Can a warrior Canada win hearts and minds?

I was reading  Aaron Henninger’s (Director, Unted States Air Force Public Affairs Center of Excellence) JPC article “The argument against winning hearts and minds”. He makes the point that it is impossible for the United States to try and win the hearts and minds of an occupied place against a backdrop of humvees and fighter planes.

Let’s analyze Canada’s recent move away from peace keeping using Henninger’s premise.

Canada has a different brand challenge from the USA. Since Lester Pearson, we have been a nation whose national brand and whose public diplomacy have centred around our peace keeping efforts. During the last few years, we have been progressively moving toward a new brand – that of a warrior nation.

Let’s analyze this situation. There was great brand equity in our being a peace keeping nation, but we’ve seen the Canadian government move us away from peace keeping toward a new “warrior nation” brand. We have seen evidence of this in the serious focus  put on the anniversary of the war of 1812 – a war that wasn’t even really Canadian, it was a war between the British and the Americans.

We see a rationale for the move to change away from our brand as a peace keeping nation to a new brand as a warrior nation in this article in volume 6, issue 1 of the Canadian Military Journal claims the following:

“Looking ahead, it is vital that Canadians understand how Canada must respond if it wishes to continue to play a leadership role in promoting peace and security. In particular, it must be realized that conflict prevention in the foreseeable future will entail more than a passive activity fulfilled by the presence of UN peacekeepers wearing blue berets.”

This may reflect the core of what Canada’s real priorities are, but it seems that what the author concludes is a little unrealistic:

“Looking ahead, it is vital that Canadians understand how Canada must respond if it wishes to continue to play a leadership role in promoting peace and security.”

The author thinks that the long-standing tradition of Canadian peace keeping should be replaced with an understanding of realpolitik. The problem is that the idea Canada’s peace keeping tradition plays to the idealistic reputation of Canada as a place where immigrants can integrate into a peaceful, rational and welcoming society. Peace keeping fits with Canada’s peaceable, multicultural identity. Being a warrior nation does not fit – it has all sorts of brand implications, chiefly:

  • Warriors play on conformist teams, with a clear us vs them – there’s a coercive element to that.
  • Multiculturalism and peace keeping means a nation where groups of people maintain their identity and choose to federate together willingly and openly.

Those are mutually incompatible propositions, which means that they will create cognitive dissonance in the minds of people thinking about Canada. We know that public relations professional understand that the public finds the concept of cognitive dissonance extremely uncomfortable – they will choose one side or the other.

It is easier to choose the conformist, subtly coercive warrior nation model because that is what the majority of human history has provided in terms of nations, empires, etc. – aggression and domination. The Canadian experiment of toleration, multiculturalism and peace keeping is a history oddity and a beacon of hope for many who live in traditionally aggressive, warlike and war torn countries.

From a branding perspective, it is good to be unique and to stand out. It is also good to have high values and stick with them. I think Canada should stick to the original value proposition that we started with Lester Pearson and continued to build with Trudeau and then Mulroney. It seemed to be a winner then. Joining the herd and becoming a run of the mill warrior state reduces us to an ordinary middle power with a smallish, underfunded military. It fritters away Canada’s unique brand value proposition: peace and toleration.

Our peace keeping reputation made us stand out internationally. It positioned our brand positively, without taking away from the branding of the warrior nations we count among our friends. It won the world’s hearts and minds for most of the last century. It made us a beacon of hope and civility for many in war torn lands. Why trade a solid, hard-won reputation for one that reduces us to run of the mill middle power.

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