Chrétien Stumble on Zimbabwe Policy

In his first eight years as prime minister, Jean CHRÉTIEN didn't exactly dazzle when it came to foreign policy. But in 2002 all that was supposed to change: this would be the year he made his international mark.

Chrétien Stumble on Zimbabwe Policy

In his first eight years as prime minister, Jean CHRÉTIEN didn't exactly dazzle when it came to foreign policy. But in 2002 all that was supposed to change: this would be the year he made his international mark. The vehicle for the Prime Minister's belated bid for world statesman status is a big initiative to boost aid for Africa at the G-8 summit at Kananaskis, Alta., in June. Apparently, though, nobody told Zimbabwe's thuggish president, Robert Mugabe, about the need to make sure Chrétien had a nice, smooth run-up to what will surely be his last turn to host the annual gathering of political leaders from the leading rich democracies.

Mugabe unleashed a campaign of violent intimidation at his political opponents before his country's elections last week. Deciding how to react was the first test of Chrétien's grasp of his new foreign-policy specialty. The outcome, at least initially, has hardly secured his reputation as a deft Africa hand. Not that Chrétien shied away from trying to influence the international reaction. At a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in Australia just a few days before Zimbabweans went to the polls, Chrétien boasted that a "Canadian compromise" on what to do about Mugabe's misbehaviour had prevailed. The question is whether a more uncompromising stand - suspending Zimbabwe from the club of Britain and its former colonies - would have better served Canada's reputation as a moral player in world affairs.

Britain and Australia wanted to go that far, but African leaders at the Commonwealth meeting were against anything nearly so drastic. Canada suggested holding off until after the voting, and then deciding on the basis of what impartial observers reported. That wait-and-see approach was adopted, but critics, especially in Britain, felt the Commonwealth had shamefully missed a last chance to put real pressure on Mugabe before he stole the election. Even Prince Charles, in a rare political comment, was quoted as saying: "If the Commonwealth could not stand up for liberal democracy and human rights, it deserved to be treated with international contempt."

Not surprisingly, given Mugabe's track record, the balloting in Zimbabwe was a disreputable affair. George W. Bush and Tony Blair wasted no time denouncing the result - a sizable victory for the incumbent - as invalid. Chrétien was at first more muted, allowing only that "it doesn't look very good." He held off saying anything stronger until after a preliminary version of the Commonwealth election observers' report, released late last week, said that the vote was held "in a climate of fear and suspicion." With that damning conclusion official, Chrétien finally declared that members of Mugabe's government are no longer welcome in Canada.

The question is what more will be done through the Commonwealth - if anything. The Canadian compromise assigned the job of judging whether to impose tough sanctions against Zimbabwe to a troika of South Africa, Nigeria and Australia. Having helped broker the deal that gave the three nations the role, Chrétien must now press them to do the right thing this week. That will be a tall order. South Africa and Nigeria signalled - even before the election observers issued their report - that they viewed the outcome as legitimate. If their position of African solidarity with Mugabe prevails, the Commonwealth's credibility will be in tatters - and Chrétien's involvement in postponing a real confrontation inside the organization over Zimbabwe will have to be judged a failure.

And what about his hopes for a historic commitment to Africa at the G-8 get-together in June? Hevina Dashwood, a University of Toronto political science professor and author of Zimbabwe: The Political Economy of Transformation, says getting top-level western support for huge government and business investment in Africa depends on spreading the view that the continent's worst days of corruption and violence are passing. Not only the way Mugabe ran his election, but the apparent willingness of other African leaders to let him get away with it, puts that optimistic outlook in doubt. "Key players like the U.S. and the U.K. are very, very angry," Dashwood says. "What's happened in Zimbabwe cannot help but overshadow the G-8 initiative." Chrétien must now scramble to somehow lift that shadow in time for his planned star turn at the Kananaskis summit.

Maclean's March 25, 2002