Review: Seems Like Old Times

For a certain generation – author Hugh Segal is 65 – Two Freedoms invokes a nostalgic era when Canada briefly strode on the world stage.

In 1955 the nation had uranium, and 118,000 men and women in uniform, and the world’s fourth largest air force. And now? “When a Canadian surface vessel HMCS Athabaskan sailed to Haiti to position itself off the coast where Canadian forces, replete with medics, nurses, technicians and doctors were to be deployed to come to the aid of the local population, amphibious small vessels had to be borrowed from the Americans to get our own folks ashore,” Segal writes.

Critics lament a “decade of darkness” in Canadian defence spending and foreign policy, but it has been five decades, and “darkness” is debatable. Electors decided generations ago they could not have a big navy and pensions and medicare and good schools all at the same time, and made their choice. This was not a left-wing conspiracy. It was the will of the voters.

Hugh Segal, former senator, is a warm and thoughtful man, and Two Freedoms is a warm and thoughtful book. Segal laments Canada is not a big power or even a middle one. “There is nothing particularly venal or myopic about Canadian foreign policy goals or desired outcomes in the key regions of the world,” he writes. “They are simply wildly unambitious and surprisingly narrow for a modern democracy like Canada.”

“It is 2016,” he says. “We need a radical reboot.” The instinct of the Department of Foreign Affairs is to “go along to get along”, Segal laments, and Ottawa thinks small: “We spend less than 1.5 percent of our GDP on defence and deployment capacity.”

Yet the current tide is unmistakable and Two Freedoms swims against it. The U.K. is voting on whether to reject the European Union; the U.S. is weighing presidential candidates who propose to revoke trade treaties and cut NATO spending; the Canadian cabinet rates Indigenous land claims a more pressing challenge than military recruitment. We live in an age of nationalism, and everyone wants the right to be left alone.

This troubles Segal. He advocates a muscular Canadian foreign policy committed to combating freedom from fear and freedom from want. “The lessons of history are sadly and inevitably clear,” warns Two Freedoms. “The collapse of freedom from want into a state of economic and social despair can produce huge, even cataclysmic consequences.”

We embrace a “lazy, liberal optimism” of “sovereignty uber alles”, Segal writes. “The freedoms that matter most and whose protection should be central to Canadian foreign policy are the freedom from fear and freedom from want. How these two freedoms are built, strengthened, attained and defended should form the true nucleus of a modern foreign policy mission worldwide.”

Instead, cabinet since 2012 has sold fifty-two embassies and missions abroad, deciding they’d sooner spend the money on tax credits for children’s fitness programs. Nobody seemed to mind.

By Holly Doan

Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, by Hugh Segal; Dundurn; 228 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-34456; $19.99

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