Are U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jung-un on an inevitable path to catastrophic war? Is there any diplomatic solution to this precarious global crisis?
More to the point: is there any mediation role for a small to middling power like Canada? In other words, could we offer our good offices to bring some sense of calm and reasonableness to both sides and to encourage meaningful dialogue?
Some observers suggest that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could use his budding friendship with President Trump to talk some sense into him. At the same time, he could take advantage of a recent opening to Pyongyang (where Canada was able to secure the release from North Korea of a pastor from Ontario), its continuation of an agreement to accept North Korea students and top-level discussions in August between Canada’s Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.
As one former Canadian ambassador to both North and South Korea recently opined: “The current Canadian government has got to decide that they’re going to be a player.” And if Canada could be successful in getting both sides to pull back from the precipice, it would certainly put the Trudeau government on the world map and solidify the notion that “Canada is back.”
But others caution that Canada really doesn’t have much to offer in this situation or that there is an easy way out. Clearly, Ottawa is deeply concerned about being the proverbial ham-in-the-sandwich and thus ending up with mayonnaise on its face.
The truth is, though, that Canada was in a similar situation some 65 years ago - when the debilitating Korean War was still being waged. As a country wedded to a liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy, the Canadian government was eager to defuse this crisis in the volatile Korean peninsula.
Ottawa was quick to realize that this conflict could easily spin out of control if both the Chinese and the Soviets got more engaged militarily. It was worried about ensuring stability and order in the international system, of avoiding a major conflagration and not seeing the UN’s collective security provisions go down in flames. This all harkens back, of course, to the days when Canadian foreign policy officials considered Canada a “helpful fixer,” “honest broker,” and first-rate mediator.
In the early 1950s, Canada’s Lester Pearson - then-President of the UN General Assembly - sought to negotiate a peaceful settlement to an Asian war that had the potential to spread exponentially. Pearson, in concert with the Indian delegation and Iran, put forward a set of principles that would constitute the basis of creating a demarcation line (between the North and South Korean forces) and a permanent peace.
The United States was not impressed with Canada’s intervention and it was also annoyed that Pearson went behind its back to seek a diplomatic solution without its consent. The United States had really grown tired of Canada’s insinuation of itself into the crisis and its constant moralizing.
While Pearson was eventually instrumental in working behind the scenes with others to negotiate a ceasefire in Korea in 1953, a more lasting and enduring peace pact eluded him. A big part of the reason why was because the United States strongly resisted any comprehensive peace settlement - unwilling to break bread with the Chinese and hoping to exacerbate a growing split between China and the Soviet Union.
Today, any Trudeau peace initiative would face a stiff backlash from both Washington and Pyongyang AS neither side is truly interested in losing face or showing any signs of weakness.
The Trump administration is bent on sending ominous signals to Beijing, Tehran and possibly even Caracas that it won’t be a pushover or afraid to flex its military muscle. And the Kim regime thinks that it needs the U.S. as an enemy to justify its comparatively huge military expenditures.
Given these intractable circumstances, and coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the current NAFTA renegotiations, it might be wise for Trudeau to stand pat. It just doesn’t make any sense right now for him to stick his neck out diplomatically if both sides are simply intent on chopping it off.
- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.