As a member of the Southern Africa Committee, a group that organized international pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime, Joe Clark learned the value of keeping embassies open.

“If you shut your embassy down, you’re taking away your own ears, your own vision,” said the former prime minister of Canada, speaking during the keynote session at the Canadian Investment Review‘s 2022 Global Investment Conference in April. “You’re taking away the capacity to encourage positive, constructive local authorities who want to work for change.”

Following his tenure as prime minister from 1979-1980, Clark was the country’s foreign minister in the 1980s and early 1990s and a champion of multilateral approaches. During his session, he called on Canada to once again become a leading force behind international diplomatic efforts — a role it had stepped back from after the Cold War.

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“For a long time, bipartisan international development was a significant element of our international engagement and investment strategy. It was often supported by extraordinary initiatives by ordinary citizens.”

Canada wasn’t the only country that allowed its commitment to multilateralism to recede in the post-Cold War era, he said, noting the U.K.’s spending on foreign aid has been cut by more than 25 per cent since 2019. In addition, the U.S.’s efforts to lead multilateral action have, despite generous budgets, struggled to be effective.

“The Americans continue to try hard, but they can’t get away from the American flag and the American reputation. Many countries are suspicious when they come knocking on the door.”

Clark believes Canada is better suited to serving as a leader of multilateral efforts than either the U.K. or the U.S. The country’s modern, multicultural, bilingual and federal nature has allowed it to maintain strong relations with developing countries, he noted. “Of course, among our credentials in those relationships is that our origins — Canada’s origins — are also as a colony not as a colonist.”

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While Clark had prepared his keynote address in advance of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said it provided a special relevance to his topic. “Among the principal lessons here for Canada and for other Western societies is not simply about Vladimir Putin and the Russians. The most troubling question is: ‘What else are we missing in this turbulent world as we focus increasingly on ourselves?’”

If Canada and its allies had remained committed to multilateralism, the West would have been better positioned to respond to the conflict, he said. In the 30 years before the invasion, he believes Canadian and international leaders misjudged the Russian political situation on three different occasions, sowing mistrust between Russia and the West.

The first of these misjudgments occurred in 1991, as Mikahail Gorbachev, the final Soviet premier, faced an uprising led by future Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Despite the risk of allowing a nuclear power to collapse as a result of internal strife, Western powers declined to step in and resolve the situation, said Clark.

The second misjudgement was after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused widespread rejoicing in the West and nursed equally widespread resentment inside the Eastern Bloc. And the third was when Russia began using its military to enforce its own dubious territorial claims inside Georgia and Ukraine. While broadly condemned by the international community, Russia didn’t struggle under the weight of crippling sanctions.

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While Clark is broadly confident that the current sanctions will be more effective at forcing Russia to the negotiating table, he said recognizes that government-led diplomacy is no longer as powerful a force as it was during the Cold War. Today, a country’s financial businesses may maintain stronger relationships with foreign governments than its foreign ministry.

“We’re living in an era when, in fact, the capacity of governments is declining relative to the capacity of other agencies — including the institutional investment sector. . . . Recall how fragile some of the circumstances in other parts of the world now are. Consider what might be done and who might do it.”

Read more coverage from the 2022 Global Investment Conference.