Despite two failing overseas missions and plenty to talk about, there's been scarcely a word about Canada's foreign policy in this election campaign, national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes in Wednesday's column.
Mr. Simpson took reader questions on this topic Wednesday afternoon. An edited excerpt follows; scroll to the bottom for the full discussion as it took place, plus results from a poll question.
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Moderator: Jeffrey, you made what many readers will take as a provocative statement in your column: "In part, there is no debate about foreign affairs because Canadians are much less interested in the world than we believe ourselves to be." Can you quantify that, beyond the lack of interest you see during this campaign?
Jeffrey Simpson: It was Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who quipped that "all politics is local." I think he was right, with the addendum that most issues are global, whether we identify them as such or not. If you think of the recession, the response to which was rather domestic, the sources of it were outside our borders. Our government had to manage domestically through an externally-driven crisis, and participated in a global effort to curtail the recession. It has been a long time since foreign policy figured in a Canadian campaign. Perhaps the 1988 one over free trade could qualify. But generally parties do not talk much about foreign policy because in their polling, focus groups and other readings of public opinion, they find the public is not much interested. Media outlets -- not The Globe and Mail, I might add parochially -- have been cutting back foreign bureaus and foreign coverage, partly for cost reasons and partly because they don't feel the readers are interested.
Akshay: Canada's relationship with China has significantly cooled under Harper's government. With significant trade opportunities and influx of immigrants into Canada, this lack of discussion seems somewhat concerning. In your opinion, should Canada readjust its foreign policy toward Asia and away from issues such as "Arctic Sovereignty"? Or are Canadians too apathetic?
Jeffrey Simpson: I certainly do not think we should readjust our attention away from the Arctic. I give the Harper government credit for the attention it has paid to certain Arctic matters -- with the exception conspicuously and regettably of climate change,which is literally changing the geography of the Arctic. The Arctic contains our territory, our citizens and our interests. To the extent that foreign policy is an extension of a country's interests, the Arctic is definitely a foreign policy priority.
Bob Johnstone: Is Canada so different from others? How often is foreign policy a big issue in any country's election?
Jeffrey Simpson: I would have thought that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a major issue in the last U.S. election, as was the British invasion of the Falklands and Mrs. Thatcher's attitudes toward Europe in her elections. To the extent that climate change is an international issue, and it is, it figured very prominently in the last Australian election. So, generally speaking, elections are indeed fought on domestic issues, but international ones sometimes are of importance. And I would make a distinction between international matters deciding an election, or influencing the outcome, and not being raised at all, which is what appears to be the norm in Canada.
James Haga: Canada spends $4.5 billion in foreign assistance each year without clear evidence that we're maximizing taxpayer dollars and achieving the greatest impact possible. How would you recommend we overhaul Canada's approach to international development, and specifically, our primary institution for aid delivery, CIDA?
Jeffrey Simpson: I don't have the time or space to deal with all of my critiques of CIDA. Let's just say they have too many people at head office compared to in the field; that aid is spread too thinly across too many countries (although you pay a price for restricting it in Security Council elections); that CIDA is the wrong place to do democracy promotion.
Jennifer Jeffs: Given what we have heard about DFAIT's evaluation of the Americas Strategy, do you think that the results of the election will have any bearing at all on the attention this region receives?
Jeffrey Simpson: The Conservatives "chose" Latin America because they didn't want to "do" Africa, because that had been a Liberal priority. It sounds simplistic but that's why the shift. We did appoint a minister of state for Latin America, but the Liberals had had one of those too. Any serious policy of engagement with Latin America has to run through Mexico and Brazil, and maybe because of proximity and immigration, with the Caribbean. Our relations with Brazil are distant -- Mr. Harper has not visited there, nor has a Brazilian president come to Canada. Brazil campaigned hard against us for the Security Council, obviously working for Portugal. With Mexico, a country you know so well, we slapped visas on their nationals, which was considered correctly by Mexicans to have been an unfriendly act. So, no, I don't think there will be a serious deepening of relations. Nor is there any media coverage of Latin America in Canada to spark interest or raise issues, except for occasional stories here and there. I am reminded of what the late, great U.S. columnist once said of his fellow countrymens' attitudes towards the area: "Americans will do anything for Latin America, except read about it."
Caroline: I work for a large relief and dev't agency, and would love to see Cdns become more engaged on Int'l issues as part of the election campaign, but the reality is that Cdns focus primarily on domestic ones. This is somewhat unique in Cda as Int'l issues are key policy areas for voters in other countries. Why do you think Cdns are so disengaged?
Jeffrey Simpson: Good question, to which I struggle to offer an answer. Geography has something to do with it. If you live in Germany, you are surrounded by countries; we have only one true neighbour, with Russia being very far away to the north. We do domestically have a multicultural population, but people from a particular country tend to be only interested in that country and its immediate area. Our business community has been overwhelmingly focused on the U.S. market and bilateral trade, although this is changing somewhat.