The one unfailing effect of international crises like the one now being played out in Libya is to reveal this country's grossly inflated sense of its own importance.
"What should Canada's position be?" we earnestly ask ourselves.
What can Canada do to hasten the departure of the madman Gadhafi and the advent of democracy in Libya and throughout the Arab world?
As if the world were waiting on Canada before events will be allowed to play out.
The disadvantages of soft power become apparent. The government dropped the ball, says the leader of the Opposition, by not securing us a place on the Security Council, from where we could have real influence. "Influence on what?" is the unasked question.
On the adjective-to-verb ratio (normally alarmingly high) in the different expressions of dismay and disapproval from that very august but also inevitably very supine body?
Do you suppose that Moammar Gadhafi, as he fulminates in his bunker, finds great relief in the knowledge that, for all the troubles closing in on him, at least he doesn't have the Canadians to deal with on the Security Council?
The pusillanimous Portuguese are pushovers, he must be thinking, but if I were up against Canada, then I'd really be done for.
The council has now authorized sanctions -about 40 years too late by any reasonable estimate -and Canada is joining in. Maybe these will have some small effect in the endgame, though if so it will mainly be by providing encouragement -the usual phrase would be "moral encouragement" though "moral" seems offensive in the context -to those who have already taken the potentially fatal risk of taking up arms against the despot.
Perhaps there will be new recruits to the cause who have been waiting for UN and Canadian approval, though that does seem unlikely. The main message of sanctions undertaken only in the denouement seems to be that if people do take their lives in their hands and courageously oust the tyrants who have repeatedly abused them, the international community will at the very end provide belated approval.
Canada can of course do something about its own citizens living in these international hot spots. It seems we Canadians have now evolved a constitutional right to instant evacuation at public expense whenever we get into difficulty anywhere on the globe.
To hear the complaints from those with loved ones in Libya, foreign service officers are supposed to swoop down from the sky like Hollywood special effects, snatch up Canadians in distress ("Maple Leaf down!") and fly them back to the safety of home, thence to plan their next foray to thrilling climes.
Has it occurred to anyone else that our desire to play a role beyond helping our own citizens seems to derive less from the reasonable expectation of being able to make things better than from an on the whole pitiful desire to be seen to be important?
If we really did want to influence events, we would send those selfsame foreign service officers to offer Gadhafi asylum.
It used to be a tyrant who had gone off his game or simply tired of it could retire with his billions to the Riviera. It was terribly unfair, of course, but it did at least relieve his citizens of his company. Now, thanks to the invention of an International Criminal Court, there is no refuge for reprobates.
That may be a giant leap forward for justice but it does change the incentive structure. Fighting to the last mercenary becomes the only choice left to them.
In the long run it may be that knowing there is no escape will induce better behaviour among autocrats. But for the moment it makes them less likely to go quietly.
Now that Libya's king of kings no longer controls either his country's oil supply or the fate of foreigners living in his country, it is safe for international leaders to say what everyone has always known: Gadhafi has been a joke and an abomination and should have been got rid of decades ago.
Will this precedent lead to franker contemporaneous assessments of the very unpleasant characters different countries' politics (to use that term loosely) sometimes throws up? Forgive me for being skeptical.
About the brave men and women who have finally stood up to Gadhafi it is impossible to be cynical.
About the rest of the world, it is impossible not to be.
William Watson teaches economics at McGill University in Montreal.
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