Paradigms and paradoxes

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					Brian Bow

Paradigms and
Canadian foreign policy in theory, research, and practice

          A sound foreign policy must be based on the acceptance of paradox.
          This is true for great powers, but it is especially true for a middle power
          whose reach ought not to exceed its grasp. However exasperating and
          however irksome, there is no escaping considerations on the one hand
          and considerations on the other, even when they are not reconcilable.

          John W. Holmes, 19701

There are at least two ways we can read John Holmes’s reference to paradox
here. Certainly he is thinking about the way foreign policymaking is almost
never easy, in the sense that there are always many implications to consider
and no way to make everyone happy. But he is also thinking about the

Brian Bow is associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University and currently a
Fulbright visiting research chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
He read John Holmes’s work extensively as a graduate student.
1 John W. Holmes, The Better Part of Valour: Essays on Canadian Diplomacy (Toronto:
McClelland & Stewart, 1970), vii.

                                             | International Journal | Spring 2010 | 371 |
| Brian Bow |

way foreign policymaking is almost never obvious, in the sense that the
balance between “considerations on the one hand and considerations on
the other” rarely tilts so decisively toward one option that policymakers are
driven to pursue a particular course of action. Diplomats and foreign policy
bureaucrats stay awake at night worrying, and argue with one another about
what to do, because they have real choices to make and many of them are
genuinely difficult ones.
     Holmes’s purpose here is to point out that foreign policy is complex
and contingent, and therefore not amenable to being explained or predicted
with anything approaching certainty. Experienced diplomats and foreign
policy bureaucrats do not need to be told this; for them, this supposed
paradox is more of a truism. But there are three groups that do need to
hear it: politicians, social science academics, and members of the
Description: Thus, what I call the "traditional" approach to Canadian foreign policy - one version of which was practiced and promoted by [John W Holmes] - can serve as an indispensible corrective to both of these kinds of rejections of paradox, and remind policymakers and the public that foreign policy choices are neither easy nor obvious. When Holmes argued that "[t]idy-minded people are a menace in world affairs, because the world is untidy," he was mostly thinking about politicians and polemicists, but he might just as well have been writing about political scientists.2 His way of thinking, as Denis Stairs notes in his contribution to this issue, was predicated on the recognition that policymaking is complex, with decision-makers often facing cross-cutting pressures and no-win situations, and strong arguments to be made on more than one side of any issue. In fact, policymakers are often not following any policy at all, or even making choices in any kind of strategic way, but rather muddling through an uncertain environment as best they can. Thus many policy outcomes that may look inevitable in hindsight - especially after politicians and political scientists have got through with them - are really profoundly contingent and debatable.The displacement of a social science approach is intensified (and partly revealed) by the prominence of "critical" approaches to Canadian foreign policy. The main critical approach during the Cold War was Marxist, but after the late 1980s conventional Marxist ideas were increasingly modified or displaced by other varieties emphasizing epistemological challenges to mainstream theory and research, including different forms of feminism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. The most prominent works from this quarter were more broadly concerned with international relations or international political economy, but they found echoes in the more specialized Canadian foreign policy literature.7 Holmes and other traditionalists would not necessarily have w
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