Fowler, a self-described “unreformed iconoclastic curmudgeon,” argued that Canada’s response to international crises should be more carefully circumscribed. He recommended that any decision to intervene in a foreign conflict should be based on a sober “cost-benefit analysis,” weighing the price of the mission against its potential for saving lives. “Does this mean setting an arbitrary value on human life?” he said. “Of course it does. But no one wants to acknowledge such a reality – or, indeed, that the values vary.”
Sadly, in some circumstances, humanitarian intervention simply isn’t worth it. “Would I suggest that Canada or anybody else go into Somalia to try and fix it now? No. What I would say to the Somalians is ‘I’m sorry, but not today.’”
“I regret to say there are hugely wrenching, difficult situations that we can’t fix,” he added.
Other crises are preventable, however. After bearing witness to the Rwandan genocide in May 1994, Fowler, then Canada’s deputy minister of national defence, wrote a memo urging the government to intervene. His recommendations were rejected with the terse note: “Canada has no interests in Central Africa.” If more troops had been sent to Rwanda with a mandate to stop the genocide, the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers could have been avoided, Fowler said.
Michael Ignatieff criticized Fowler’s rather cynical outlook on humanitarian intervention on two points. Ignatieff pointed out that the cost of doing nothing can be much greater than the price of intervention, as in Rwanda. He also suggested that the “cost-benefit” approach to peacekeeping missions precluded an active foreign policy. “Your emphasis is constantly on reacting to specific situations. Does that foreclose the possibility of something more proactive?” he said.
A central bone of contention in the discussion was the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” which established a set of criteria and explained the justification for humanitarian intervention. Although it is often described as one of the greatest achievements of Canadian foreign policy in the last decade, to Fowler, the responsibility to protect is a pipe dream. “R2P, the responsibility to protect, is a very pretty idea whose time will not come soon,” he said. “I wish I lived in a world that would operationalize and espouse such a concept. But I don’t, and nor do you.”
Speaking to the newspaper after the lecture, Fowler elaborated on his view of Canada’s role in the world. “Canada could be doing a hell of a lot more,” he concluded.
The Walter Gordon Symposium is sponsored by Massey College and the School of Public Policy & Governance. For more information, visit the Events section of masseycollege.ca.
- Subtitle: Ignatieff and former diplomat Robert Fowler discuss humanitarian intervention and explore the morally ambiguous world of international diplomacy