The View From Here: Friends or interests?

Volodymyr Kish.

Charles DeGaulle is reputed to have once said that “No nation has friends, only interests.” In this he was paraphrasing a still earlier quote by Britain’s Lord Palmerston who back in the 1800s famously said “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This sentiment basically summarizes what unfortunately has become the operating principle for most countries’ foreign policies. It is also what guides the behaviour of many country’s diplomats posted beyond their nation’s borders.

I was reminded of this in recent weeks by the announcement of Canada’s new ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza.As most of you know, Ms. Galadza is of solid Ukrainian stock. She replaces the previous ambassador Roman Waschuk, who also was Ukrainian. He succeeded Troy Lulashnyk who was the first Canadian ambassador to Ukraine to come from a Ukrainian background. The previous six ambassadors from Canada to Ukraine had been non-Ukrainians.

The fact that the last three ambassadors to Ukraine have come from Canada’s active and well-developed Ukrainian community is significant. To me, it indicates that Canada does not look upon Ukraine in the context of its foreign “interests”, but increasingly as a “friend”.

I was living and working in Ukraine when Canada’s first ambassador to that country, Francois Mathys, was appointed. I got to know him fairly well and developed a great deal of respect for him and his abilities. At that time, there was a large ex-pat Ukrainian Canadian community in Kyiv that had come in the wake of Ukraine’s independence as investors, businessmen, consultants and foreign aid workers. Often, when we would get together, we would ask why it was, that with all the talented individuals in Canada of Ukrainian background within the world of business, academia and government, the Canadian government did not choose one of them as an ambassador.

Inevitably, we came to the conclusion that the powers that be in Ottawa were somewhat reluctant because they thought that a “Ukrainian” ambassador might look upon Ukraine more as a “friend” than as an “interest”. This flows from the assumption that a diplomat should be completely impartial and not have any personal vested interest in the country of his posting. That was likely why the first six Canadian ambassadors to Ukraine were non-Ukrainians. To be sure, all of them did a commendable job, and many of them have continued to take an active interest in Ukrainian affairs even after their retirement. Nonetheless, I would question the validity of subscribing to such a dogmatic assumption.

There are parallels between individuals having a good relationship with each other, and two countries having a good mutual relationship. To be successful, there must be a strong element of trust that comes from a deep understanding of the other party’s background, ethos, priorities and needs, as well as a common denominator of values, culture and goals. A Canadian ambassador to Ukraine that can speak the language, that understands Ukrainian history and culture on a personal level, that has an empathy and understanding of what Ukrainians have lived through and endured in recent history, and who can relate to Ukrainians, not as some impersonal foreign functionary, but as a “nash” (one of us), will garner a level of trust, credibility and cooperation that would be hard to achieve by someone with a different background.

Understandably, the only way that this can work though, is if the Canadian government has complete trust that its ambassador will always have Canada’s interests as his or her first priority. This has come about, because Ukrainian Canadians have demonstrated unequivocally over the past century that they are Canadians first, however much they cherish and preserve their Ukrainian heritage. Ukrainians have played a significant role in building Canada, in defending it through wars and conflicts, and in contributing positively to every aspect of Canadian life. Our loyalty and dedication to Canada is, and should be beyond question.

As Ukrainian Canadians, we believe strongly in the concept of a true family of nations. Our multicultural roots give us a special advantage in terms of being able to build strong relationships with all those countries, whose sons and daughters came to Canada to build on their hopes, dreams and wishes. Those countries should be more than just “interests”; we should strive to make them all our “friends”.

Sending ambassadors to them that share a common heritage is a desirable and powerful way of achieving this.