Incoherent or inspired, the PM’s foreign policy is off to a surprising, controversial start

PETER SHAWN February 5 2007


Incoherent or inspired, the PM’s foreign policy is off to a surprising, controversial start

PETER SHAWN February 5 2007


Incoherent or inspired, the PM’s foreign policy is off to a surprising, controversial start


BY PETER SHAWN TAYLOR • “Why should you focus your attendon and your energies on Canada?” a belligerentsounding Stephen Harper demanded of a blue-chip crowd at the Economic Club of New York last fall. “Because,” the Prime Minster declared, “Canada intends to be a player.” Canada is a force for good, he argued. Together with his allies, he promised to advance “our shared values and interests throughout the world.” Bold talk for a leader with a shaky minority government and only eight months of on-thejob experience.

Prime ministers and presidents, it is often observed, come to office promising to solve domestic problems, and leave it fixated on world affairs. Such has been the case, certainly, with George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Stephen Harper, with his braggadocio at the Economic Club, and his actions on foreign affairs in his first year, seems to have gotten this rule back-to-front. His successful 2006 election platform devoted just two pages to foreign issues. Since then, it’s been conventional wisdom among analysts and academics to brush off his overseas adventures as the work of an unschooled amateur. One expert with

an insider’s views on world diplomacy, however, is giving Harper credit for a remarkably successful rookie season in foreign policy. Another sees him following in the 50-year-old footsteps of one of Canada’s most controversial prime ministers, John Diefenbaker.

Harper has clearly made a splash in his first year. The Prime Minister identified himself closely with the war in Afghanistan and a stronger Canadian military. He staked out a clear position on the murky politics of the Middle East: supporting Israel, condemning Palestinian terrorist organizations and cutting off funding to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Tories delivered on a softwood lumber deal with the U.S. but have also


had surprisingly stern words over issues ranging from the Northwest Passage and corn subsidies to the deportation of Maher Arar.

The only other file to receive substantial attention so far has been China, though Canadian business leaders were aghast when Harper decided to focus on human rights instead of trade. He provocatively awarded honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama of Tibet and declared he would never sell out his beliefs in democracy and freedom for “the almighty dollar.” This led to a reported

spat with the Chinese government and complications in setting up an initial meeting between Harper and Hu Jintao, China’s president. Last week, Harper dispatched two top-level cabinet members, International Trade Minister David Emerson and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, to rebuild the trade side of Canada’s relationship with China.

To critics, Harper’s à la carte approach to foreign policy has damaged the long-standing Canadian reputation for polite usefulness. “International observers must be quite puzzled by the incoherence of Canada’s new foreign policy,” says Robert Wolfe, professor of political science at Queen’s University’s School for Policy Studies. “Sometimes I wonder whether we even have one.” With just four main areas of interest so far and no comprehensive statement on broader foreign policy objectives, Wolfe sees contradictions and incongruities. “They scold China on Tibet, yet you would never catch Harper making nasty comments about Guantánamo,” he chides.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, now at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., approves of a beefedup military and tough talk toward the Americans, but is troubled by the controversies over the Middle East and China. Favouring Israel may win votes at home, Heinbecker figures, but serves no purpose on the world stage. “I really don’t like to see anyone playing domestic politics with sensitive international issues,” he says. “They were not very experienced when they came to office and appear to have launched themselves into world affairs without sufficient circumspection.”

Wolfe and Heinbecker reflect something of a consensus from the ivory tower—Harper’s

background in opposition politics, with its emphasis on a few stark issues, has been poor training for the multiple nuances of international diplomacy. His movement away from the familiar Liberal traditions of soft power and eager multilateralism is lamented by those who feel such policies defined Canada. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay’s chilly reception in Jordan last week underscores the risks of taking sides in complex conflicts.

If there is a minority voice in academia, it comes from John Kirton, a University of Toronto politics professor, director of the G8 Research Group at the Munk Centre for International Studies, and author of the new book Canadian Foreign Policy in a Changing World. Kirton disputes that Harper has proven either inexperienced or ineffectual on international issues in his first year. He argues that Harper has created a recognizable agenda

focused on democracy, human rights and open markets, and insists that Canada is well on its way to becoming a principal power


in the world. Afghanistan aside, Kirton sees accomplishments in places most Canadians would never think to look.

Kirton was an insider at the St. Petersburg, Russia, G8 Summit in July; the Putin government asked his organization to assist in its preparation. “When the summit began, it was clear that the situation in Lebanon was getting worse and the G8 would have to make some sort of statement on the conflict,” Kirton says. “The Russian hosts had prepared a standard boilerplate response that called on all parties to cease fire, accept responsibility, the usual stuff. Harper got there and said ‘this is not right.’ The Canadian delegation went to work on a counter-draft—in violation of all summit protocol—and produced a statement that made it clear a terrorist group had fired first and abducted Israeli soldiers.”

Harper pressed the G8 leaders to follow the Canadian draft and the final result suggests he got what he wanted. “The extremists must immediately halt their attacks,” the communiqué reads. (The only significant change to the Canadian draft, according to Kirton, was Putin’s removal of the description of Syria and Iran as partners of the terrorists. “He said it would make his life difficult,” he recalls.)

Canada’s tougher stand on the conflict spread to other global organizations, says Kirton. It coloured former UN secretarygeneral Kofi Annan’s comments a week later. And when Harper was at the bi-annual la Francophonie meetings in Hungary in September, he again blocked plans to issue a statement sharply critical of Israel. Boosting world support for Israel as a democracy is a key component of Harper’s foreign pol-

icy doctrine. “The international community is adjusting to what Canada wants,” Kirton insists, with the hint of a boast.

Harper has even managed to use foreign policy to his advantage at home by casting himself as an occasional adversary to the Americans, Kirton says, undercutting pre-election criticisms that he would cozy up to the Bush administration. And his support for Canadians endangered abroad—from the evacuation of15,000 Canadians in Lebanon to the issue at the core of the China feud (the case of interned Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil)— has reinforced his reputation as a defender of Canadian interests at home and abroad.

Kirton says his glowing assessment of the Harper Doctrine has been met mostly by stunned response from his colleagues. “Kirton has a particular take on things that I find surprising,” deadpans Heinbecker. Yet it seems

traditional allies such as the U.S. and Britain are paying more attention to Canada. Blair in particular has been glowing in his recent assessment of Canada. Behind the scenes, Kirton says Harper has been working hard to build a new relationship with France. Next up, he looks for Harper to broaden the focus of his foreign policy into new areas such as the Caribbean, Africa and the environment.

To date, the only sign that the government is prepared to vary from the initial Harper doctrine comes in regards to China. “China has been the weak point in the government’s foreign policy performance,” says Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, and

a former cabinet minister with the Mulroney Tories. “This is not a case of human rights or trade. We must have both.” The China trade mission is an attempt to address some of Beatty’s complaints. The government now appears to be following a “two-track” approach in which cabinet ministers pursue trade links while the Prime Minister comments on human rights. That said, Emerson’s speech in Beijing to the Chinese business community still managed to squeeze in a lecture for the hosts. “Open discussion and engagement in these broader issues [of democracy and human rights] should not conflict with commercial interests,” he told his audience.

Paul Evans, co-CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a think tank based in Vancouver, sees the new approach as a necessary compromise. “We know the aspirations of the Harper government are democracy, human rights, freedoms and rule of law. But China is not a democracy and it doesn’t show any signs of moving in that direction. So how do you deal with that reality?” In coming to terms with this dilemma, Evans sees Harper

following a path similar to John Diefenbaker.

“Both Diefenbaker and Harper came to power from opposition,” observes Evans. “And both had a very values-oriented world view.” While Diefenbaker is remembered mainly for his vacillations and inability to control his own party, he was a major figure in Canadian foreign policy. During

his six years in power (1957 to 1963), he advocated closer ties with Canada’s traditional allies, passionately defended human rights and democracy (engineering South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth over apartheid) and was a stern critic of Communists in the U.S.S.R. and China.

But Diefenbaker was also a pragmatist who was prepared to trade with Cuba and China if it won him votes at home. In fact, Beatty invokes Diefenbaker in his plea to the Harper government. “Diefenbaker fought his whole life for human rights. He led the charge on South Africa and was a very strong anticommunist. But,” he says hopefully, “even Dief sold wheat to the Chinese.” M