WORLD

LOST IN A CROWD

Stephen Harper learns it’s not easy being heard internationally

PAUL WELLS June 18 2007
WORLD

LOST IN A CROWD

Stephen Harper learns it’s not easy being heard internationally

PAUL WELLS June 18 2007

LOST IN A CROWD

Stephen Harper learns it’s not easy being heard internationally

PAUL WELLS

A week before the 2006 federal election, when everything seemed possible, Stephen Harper allowed himself to dream out loud about a Canadian government making “foreign policy decisions that are not only independent, but are actually noticed by other powers around the world.” The sentence revealed both an entirely uncharacteristic optimism—and Harper’s disdain for the dutiful deal-making honest brokerage that had been the stock-in-trade of successive Liberal governments.

This week in Europe, Harper was dealt a succession of reminders that when Canada plays in the big leagues, getting noticed can be a tall order. It was the kind of globe-trotting week the Prime Minister has grown to adore, but that he can’t often indulge when the minority Parliament is sitting. His trip began with the annual Canada-EU summit in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country currently holds the rotating European presidency. It ended with the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm. In between was a quick hop to Paris to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president. A productive week. And if you were relying on the local European papers, you’d be forgiven if you never knew it happened.

On the very files Harper had come to discuss, there were simply a lot of distractions. Global warming? George W. Bush stole the show by proposing his first-ever plan for

greenhouse-gas reductions. Security? Bush flew to Prague even as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was threatening to target European cities if the Czech Republic and Poland agreed to participate in U.S. missile defence. Globalization? Anti-market riots in Rostock injured dozens of police officers. New guy in the Élysée Palace? Harper and Sarkozy will likely develop a genuinely beneficial working relationship, but on this particular day the Canadian contingent was gently urged not to dawdle at the fancy air hangar because the Mexican president would be landing there on his way to dinner.

So by mid-week, Harper was shut out of all but the hometown news—and he was playing the very traditional Canadian nice-guy roles he used to disdain when Liberals acted that way. On Putin’s increasingly bellicose antics, Harper maintained a decorous silence. On global warming, he did his best to play honest broker between Merkel and Bush.

Peter Harder, who worked as deputy minister of foreign affairs under three prime ministers, including Harper, says the spotlight is a hard thing for Canada to grab in such a week. “While the G8 represents nine entities”—eight big countries, plus the European Union—“a lot of them, the Europeans,

have a kind of pre-club. The Gl”—a diplomats’ euphemism for the United States—“is its own club. And Japan has its own voice, by virtue of being so distant from the others. What’s Canada’s voice? And you can’t always say its voice is to be a bridge because, boy, the major players change the ends of that bridge pretty quickly.”

Bush proved that when he called for the world’s 15 largest polluter countries to meet later this year to discuss a long-term emissions goal. Merkel has always insisted that the United Nations’ Kyoto process be the basis for any next steps. Was Bush competing with the UN process? Trying to complement it? Merkel finally decided Bush’s sortie was “very welcome,” before using similar language to describe Harper’s own latest position on global warming. (The Europeans want deep cuts from 1990 emissions levels by 2050. Harper wants deep cuts from current levels. That sounds like common ground until you remember that, especially in Canada, current emissions are far higher than they were in 1990. Even after his meeting with Merkel, all the difference between Harper and Europe lay in that gap.)

But even though Canada could not take the lead or even stake out fresh ground on the big files, Harper still has more modest advantages to play, Harder said. Putin has been using Russia’s abundant natural resources to rebuild Moscow’s influence throughout Europe. But his Cold War sabre-rattling makes him an increasingly nerve-racking guy for Russia’s energy clients to do business with. That creates an opening for Canada to brand itself as a far calmer source for comparable energy wealth. Harper did just that in a lunch speech at the Canada-German Business Club. “In a world where much of the resource base falls within the borders of countries that are ruled by tyranny and instability, Canada is recognized as a stable democracy, a free and open market, and a reliable and responsible corporate citizen,” he said.

For the rest of the week, Harper had to content himself with the role played by the predecessors he once held in such limited esteem: present, cautious, unlikely to see others toot Canada’s horn and unable to toot his own. On a week like this, Harder said, “the effectiveness comes from not touting your effectiveness. I know that’s frustrating.” M