Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Globe Debate faceoff

Read and vote: Does Harper have a sensible foreign policy? Add to ...

Some say the government’s foreign policy is insignificant - all sound and fury. Others say it is a new, well-defined approach to the world built on solid principles of conservatism.

The Debate

“The Harper government’s performance in international affairs has shown more interest in the podium than the playing field.” So writes Joe Clark, the former Progressive Conservative prime minister and foreign minister, in his recently-published book How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change. Mr. Clark contrasts the old, trusted Canadian foreign policy – we were “trusted as reliable, respected and responsible partner, and building concentric circles of influence on issues from defence to development to conciliation to trade” – with the new, more confrontational “megaphone diplomacy” approach of the Harper Conservatives, who closed the embassy in Iran, shunned the Beijing Olympics, sided unquestioningly with Israel’s most controversial decisions and loudly opposed Palestinian statehood. Is Mr. Clark right – is the Harper government’s foreign policy all sound and fury, signifying nothing? Or is it a new, well-defined approach to the world built on solid principles of conservatism? Two experts on Canadian policy and foreign affairs, John Ibbitson and Andrew Reddie, are facing off over this question. Read their assessments below, and vote.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Andrew ReddieAndrew Reddie is a Toronto-based international-affairs analyst and doctoral student at UC Berkeley.- View Bio
The Harper foreign policy is grounded in a narrow conception of self-interest and hurts Canada’s standing in the world
Debate contributor
John IbbitsonJohn Ibbitson is an award-winning writer and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Harper’s is an explicitly conservative foreign policy which may not be popular but is consistent and coherent

The Discussion

Debate contributor

John Ibbitson : Canada has a new politics, the politics of polarization. This is why Canadian foreign policy has become polarized as well. Many people have difficulty accepting this.

Following on the publication of his new book, How We Lead, former Prime Minister Joe Clark is once again criticizing what he calls the “megaphone diplomacy” of the Conservative government. And Benoit Maraval, the former French diplomat, recently wrote an article for the Canada International Council that castigated Stephen Harper for condemning perceived enemies, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he should instead be trying “to take a more proactive and assertive role in trying to bring everyone to the table.”

It may well be true that Canada would play a more constructive role internationally by returning to its Pearsonian traditions of playing the honest broker, the friend to all sides, the seeker of common ground on which everyone can stand in peace. But it won’t happen on this government’s watch. It may well happen if and when the Liberals or NDP come to power. Progressive and Conservative foreign-policy values have become diametrically opposed. And the Conservatives, at least, want to keep it that way. Here is why:

Mr. Harper believes the welfare state was created out of a broad post-war consensus on the need for greater equality. That consensus foundered when the oil shocks of the 1970s undermined governments’ ability to sustain the social safety net. From that shattered consensus emerged two groups: those who depended on government, and those who sustained it.

“Political realignment in most Western countries today represents a battle over tax dollars between two groups of urban, professional, middle-class voters — the taxpayers of the private sector (‘the Right’) and the tax recipients of the welfare state (the ‘Left’),” Mr. Harper wrote in 1989. “Viable political coalitions become based on these and seek allies among other groups of voters.”

But “political realignment has not occurred in Canada because of the major parties’ preoccupation with Quebec,” he continued. “The arrangements designed to include Quebec in a national party, and ultimately the country, have been incompatible with any coherent ideological agenda, especially an Economic Right agenda.”

Twenty-five years later, Quebec no longer determines the national government. The Conservative coalition of Western and suburban Ontario voters has displaced it. Canada is finally polarizing between left and right, progressives and conservatives, as Stephen Harper predicted it would. Its foreign policy is polarizing as well.

Conservative foreign policy is very different from Liberal foreign policy (or from what NDP foreign policy would be if that party ever came to power) because it reflects conservative values. So Mr. Harper was an early and earnest critic of Mr. Putin. The Harper government staunchly defends Israel. It places little stock in being a good environmental citizen. There will be no foreign-aid funding for abortion services. And on, and on.

There are a great many people who believe this is wrong, just as they believe the Harper government’s dedication to tax cuts and oil pipelines is wrong. Eventually, there will be enough of them to defeat the government. The new government will bring in progressive domestic and foreign policies. Eventually it, too, will be defeated and the Conservatives will return to power, restoring conservative domestic and foreign policies. And on, and on.

I believe Mr. Harper is right. Politics in Canada has become more polarized. The federal Conservatives will always be emphatically more conservative than their Progressive Conservative predecessors, or their Liberal and NDP opponents. The difference between Conservatives and progressives is stark, and will always be stark. At election time, voters will have to make choices.

There is a caveat. The suburban middle class in Ontario is now the dominant voting bloc in the country. Many of them are immigrants. Mr. Harper believes his foreign policy priorities align with the priorities of the Ontario suburban middle class, including aspirational immigrant voters. He may be wrong. But the limits of polarization can be defined as the degree to which these voters can be persuaded to change their vote.

Mr. Clark will never see the day when Canada returns to a bipartisan, consensual foreign policy based on Pearsonian values. But he will see the day when the Conservatives are defeated, and Canada embraces a progressive foreign policy, one that may look very Pearsonian. And then he will see the day when the Conservatives return to power, and Canada’s foreign-policy priorities change once again.

Other countries have had this for decades. Somehow they get by. We will too.

Debate contributor

Andrew Reddie : When Senator Roméo Dallaire handed his resignation to the Governor-General in May, he observed: “I am leaving one job, because I’ve got a more demanding job, I feel, internationally.”

He spoke for many. According to critics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration — politicians and academics among them — Ottawa, too, has a demanding challenge in bolstering its international reputation and recovering the lustre of the decades past. And it has neglected that challenge.

Indeed, the days in which Canada provided peacekeeping troops to the United Nations, signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, and played a key role in signing the Ottawa Treaty to ban the use of land mines appear to be firmly in the past.

Some, including John Ibbitson, chalk Prime Minister Harper’s turn from such “Pearsonian” foreign policy to “megaphone diplomacy” up to the the increasingly polarized political atmosphere throughout Canada in which one can expect a Conservative government to be more conservative and a Liberal government to be more liberal in the creation of both domestic and foreign policy.

And while this is no doubt true to a point, there is only a limited extent to which one can conflate domestic political prerogatives (such as the dismantling of the welfare state or investment in Alberta’s oil sands) with the international sphere: foreign policy can, and often does, exist in a vacuum.

For example, there is no need for Ottawa to arrest its efforts to be “a friend to all sides” or to serve as an honest broker in peace agreements simply because of its domestic tax policies or support of Canadian business. And, more to the point, there is no reason why support for the Keystone XL pipeline domestically should, by definition, lead to an abrogation of Canada’s responsibilities to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the post-Kyoto carbon-policy negotiation framework.

Instead of viewing Canada’s contemporary foreign policy as an outcome of an increasingly polarized domestic political environment, then, what serves as the organizing principle of the current administration’s foreign policy?

The answer, to my mind, is that the Harper government operates, sometimes aggressively, around what it views as being core Canadian national interests in the face of events that Ottawa too often plays little role in shaping. And while this may sound like a sensible foreign policy platform, it too often leads to the government presenting reactionary policy responses.

The most recent example of this stems from the Ukrainian crisis in which Ottawa scored fairly easy political points — both domestically with the Ukrainian diaspora and internationally with Washington and London — in abrasively responding to Moscow’s incursions into Crimea and eastern Ukraine by pushing for the cancellation of a G-8 summit (it was reduced to a G-7, without Russia) and sanctions for Russian officials. The price for scoring these points was a complete inability for Canada to engage with Moscow in the aftermath of the crisis as part of the international effort to ensure that the situation didn’t further deteriorate. Indeed, for all of the rhetoric surrounding Russia’s behaviour, the G-7 meeting in Brussels attended by Prime Minister Harper achieved little in the way of progress, while an ad hoc meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko arranged around D-Day by France and Germany did far more to stabilize the situation.

One feature of this approach is the apparent willingness of the administration to avoid taking action in situations where it would rather not. It is for this reason that very little has been heard from Prime Minister Harper or Foreign Minister John Baird in response to the calls of opposition MPs from both the Liberals and the NDP for Ottawa to respond to atrocities in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The logic for this lack of response, one assumes, is that it is viewed as being outside of Canada’s realm of national interest and subsequently not worth the costs of intervention both in terms of funds and manpower.

This stance is contrary to the alternative, principled foreign policy that acts in concert with Canadian values, rather than Canadian interests.

In following this “national interest” model of foreign policy, one does wonder whether Ottawa is leveraging Canada’s considerable comparative advantages. If we are overly aggressive in denouncing foreign governments that choose to ignore Canada’s outrage, for example, what carrots and sticks do we have to bring them to the table? There is little that Canada can offer to bring parties it has spurned back to the table.

Some say that Mr. Harper is following Washington’s lead in its attempts to avoid foreign entanglement while maintaining the veneer of powerful statesmanship. This approach, when applied in the less powerful Canadian context, has been found wanting. So while it is arguably pragmatic, the current foreign policy calculus may not be sensible.

As elections approach in the coming year, Canadians must consider the foreign-policy positions of the government alongside, rather than as part of, its domestic political agenda. Whether the government continues to react to world events, attempts to shape them, or once again serves as an interlocutor among those who do remains to be seen. In any event, it appears likely that Canada — like Senator Dallaire — will continue to have a demanding job internationally if it wishes to recover its standing.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate