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Foreign policy is rarely a major focus for Canadian election campaigns, and that will almost certainly be the case again in 2011. Bread-and-butter issues closer to home, such as the economy, taxes and health care, are usually more critical in the eyes of voters.

The government's planned purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft will attract attention during the election. The debate will be fundamentally about the choice between "guns or butter." Should there be a change of government, the defence budget would be a likely target for cuts.

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Canada's loss in the campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat is something the opposition parties will continue to point to as a failure of foreign policy. But the UN, as an institution for good in the world, has lost much of its lustre, even in Canada, and the defeat was seen by many as more of a verdict on the institution than on Canada.

Afghanistan, where Canada has been actively engaged in military combat for almost a decade under both Liberal and Conservative governments, might have provided a point of differentiation. However, the decision to switch to a training role in the summer of 2011 was supported by both major parties and with minimal parliamentary debate.

The aspects of the government's foreign policy that have attracted the most criticism relate to the Middle East and climate change. By tilting overtly and consistently to Israel, the Conservatives have been attacked for abandoning Canada's customary "balance" on Middle East issues. This position is often cited as having influenced the negative vote on Canada's Security Council candidacy.

Canada's perceived foot-dragging on a global climate-change consensus featured prominently in the same UN calculus. Climate change is both a foreign and domestic policy issue, but the debate seems to be constrained, for now, by the inability of the United States to endorse a concrete abatement plan.

The bold declaration on a North American security perimeter is a singular acknowledgment of the importance of the United States to Canada's security and prosperity and is, potentially, the most significant bilateral initiative in 20 years. Political opposition has been modest to date, primarily because there is nothing other than a process to oppose or defend.

Otherwise, Canada's track record on trade policy is decidedly mixed. The government is heavily engaged in negotiations with the European Union, but, as the results remain somewhat opaque, there is little to debate during an election campaign. In sharp contrast to the success of the United States, Canada's negotiations with South Korea have hit a wall, due to fierce opposition by auto manufacturers and auto workers in Ontario. The all-party stubborn defence of supply management for fewer than 20,000 dairy and poultry farms in Ontario and Quebec has relegated Canada out of the major league in trade negotiations, notably the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Where Canada has stood tall internationally is in the fiscal and financial regulatory discussions at the G8 and G20 summit tables. Our economic performance fared best among G7 countries during the recession and, thanks to prudent regulations, our banks were less exposed than many in Europe and the United States. But high marks for good performance are rarely campaign fodder.

The Conservatives have essentially delivered on what they said they would do on foreign policy: strengthening the military to give us more capacity for a global role, engaging carefully but constructively with the United States, and enhancing relations in our hemisphere, including a substantial contribution in response to the devastation in Haiti. On key issues of war and peace - Afghanistan and now Libya - they have managed to broker either bipartisan or all-party consensus in support of our engagement.

The opposition partners have found fault with various elements or actions, but seldom have these criticisms or differences commanded more than fleeting public attention. That is why foreign-policy differences are likely to be understated during the campaign.

The Liberal platform on foreign policy invokes images of Pearsonian diplomacy, with more emphasis on peacekeeping than military combat, on the importance of the UN generally and multilateralism as the rudder for Canadian foreign policy. But what might have been a clear strength for Mr. Ignatieff - his knowledge and expertise in foreign policy - will likely be underplayed in a campaign where his main challenge will be to identify with Canadians' more immediate domestic concerns.

The F-35 purchase may prove to be a major differentiator in the campaign, but regardless of the election outcome, the main lines of Canadian foreign policy - the primacy of Canada-U.S. relations, the need for greater attention to emerging powers and the perennial pursuit of balance between promoting values and defending interests - are unlikely to change significantly.

Derek Burney is senior strategic adviser to Ogilvy Renault LLP and senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. He was ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993.

 

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