Essay Examining Two Competing Views of Canadian Foreign Policy During the 1930's - Misinformed, Divided and Autonomous

Below is an Essay Examining Two Competing Views of Canadian Foreign Policy During the 1930's
Misinformed, Divided, and Autonomous

The British policy of appeasing Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War is one of the most controversial foreign policies of the twentieth century. Although it is far less controversial than Britain's policy of appeasement, Canada's foreign policy during the 1930s is hotly debated amongst scholars. In "'A Low Dishonest Decade': Aspects of Canadian External Policy, 1931-1939," James Earys argues that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King adopted the policy of appeasement for largely self-interested reasons. In contrast, J.L. Granatstien and Robert Bothwell argue in "'A Self-Evident National Duty': Canadian Foreign Policy, 1935-1939" that King’s hesitancy to engage in European affairs is justified by weak public support for international activity and a heightened linguistic cleavage. Granatstien and Bothwell's case is superior to Earys' for three main reasons. First, Canada was misinformed about the nature of Nazi Germany. Second, Canadian federalism during this period was characterized by increased provincial power, which suggests that King's intense focus on national unity was not entirely self-interested. Third, one of the main goals was increasing Canada's autonomy from Britain, especially in foreign policy. In short, Granatstein and Bothwell are correct in arguing that Canada's foreign policy during the 1930s cannot be characterized as a dishonourable avoidance of international responsibilities.

The nature of Canadian public opinion and Canada's lack of knowledge about Nazi Germany during the 1930s suggests that Canada's foreign policy cannot be characterized as dishonourably avoiding an international duty. Three aspects of Canadian public opinion are important to note. First, many Canadians "did not recognize Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for what they were" and instead saw them as "bulwarks against the spread of communism," while others viewed Germany's reoccupation certain lands as justified. Second, isolationism "ran deep in Canada" as a result of a widespread disapproval of "Europe's statecraft and statesmen." Finally, the policy of appeasement reflected the belief of many Canadians that the country was "only a spectator" and "could have no impact upon events." The widespread conception that there were "not enough moral principles at stake" suggests that Canadians were misinformed about Nazi Germany. Earys is correct in arguing Canada's lack of information concerning the nature of Hitler's activities was partially caused by King, who allowed the sentiment of isolationism to determine his foreign policy. However, regardless of the cause of Canada's lack of information, Canadian foreign policy cannot be characterized as knowingly avoiding international responsibilities that were not fully understood. Although both articles agree that King’s policy influenced Britain to adopt the widely-condemned policy of appeasing Nazi Germany, Earys is wrong in characterizing Canada’s foreign policy as dishonourable because it was based on a lack of information about the nature of Hitler’s operations.

Although both articles commit logical fallacies in their arguments concerning national unity, the nature of federalism in the interbellum period suggests that King’s concern with national unity was not necessarily self-interested. On the one hand, Earys argues that since the relations between linguistic groups in Canada was “extremely favourable” compared to other multi-national, the issue of national unity did not justify a weak foreign policy. However, Earys fails to demonstrate that the supposedly mild English-French relations were not in fact the product of conciliatory policies, like appeasement. On the other hand, at the end of their article, Granatstein and Bothwell explain their support for King’s foreign policy choices based on the principle that “foreign policy can be no more effective than one’s internal strength will support.” However, the authors’ argument relies on circular logic because the principle that validates the case relies solely on that one case for proof. Nevertheless, the issue of national unity was important during the 1930s because Canada “reverted to another period of classical federalism,” in which the federal and provincial levels of government were “equal in status … and operated more or less independently.” Consequently, in order to run a successful government during this period, King needed to ensure that his policies did not lead to unrest in Quebec, which could undermine intergovernmental relations. Therefore, although Granatstien and Bothwell’s argument relies on an unproven principle, their belief that national unity was relevant to foreign policy in the 1930s is well-founded.

Although neither article provides an in-depth examination of the ways in which Canada’s growing sense of independence from Britain affected Canadian foreign policy in the 1930s, Granatstein and Bothwell seem to understand the importance of the balance between supporting Britain and increasing Canadian autonomy. While several events in the early twentieth century generated an increasing desire for autonomy from Britain (e.g. the perception of mistreatment during the 1919 Versailles negotiations), other events served to satisfy this desire to varying degrees (e.g. the 1931 Statute of Westminster). Prime Ministers Laurier, Borden, and King each attempted to “loosen the link with Britain” during this period. The importance of Canada’s sense of autonomy is evident in the decision to wait a week after Britain before declaring war against Nazi Germany. King favoured appeasement in the 1930s because he feared that British foreign policy might “undermine Canadian autonomy” as had happened in the past. However, King also recognized that a majority of Canadians were bound to Britain by strong emotional and national ties. King favoured appeasement because it amounted to tacit support for Britain without subjecting Canadian resources and policy to British control. While Earys is generally silent on the matter, Granatstein and Bothwell seem to acknowledge the balance between pro-Britain and pro-autonomy sentiment when they observe that King neither threatened to withdraw nor promised Canadian military support. Thus, as Granatstein and Bothwell seem to recognize, the policy of appeasement balanced the competing goals of supporting Britain and maintaining an independent foreign policy.