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Canada's flag is hoisted after the game-winning goal in overtime against the U.S. during their gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Feb. 28, 2010. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters/Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
Canada's flag is hoisted after the game-winning goal in overtime against the U.S. during their gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Feb. 28, 2010. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters/Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

Globe editorial

It's time for Canada to take on the world Add to ...

Early on, in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke confidently of Canada's role in the world, using a language Canadians could understand, language that resonated with our history and identity. "They don't want a Canada that just goes along," said Mr. Harper. "They want a Canada that leads … that punches above its weight."

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This was the Canada of the Great War and the war against fascism, the Canada of Bretton Woods and the North Atlantic Alliance, the Canada that proposed that a multinational United Nations force be sent to Egypt and thereby invented peacekeeping, the Canada that signed an acid-rain treaty, the Canada that led the international fight against South African apartheid and the Canada of the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines.

But what has become of that Canada during this general election campaign, the most parochial in living memory?

Canadian interests have never been so global. Canadian warplanes are bombing targets in Libya against a backdrop of a democratic revolution sweeping the Arab world, Canadian soldiers are fighting jihadism and medievalism in Afghanistan, a drug war has broken out in North America that threatens to spread its bloody reach north, hockey stick maker Sher-Wood has announced it will transfer its remaining production to China at a time when increasing numbers of Canadians view the economic power of China and India as more a threat than an opportunity, and a perimeter security agreement is being negotiated with the United States, raising issues of economic security and national sovereignty. Yet remarkably little is being said about any of this.

Today, The Globe begins a week of editorials on foreign policy in the belief that Canada's role in the world is as critical an issue as any in this campaign.

Our country's tightly regulated financial sector helped it weather the global recession and gave it influence in the global financial system, influence it used to stop moves to impose an international bank tax. When it was announced that Canada would host world leaders at the G8 and G20 summits, Mr. Harper said: "This represents an unprecedented opportunity for Canada to demonstrate leadership." That was only a year ago, but there is a pervasive sense that the country has faltered, that it is not the influential player in a rapidly changing world that it pretends to be. In response to the only question about foreign policy asked during last week's English-language party leaders debate, Liberal Michael Ignatieff gave a grim analysis of the state of Canadian leadership in the world: "Canada lost its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, first time it ever happened. Canada made a fiasco of the G8, G20 summits … we have lost prestige on the international stage."

Mr. Harper disagreed. He pointed to Canada's mission in Haiti, the largest per capita. He pointed to his own role as co-chair of the World Health Organization's panel on child and maternal health. He even pointed to Canada's position at Copenhagen, advocating that all emitters be included in a global climate-change pact. Said Mr. Harper: "I think on issue after issue, Canada's engaged, Canada's contributed. And this should not be a matter of partisan debate."

But of course it should be a matter of partisan debate. To begin with, "Canada's engagement" has been selective. In some respects, Mr. Harper has sought to bring welcome focus to Canada's scattered foreign policy. But too often, that focus has lapsed. In Latin America, for instance, it consisted of words that were not followed by deeds.

And saying "Canada's contributed" is not the same as saying that "Canada has led" or even "succeeded." In Copenhagen, Canada's contribution was minimal. It promised $400-million to help poor countries adapt to climate change, but the money is as yet unbudgeted. Even on maternal health, we failed to get much buy-in from our G8 partners, and a short-sighted policy on family planning has meant that the money is not being spent as well as it could be. The situation with maternal health obscures a much bigger problem with our overseas development aid program. We spend approximately $4.5-billion annually on it, but we don't know what value we get for this money. Our entire approach to foreign aid is in need of reform and more transparency.

The famous observation, inaccurately attributed to Kim Campbell during the 1993 general election campaign, that "an election is no time to discuss serious issues," seems to have become an inexorable truth. Global issues are a serious issue, and there is no better time to discuss them than a general election campaign. The magnitude of change in the world, the effects of globalization and economic and demographic shifts, is breakneck. Leaders and aspiring leaders must help shape the future course of foreign policy. Standing on the sidelines is not an option. There is still a need for Canada in the world.

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