Obviously foreign countries are the easiest to write about: "Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger river," etc. That's Joseph C. Wilson IV's famous New York Times editorial about whether or not Saddam was trying to acquire uranium from Niger--a bad travelogue that nevertheless catapulted him to the world's longest 15 minutes of fame.
But countries that are apparently just like your own are much harder to get into the real rhythm of. On the face of it, Australia is much like Canada: the streets have the same names (Wellington, Grosvenor, and so on), and there's usually a statue of Queen Victoria and/or a bunch of buildings bearing her moniker. Canada and Australia are, as we used to say, the two senior dominions--though their respective confederations (1867, 1901) are separated by a third of a century and very different political climates within the Empire. Still, I didn't really start thinking about the big differences between the two until my fourth or fifth day down under, when, at a conference in Queensland, the governor general strolled over to say hello.
I hasten to add that's not the big difference. True, I find it hard to imagine the governor general of Canada seeking me out with such enthusiasm. But I'm reluctant to measure a nation solely by its deference to one's own eminence, mindful that that's pretty much why Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter et al. loved the Soviet Union. Rather, what struck me was the startling character of the viceregal personage. He was (a) white; (b) male; and (c) a retired major-general.
What happened? A freak computer virus? To the best of my knowledge, there's no de jure constitutional prohibition against a white male with a military background serving as Canada's governor general, but, if it hasn't been formally read into the Charter of Rights by Madame L'Heureux-Dubé, it might just as well have been. If you've got a name like Gord MacKinnon, don't hold your breath waiting for the nod to pack for Rideau Hall. And Major-General Michael Jeffery isn't just some blue-helmeted peacekeepy type. He led the Australian SAS--i.e., special forces, the toughest hombres on the squad. He won the Military Cross in Vietnam and still believes that that war was the right thing to do. He headed Australia's national counter-terrorism strategy team.
In other words, if you wanted to devise the precise opposite of Michaëlle Jean, this is what he'd look like. He has never introduced pro-Castro documentaries on public television. He is not married to a cocktail revolutionary. To the best of my knowledge, he did not explain his appointment by saying that the prime minister "gave it to me because I'm hot." The night before His Excellency and I shared our little chat, I'd seen him up on stage presenting a couple of awards, a tall man of martial bearing, checked shirt and blazer, a bluff confident off-the-cuff speaker with a bonhomous jest about the Royal Australian Air Force bombers for a fellow veteran and some splendid remarks about the virtues of clarity in writing for a journalistic recipient. It would have been an unremarkable viceregal performance in Canada, say, 40 years ago, when our own major-general GG, Georges Vanier, was in residence, or 60 years ago, when Viscount Alexander was at Rideau Hall. But to the subjects of Trudeaupian Canada it would have seemed as alien in tone as if the Marquess of Dufferin had returned from the grave.
To those who regard Canada's highest office as a self-parodying affirmative action program, bumping implausibly from the country's first female Asian Canadian immigrant anglophone host of left-wing CBC shows to the country's first female black Canadian immigrant francophone host of even more left-wing CBC shows, critics might riposte that our gal is cooler than some squaresville Legion type. Which may be true, if you define cool as a laboured accumulation of desperate multiculti brownie points. But it's also revealing, I'd say, about how our respective nations see themselves.
A couple of days later, an unnamed very senior mega-important super-duper government official (as The New York Times says when it's leaking details of U.S. national security programs) told me that, after untold meetings during the Chrétien-Martin years, he'd concluded that Canada, like New Zealand, saw itself not as a country but as an NGO. That's not just a very funny but also a very shrewd characterization, perfectly encapsulating the Trudeaupian state's abasement before transnational pieties--to the point where we regard it as entirely natural that Canadian foreign policy has nothing to do with national interest (assuming we still have one) or even basic morality. The last time I can recall hearing about Lloyd Axworthy was just before the fall of the Taliban, when he turned up in Pakistan to protest that American military action risked jeopardizing relief supplies.
He seemed to be enjoying being part of an actual NGO operation rather than a pseudo one. Once again, the difference between Mme Jean and Major-General Jeffery seems instructive: Axworthy's Canada had attitudes rather than policies, and the fierceness of its attitude was as a general rule inversely proportional to the likelihood of it ever acting upon it--Kyoto being only the most shameless example. Australia, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned nation state: it has responsibilities rather than attitudes. A few days into my trip to the Antipodes, I'd heard so often the line that Canada to America is like New Zealand to Australia, that I began proposing an alternative: Canada to America is like Indonesia to Australia--crazy joint to the north where half the people are jumping up and down shouting, "Death to the Great Satan!" But, after mulling it over, I decided this was unfair to the Indonesians. The world's largest Muslim nation is a fragile democracy, to be sure, but it seems, for the moment, to be doing quite a good job holding down the Islamists.
It was in Canberra that I first heard the phrase "Australia's sphere of influence." Obviously, it's a little difficult for us to have a "sphere of influence," as Canada itself is in America's sphere of influence. But, on the other hand, these days France and Germany and so on don't have much of a sphere of influence either. The Aussies have no choice. They live in a tough neighbourhood. I don't just mean Indonesia and China, but East Timor, Australia's former colony of Papua New Guinea, and a string of islands hastily decolonized by Britain in the eighties--the Solomons, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Nauru, and the rest of the so-called "arc of instability." China and Taiwan have been competing to buy up local pols and both parties have plenty of walking-around money, so Canberra has responded with a forceful if not quite publicly stated doctrine of conditional sovereignty. In failed and failing states, John Howard's government installs, according to need, troops and/or cops and/or Aussie judges, police commissioners and other bureaucrats, the principal aim being to provide an environment inimical to corruption. By comparison with Washington, they're honest about and comfortable with this qualified neo-imperialism, and the Americans could learn a lot both from the policy and from the Aussies' ease with it.ÊBut in Canadian terms you're struck yet again by the difference embodied in our respective viceregal potentates, by the difference between attitude and action. Canada has a hard and honourable mission in Afghanistan, but it's acting in support of larger powers, whether the U.S. or NATO. We're all but incapable of projecting force on our own. Australia plays a similar role in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in its backyard, in East Timor and the Solomons, it shoulders the burden itself and just gets on with it.
Is this just the reality of geography? That a nation without America next door can't be so smugly self-indulgent of every multiculti fatuity? Up to a point.
But it wasn't always like that. Until 60 years ago, we were an important second-rank power with a profile in the world that extended beyond the shadow of the colossus. Today, we have a population 50 per cent bigger than Australia's (at the moment, that is: our fertility rates are lower than theirs, and our society is aging faster) but we have a global influence a good 50 per cent less. Stephen Harper has managed to restore our reputation in small and mainly symbolic ways, but, from the viceregal office down, the props of the Trudeaupian state remain in place. There was another phrase I heard a lot around the Oz foreign affairs corridors: a "busted arse" country, which is certainly a livelier term than "failed state." Posterior-wise, ours is sagging rather than busted, but, if we want to avoid joining that category, we could do a lot worse than learn from the admirable Aussies.