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Doug Saunders

A little less muscle, a little more substance Add to ...

When Lawrence Cannon comes to London on Wednesday, he will find himself staring into a deep, black abyss. The Canadian Foreign Minister will be meeting with about 60 of his international counterparts in a meeting called by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to determine the future of the Afghanistan war to the end of 2011 and beyond.

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Here, for Canada, is a perilous domain of opacity and doubt. Beyond our withdrawal of combat forces from Kandahar at the end of 2011, Canada's foreign policy is unknown. This extends beyond the war itself to many of the largest areas of our international relations. Ministers, diplomats and allies tell me they are eagerly awaiting our outline of the next chapter. Mr. Cannon's staff tell me he won't address the post-2011 universe in his Wednesday speech, and it seems he will try to avoid it in the Thursday summit.

As a result, we have little idea how Canada will engage itself with the world after 2011. This is not just because our foreign policy has become so intimately tied to the Afghan mission, but also because 2011 will end a bold five-year experiment in foreign policy.

This experiment could be called "the new, muscular Canada." That, late in 2006, was the cover line in a British magazine whose editor was flown to Canada on a government image-promoting trip.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had just been elected into an Afghan war whose approach had been engineered by then chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier. By deploying a large force to the most dangerous corner of Afghanistan, he believed he could create an image - and possibly also a reality - of military strength and competence.

Mr. Harper, recognizing that Canada itself faced a declining image in the world, appears to have decided to extend this technique into the broader realms of foreign policy.

By becoming a more powerful military force, we "have sent a clear message to the world: Canada is back as a credible player on the international stage … focus and action, rather than rhetoric and posturing, are restoring our influence in global affairs," his government announced in a Throne Speech.

This was wedded to an assertive, principles-driven approach to the problems of the world: China and Russia would be approached largely as offenders of human rights and democracy (a right-wing idealism that also appealed to many voters on the left). Our approach to the Arctic would be to assert sovereignty loudly, threatening Russia with retaliation and the expansion of NATO to its doorstep. Our Middle East policy would be based on the interests of Israel's conservative leadership, with Arab groups and their supporters often dismissed as anti-Semitic. Climate change would be a matter of hard, conservative principle, not co-operative gesture.

What was special about this approach, what made it different from previous Canadian efforts at worldly importance, was that it was based largely on the projection of image. We did not have the power to change China or Russia or the Middle East, or, as it turned out, to secure Kandahar province or rebuild its villages in an influential way.

As the Throne Speech indicated, we wanted to "send the message" that we could. It was aspirational foreign policy, rather like Enron's business plan: First you create the image of size and power and success; then you hope something substantial will come along to fill the holes in the picture before investors notice.

After four years, we have some things to show for it. Our fast and robust response to the Haitian earthquake this week, buoyed by our newly purchased fleet of C-17 heavy-lift aircraft, was a testament to our new military nous. We do enjoy a slightly higher standing in NATO, although our efforts to win the secretary-general position, or most other major positions, came to nothing.

Other planks of the "muscular" agenda have not fared so well. Mr. Harper was forced, in December, to make peace with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and accept a humiliating rebuke in Beijing after Canada's relations became frozen. The angry influence of 1,400,000 Chinese-Canadian voters and of a growing number of industries with interests in China were too much for his principled approach.

And now he is trying to prevent Europe from being lost. His diplomats have warned that some European countries might not support the Canada-European Union free trade agreement, which is currently being negotiated, because of Canada's reputation on climate change, seal hunting and, some say, on the shift of our foreign-aid dollars out of sub-Saharan Africa (a European priority) and into the Americas. In response, Ottawa is launching a public-relations effort in Europe this season focused on climate and the environment.

And in Kandahar, our increasingly skilled soldiers remain largely penned into their base, patrolling a narrow circle of villages and having a hard time securing the city itself, and our Provincial Reconstruction Team is able to work in a very limited area: 2,500 soldiers have not been enough.

Help will arrive in the form of 30,000 extra U.S. Marines this year, shifting Canada's area of operations to a district north of Kandahar City, with a battalion each of Afghan and U.S. soldiers helping. We've become skilled, but nonessential, helpers.

After we're gone from Afghanistan in 2012, it is very unlikely that Mr. Harper, or any other prime minister, will employ the "muscular" technique again.

While that perception-driven campaign was unfolding, a few very real developments occurred: the G20, a Canadian-promoted institution, became the world's dominant leadership forum; Canada's banks became known as the global leaders in stability thanks to strong regulations. And our methods of managing fiscal crises through program review are being copied, and envied, across the Western world.

When we can deliver such real, high-quality goods to the world (even if they were cooked up by earlier governments), there will be less need for brand management.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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