NATIONAL

IT'S A GREAT BIG WORLD

...and the Tories are taking advantage of it, Foreign policy didn’t figure much in their platform, but they're somehow racking up early successes. Is it luck or design?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 1 2006
NATIONAL

IT'S A GREAT BIG WORLD

...and the Tories are taking advantage of it, Foreign policy didn’t figure much in their platform, but they're somehow racking up early successes. Is it luck or design?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 1 2006

IT'S A GREAT BIG WORLD

NATIONAL

...and the Tories are taking advantage of it, Foreign policy didn’t figure much in their platform, but they're somehow racking up early successes. Is it luck or design?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Stephen Harper has five set-in-stone priorities as Canada’s new prime minister—government accountability, cutting the GST, cracking down on crime, wait time guarantees for health care, and a new family allowance program. None of them look beyond our own borders. But three months into his mandate the early reviews are in, and his biggest successes have been playing the away game. Harper’s foreign policy photo-ops—eating with the troops in Afghanistan, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with George W. Bush and Vicente Fox at the Cancún summit—have helped him look prime ministerial, if a little fashion-challenged. Canada’s rapid decision to cut its $73 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power won international kudos, and has been mimicked by the United States and the European Union. Adding

the Tamil Tigers, who have waged a bloody 23-year campaign for an independent homeland in Sri Lanka, to Canada’s list of banned terror groups, has been hailed as a principled and long-overdue decision.

As George W. Bush, who came to power vowing to be a “domestic” president, knows all too well, the messy reality of world affairs has a way of overtaking even the most carefully constructed agendas. That has yet to become a problem for Harper. But in comparison to the equivocating of the Liberal years, especially on issues like the invasion of Iraq and missile defence, the Conservatives’ foreign policy has so far looked nimble and robust. The question is, are all these plaudits the fruit of some fundamental shift in Canada’s philosophy abroad, or simply a lesson in how to succeed without really trying?

Reading the tea leaves is difficult at this

early stage. That’s mostly because this minority government has precious little to say about what it hopes to achieve on the international stage. The Conservative party election platform had just four sentences devoted to the subject, vaguely vowing to protect Canadian sovereignty, promote Canadian values abroad, and better integrate aid, defence and trade into the foreign policy mix. The Speech from the Throne contained no further specifics, although the Department of International Trade, hived off into a separate ministry by the Martin government in 2003, is now back under Foreign Affairs.

Peter MacKay, Harper’s surprise pick for foreign affairs minister—Stockwell Day had been the party’s critic in opposition—has been mostly mum on his government’s big-pic -ture vision of Canada’s place in the world. (A MacKay spokesman declined a request for an interview, saying “it would be inappropriate” for the minister to discuss the government’s current or future foreign policy. “Some things are under review,” said André Lemay. “There will be changes, but what those changes will be we don’t know.”) One of MacKay’s few public pronouncements came in early March, when he travelled to New York to meet with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and said that Canada will continue to play its traditional, activist role in the world body. Asked to explain the difference between Conservative foreign policy and that of the previous Liberal government, the minister said it will be more decisive—sometimes. “Instead of trying to be all things to all people, you have to try and do what you can,” said MacKay.

One of Harper’s central obsessions in opposition, and on the campaign trail, was the need to repair Canada’s frayed relations with the United States. And establishing a good working rapport with the Bush administrations appears to be foreign policy job No. l for the Tories. Derek Burney, a former ambassador to the U.S. and a key player in the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, led Harper’s transition team. And although that job has finished, he maintains an office in the PMO, dispensing advice, especially on crossborder relations. Harper also chose another Mulroney-era heavy hitter, Michael Wilson, the former finance minister, as Canada’s new representative in Washington, a move that was greeted warmly by the White House.

While the Harper government may admire the amicability of the Mulroney era, it’s unlikely they want to get as chummy with Bush as the former prime minister did with first Ronald Reagan, and then the current President’s father (MacKay’s giddy encounter with Condoleezza Rice aside). “It’s more the traditional, close-but-not-cozy positioning,”

says Don Berry, a University of Calgary political scientist. As concerned as they are about the deteriorating relationship, most Canadians have developed a visceral dislike for George W. Bush. And there are continuing cross-border irritants that will be difficult for the Conservatives to simply paper over. “How long you can hold this friendly line depends directly on results on things like softwood lumber and border access,” says Berry.

When it comes to Canada’s place in the wider world, the Harper government’s rhetoric

about the need to return to “ethical” policymaking, placing human rights and democratic values above other interests, has piqued interest. A senior official with a human rights organization gave MacKay high marks after a recent conversation. The new minister was ready to listen, he said, and seems determined that Canada take on a more active role in the developing world. MacKay’s chief policy adviser, Peter Van Praagh, is a veteran of the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-partisan Washington organization that helps build foreign democratic movements and multi-party, pluralist governments. “The Liberals were good at talking the talk,

but over time their ability to walk the walk became a bit thin,” says the human rights expert. “The Conservatives have a philosophy, even if they don’t have a strategy.” Still, with a predicted shelf life of 18 to 24 months, it seems likely that the Harper government’s most visible international foray will be the efforts to secure and rebuild Afghanistan. The commitment to keep 2,200 troops in Kandahar expires in early 2007, but the Prime Minister has already indicated that Canada will be in the country for the long haul. “We are bringing hu-

manitarian assistance to the Afghan people and we are assisting the Afghan forces with the building of security in their own country,” Harper said in the Commons last week. “We are going to be there until we succeed in these goals.” Recent suggestions that the military might have to scale back its presence, in order to train the 13,000 full-time troops and 10,000 reservists the Tories want to add to the armed forces, have met with a chilly response from the government. But the combined stresses of the Afghan mission and its expansion

do seem certain to keep Canada out of any peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

Maintaining Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan also has the added advantage of playing to Harper’s own political partisans. The rifts between the old Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance followers have yet to completely heal, notes Tory Senator Hugh Segal. But the muscular foreign policy Harper is championing is like mom and apple pie in Conservative circles. “It doesn’t matter where you go in Canada or what kind of audience you have—Red Tories, old Reformers—if you talk about the need to support our troops or build democracies abroad, people are instantly on their feet,” says Segal.

It’s all a bit hard for the Liberals to swallow—after all, it was the Martin government that made the commitment to the Kandahar mission. Bryon Wilfert, the party’s foreign affairs critic, notes that the Liberals also had their own plans for targeting foreign aid and rebuilding the military. “If that’s the Conservatives’ intention, then they’re only looking to build on the foundation we constructed.” Tory foreign policy successes are getting more attention than their flubs, like their

ALTHOUGH HE WANTS TO REPAIR RELATIONS, HARPER IS UNLIKELY TO GET AS CHUMMY WITH BUSH AS MULRONEY WAS WITH REAGAN

failure to broker a compromise on the soonto-be-instituted passport-only rule at the U.S. border, he says. “They’re the ones who hammered us during the campaign on softwood and mad cow, like there’s some sort of magic solution to these very complex problems.” But in these early days of government, it’s the tone, not the outcomes, that are most important, some say. Barbara McDougall, who served as external affairs minister under Mulroney, praises Harper’s “crisp” foreign policy record. “Most people know where this government stands and where they hope to take the country,” she says, even if it hasn’t yet articulated its vision. “It’s not a bunch of white or green or blue papers on policy. They’re speaking with actions.” And judging from the positive reviews, Harper has little reason to change his approach, foreign policy may not end up being a plank in his next election campaign, but it’s starting to look like a solid foundation. M Jonathon.gatehouse @ macle ans. rogers. com