Mike's Reviews > While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World

While Canada Slept by Andrew Cohen
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's review
May 09, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in May, 2012

I'm afraid that I was decidedly unimpressed with this book. It's a book I have wanted to read for some time, so I was happy to discover it on a bookshelf here in Pader, but it turned out to be seriously underwhelming. Two stars might seem unduly harsh, since two stars is something I usually reserve for books I really didn't like (one star is usually reserved for books I would actively discourage people from reading), but the reality that I probably would discourage people from reading this book. Which is an odd thing, seeing as I agree with his overall point.

His overall point is that Canada is coasting on it's reputation, and that Canadians view Canada as it was rather than as it is. Most Canadians talk proudly of battles from WWI and WWII, but we're not capable of anything like that anymore. Most Canadians think we're still heavily involved in peacekeeping, but we aren't. Most Canadians think we're generous in our international aid, but I have personal experience of the fact that our impact abroad is getting smaller and smaller (at least directly through CIDA -- there are many Canadian NGOs, missionaries, and development workers around the world who are doing wonderful work). Canada gives less than it used to, too much of it's aid was tied aid (at the time of the writing of this book), and CIDA has shifted it's guiding principle from charity to economic benefit. And we're losing our influence abroad, in regards to our foreign service, though that's rather less on the radar of most Canadians.

Yet, even though I agree with his main point, I still found many issues with the book:

- My first and biggest issue with the book is that he has only complaints, rarely solutions. In a 208 page book, which is ostensibly about how we can regain our place in the world, he spends exactly 13 pages talking about solutions (four and a half pages on foreign aid, four pages on the foreign service, three and a half pages on the military, and one page on international trade). And his solutions are not detailed or innovative. In fact they're usually little more than platitudes. This is a serious problem, because it makes the book one long rant, and it comes across mostly like he has an axe to grind (in particular he uses the book as a platform to assault the Liberal government). That may make for good readership (it was certainly a national bestseller in Canada), but it doesn't do much for me. It's particularly annoying that he ignores any positive trends, saying they're illusory, despite the fact that hindsight informs us that many of those solutions have worked.
- My second complaint is his obsession with the "golden age" of Canadian internationalism, and in particular the "three musketeers" of the Canadian Department of External Affairs (Hume Wrong, Norman Robertson, and Lester Pearson). He begins the book by writing about them. He ends the book by writing about them. He invokes them constantly throughout the book ("What would Pearson think if he saw Canada today..."). He is overly enamoured with them and this supposed golden age, and he misses (or ignores) the many unique conditions which converged to make it possible. It's simply not possible to recreate those conditions, and as such Canada's current achievements shouldn't be compared with this era. What's more, you could be forgiven for thinking the book is a biography of Wrong, Robertson, and Pearson. I haven't actually counted the pages, but it certainly feels like he spent more time talking about them than about the current state of Canada.
- My third complaint is that he seems blinded by the "middle power" theory. I actually like the middle power theory of Canadian international relations, but I find it a bit disappointing that no one seems to be able to break that mold and look to different and new ideas.

Aside from these complaints, I disagree with him on several points -- or at the very least I feel that he ignores important factors on several points:

- He decries Canada's withdrawal from peacekeeping, without seriously addressing the complexities arising from the shift from peace-keeping to peace-enforcing. Having just read Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil I have little patience with anyone who simply says we should throw ourselves into peacekeeping without first dealing with the serious underlying issues.
- He complains about the fact that Canada is turning away from multilateral trade instruments, and focusing more on bilateral trade instruments, but doesn't seem to take into account the changing nature of international trade negotiations. Multilateral trade agreements used to involve getting the support of only a handful of countries, but now it takes dozens if not more. The Doha Development Round negotiations have been ongoing for more than a decade, and still haven't come to any agreement.
- He wants Canada to concentrate it's foreign aid (fewer countries, fewer projects, fewer sectors), mostly because it will lower overhead costs, without an understanding of how that would undermine the effectiveness of that aid. I've seen first hand the impact of his approach, and it's not good.
- And lastly, he wants Canada to help the poorest of the poor but he doesn't want Canada to work in countries that are too corrupt or too undemocratic, but he fails to understand the fact that one directly contradicts the other. There's a reason why those countries are the poorest of the poor, and ignoring the poor and shifting our aid to countries that are better off doesn't help. That doesn't mean we ignore issues of corruption or democracy -- in fact there are a wide variety of ways to handle the issues -- but it does mean we can't afford to ignore people just because of their governments.

So yes, as you might have guessed from my long rant, I really wasn't impressed with this book. I agree with his main point, but he fails to provide any solutions (or in fact anything constructive or new), and he glosses over the complexities of the issues he's discussing.
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