian government identified two instances of what they described as unilateral behaviour, one by Palestine, and one by Israel. In response to Thursday’s Palestinian statehood motion, supported by nearly 140 countries, they recalled their chief representatives to the UN and the region for consultations. In response to Israel’s Friday announcement of expansion into E1, the government released a statement decrying unilateralism by either side, without specifically condemn the action by Israel.  Clearly, Canada is willing to act far more strongly against some forms of unilateralism than others, and seems far more willing to aggressively censure actions by Palestine than by Israel.

A separate problem with the argument that the Palestinian statehood motion violated international norms (h/t to my colleague Bryan Peeler for pointing this out), is that the “accepted international practice” they’re trying to defend is not actually the accepted international practice. While the U.N. and other governments have indeed repeatedly reaffirmed that final status of Israel-Palestine ought to be determined through a negotiated agreement, there is no general international norm suggesting that recognition of a new state must be derived solely through negotiations from the territory’s former authority. On the contrary, since at least the end of the Cold War (and in principle since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points), the preferred mechanism through which new states have been created is through a referendum in the territory in question, often administered by the U.N.  The referendum may follow either negotiations or warfare between the territory and its former authority, but it is the vote, not the negotiation, that is internationally recognized as the decisive moment in declaring the independence of the new state. Recent examples include Eritrea, Timor Leste, South Sudan, Slovakia, and Macedonia, to name just a few.

Taken in sum, it is possible that the Conservative government is indeed attempting to defend (or indeed promote) an international norm of defence of religious freedom, or the accepted principle that the final status of Israel and Palestine must be negotiated. However, to the extent that they are doing either, the norms they are defending are being selectively applied, arguably at the expense of other, more fundamental international norms.

4) Personal ethical commitment

The last type of motivation is that the government’s support for Israeli policy, and by extension its opposition to Palestinian statehood, is the result of a personal values of a key figure or figures in the government, most likely Mr. Harper or Mr. Baird, given their positions and active involvement on the file. It is possible that either or both of them believes there is some intrinsic value in supporting Israel’s position on this issue, that their actions in this matter in fact stem from their adherence to a personal set of beliefs or code of conduct.[5]

On balance, it seems most likely that in voting against the statehood motion, the government is pursuing micro-targeted domestic gains, while also propagating a selectively applied international norm of freedom of religion. It remains possible that that norm is itself motivated by some personally held values of key decision-makers, but only Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper would be able to say so for certain. Finally, the manner in which the policy was pursued is consistent with an attempt to strengthen cabinet control over Canada’s foreign policy.

photo credit: President of the European Council via photopin cc


[1] 2×2 tables: the hardest working information presentation format in international relations.

[2] All figures in this section are based on State Department data, and exclude consensus vote.

[3] Indeed, in the months prior to President Obama’s re-election, it was widely reported that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was intervening in the U.S. Presidential campaign in a way that benefited Mitt Romney. Accordingly, it is entirely possible that the Obama Administration’s position on Palestinian statehood was more a perfunctory response to domestic pressures in the U.S., rather than an expression of true preference.

[4] The arguments that I have heard (can’t find the link to the piece I’m thinking of, but will update if and when I do) focused primarily on U.S. and Israeli responses to the vote. To the extent that such arguments are true however, they are focusing on temporary punitive responses from those governments, rather than any fundamental change in the underlying dynamics of the conflict.

[5] In general, such possibilities are often discounted as explanations of government policy in favour of the other three types of explanation above, not least because they are so hard – and by certain standards of evidence impossible – to evaluate. Nonetheless, the passion with which both Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird have personally displayed in support of the Israeli position – again in contrast to their much more muted involvement on a range of other international files, suggests that they may have some personal stake in the issue.

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One thought on “Playing Politics, or the Paying the Price of Principle?

  1. Nice analysis of the possible motivations. I agree with the conclusion. I think it’s mostly about a handful of ridings in Montreal and Toronto with a high percentage of Jewish voters that have until now been Liberal strongholds but which Harper hopes to gain by his over-the-top support of Israel. The rest is all just window dressing.

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