One of the best pieces of advice that I have received in my time as a PhD student was regarding the importance of the head nod. The head nod, as it was explained to me, is the important point in any essay, argument or debate where you acknowledge that your point may not be the only point to be made on the subject. A head nod to the contrary argument indicates that you realize that you are not the knower of all things. A head nod to the progression of ideas put forth by Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos that continued questioning and attempts at falsifying begets better theory and practice.
It seems like head nods are few and far between among our current political class in Canada. Issues, as laid out by our politicians, are black and white; and if you sit yourself in the grey, you are labelled a waffler, weak, and implied to be unprincipled. This was especially striking to me this past week when reading Foreign Minister Baird’s comments in front of the American Jewish Committee in Washington. Among other things, Baird regaled the attendees with an anecdote about his summer job at the Department of Foreign Affairs twenty years ago where he was told by an officer that it was difficult to ascertain the “white hats and the black hats” with regard to bombings in northern Israel. Baird, then asserts, that even his early twenties self, knew that Israel was Canada’s “best friend” and Hezbollah was Canada’s “worst enemy.” He then tells the attendees that he intimated to the official that the differences between the white hats and the black hats couldn’t have been more stark.
Now, is it fair to take one comment from a pro-Israel speech in front of a pro-Israel crowd that reeks of BS and hold it up to intense scrutiny? Probably not. However, the comment strikes me as so delusional and self-assured that no matter the audience, it indicates a lack of contemplation. It indicates that Minister Baird assumes no one is actually paying attention to Canada’s foreign policy in practice. As pointed out by others, the message of a principled foreign policy built on promoting human rights, protecting rule of law and promoting liberal democracy is so flawed in its practice that it is about as truthful as the anecdote. Where are the principled statements on the crackdown in Bahrain? Or the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar and the UAE? Or the fact the both of Egypt’s presidential candidates have committed to eradicating what was the country’s most organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood? While I will head nod to the idea that Minister Baird may be practicing quiet diplomacy in these circumstances, it may also be the fact that the idea of moral relativism that Minister Baird says there is “no room” for in Canada’s foreign policy, is actually alive and well. And, to be honest, that is fine. Most people would not have a problem acknowledging that Canada should play to its foreign policy strengths and interests. But imagining that our foreign policy is directed by someone who had it all figured out in his early twenties, and that the so-called principles he held then still hold now, induces eye rolls and not head nods.