Canadians have long taken pride in their image as ‘honest broker’ in global affairs. Indeed, this image has been painstakingly crafted over decades by Canadian leaders who have sought to craft a constructive foreign policy for the country. For the most part – and inasmuch as can be accomplished by a proportionately small country with limited military resources – Thomas Jefferson’s adage of “friendship with all, entangling alliances with none” has at times seemed more applicable to Canada’s international role than to that of his own country.
While Canadian leaders have taken an active role in international security institutions, they have also always maintained a stridently independent policy in international affairs. Lester Pearson won a Nobel for his role in mediating the Suez crisis, Pierre Trudeau was unapologetic about Canada’s warm relations with Cuba, and Jean Chrétien stridently refused to countenance a Canadian role in the moral disaster which was the Iraq War.
All these episodes have been points of justifiable pride for Canadians, but it would appear that under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government the days of such an honest and credible foreign policy are a thing of the past. As Mr. Harper prepares for his first official visit to the Middle East, it is worth pointing out the damage that has been done to Canada’s global standing by his administrations’ belligerent and short-sighted policy towards this region.
A Lone Soldier on Iran
While the world celebrated the diplomatic breakthrough between Western countries and Iran in November, the Harper government was left out to dry. Canada was not included as a party to the P5+1 negotiating partners, and with the benefit of hindsight it is clear to see why. After severing official ties with Iran last year, denouncing the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as ‘ meaningless’ , and publically throwing cold water on the prospect of a peaceful settlement to the nuclear standoff, the Canadian government has sent a clear message to the world that it has little interest in dialogue with the Iranians. Instead of taking up the country’s traditional role as an honest broker in international affairs, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives appear instead to be leading the charge to designate Iran as a candidate for regime change.
However, it would seem however that Canada is almost completely alone in taking this unrelentingly hostile stance. Even the United States – which has held Iran out as its own bête-noire since the 1979 Revolution – has begun to explore the possibility of rapprochement, something which the Harper government appears to reject out of hand. No new development, however unprecedented or monumental, seems capable of producing even the slightest shift in the Canadian stance on this issue.
This is as clear an indicator as any of a policy that is borne more of ideological conviction than of honest pragmatism. Indeed, the only other country which seems to share this unremittingly belligerent policy is Israel under the right-wing leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Thus, where Pearson had a vision of Canada as a potential mediator to international crises, the present Canadian government appears to think a better policy is to simply cut-and-paste the most antagonistic views they can find elsewhere. Given Canada’s middling, ineffectual and likely counterproductive role in defusing this crisis, it’s clear to see just how little utility such a vision has had.
Death of an Honest Broker
On the issue of Israel-Palestine, the Harper government has demonstrated its commitment to completely shedding Canada’s image as an impartial and honest mediator. Mr. Harper’s identification not just with Israel but with the Israeli far-right has been complete. Between supporting Israeli military offensives against the Gaza Strip and Lebanon (even when Canadian peacekeepers have been killed in the crossfire), fighting the Palestinian campaign for international recognition of its nascent state, and implicitly recognizing Israeli control over East Jerusalem, Mr. Harper has made an unequivocal point that Canada is in fact not an impartial mediator to this conflict.
Remarkably, Canada has taken positions which are ostensibly even more ‘pro-Israel’ than Israeli leaders themselves; arguing to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority when even Israel opposed such a move. That these policies have been unpopular among Canadians appears to have had little bearing on Mr. Harper’s calculus.
However it is worth noting that Mr. Harper has been a more steadfast friend to the Israeli right-wing than to the country itself. By supporting Israel’s self-defeating colonization of the Palestinian territories, Canada is leading that country deeper into a morass of international isolation and destroying the possibility of a two-state solution that would allow it a Jewish demographic majority. While Mr. Harper may be a “rock star” in Israel today as described by Linda Frum, his apologetics for such policies may soon be looked upon as merely enabling national self-destruction rather than as a reflection of firm and honest friendship.
An Opportunity for Reflection
Under the Conservatives and Foreign Minister Jon Baird, Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East has devolved into little more than a parody of the long-departed George W. Bush administration. That Bush’s neoconservative policies ended up discredited even in his own country seems to have escaped Mr. Harper’s notice, as his government continues to press ahead with an unapologetically ideological foreign policy. Even Canada’s long-held reputation as a defender of human rights has been sacrificed in order to embrace brutal governments such as Bahrain, fresh off its crackdown against pro-democracy protestors.
These ham-fisted and nakedly cynical policies have seen Canada frozen out of the discussion on major international issues. Int the words of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “[Canada] no longer plays a constructive role”, and it is difficult to find evidence to the contrary. On Mr. Harper’s January visit to the Middle East he will make stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. He has stated his intention on this trip will be to “promote Canadian values”, but his policies towards the region to date has been more reflective of hardline U.S. neo-conservativism than anything which has historically been associated with Canada. Far from promoting Canadian values, Mr. Harper seems ashamed of them. Perhaps this trip will afford him the opportunity to reflect on the short-sighted nature of Canada’s present policy in the Middle East, and to chart a course more reflective of the country's traditionally constructive role.
Eds Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that Canadians in a poll opposed Stephen Harper’s handling of Israeli issues. The poll said 57 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of Israel’s influence in the world.
Murtaza Hussain is a journalist with First Look Media