Radical change? From the Harper government, we expected it in domestic policy. But the surprise is, it’s more clearly evident in foreign affairs.
There’s a two-track approach to external affairs, each one representing a major break with the past. One track sees the Conservatives contentedly ending Canada’s days as a voice of moderation. Now we’re the trigger-happy Great White North. We thumb our noses at the United Nations, shut down embassies, follow a brashly partisan approach in the Middle East and leave talk of collective security to others. Nuance has been replaced by ideological certitudes.
But there’s some welcome counterbalance to this narrowing of the Canadian mind. The Conservatives may be closing corridors, but they’re also seeking to open them through the most ambitious policy of trade expansion the country has ever seen. They’re seeking to build free or freer trade bridges here, there and everywhere – with the European Union, South Korea, Japan, India, China.
The trade initiatives are the most important of the two foreign policy tracks. Unilateral aggressiveness can easily be reversed by the next government. Trade pacts are more enduring and economically consequential.
In times past, Ottawa made some modest attempts to diversify trade, but the country was largely content to reside in the fortress North America trading bloc. Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement. That deal changed our economic mindset, and ended an era of economic nationalism and protectionism. Having made that leap of faith, it’s now time, as Brian Mulroney says, to make another leap, this time to Asia.
The trade opening to China – by a government that all but ignored Beijing in its first years in office – is nothing short of remarkable. As well as just having signed an investment treaty with China, the Conservatives are about to make a key decision on a proposed $15-billion takeover of Calgary’s Nexen Inc. by a state-owned Chinese energy company.
Sinclair Stevens, a trade minister in the Mulroney government, captured the bizarre nature of what’s transpiring. How strange, he said in an interview, that conservatives who once wanted our own state-owned company, Petro-Canada, out of the oil patch now appear willing to accept a state-owned enterprise from Communist China.
Stephen Harper has a big personal stake in the outcomes of all the trade talks. He wants to create a lasting policy legacy to complement an already successful political one. The turning of Canada into a global trader from a bilateral one would fit that purpose. There’s nothing more important for Canada right now, says former industry minister Jim Prentice, than trade diversification to Asia.
Free trade is good, but not if you’re giving away too much in the interests of getting a deal. The devil is in the details, and trade agreements can be so complex that only experts understand the potential value or lack of it. It becomes a matter of trust, particularly if a government cares little about openness and public consultation.
The Conservatives have raised expectations. They have so much invested in getting some of the proposed deals that the worry is they might be willing to give up too much. Opposition critics cite the investment agreement with China as an example.
What can be said, though, is that the government’s direction is the correct one. The fear was legitimate – the years of giving the cold shoulder to China, for example – that rigid political thinking would extend to commercial and trade relations. Thankfully, it hasn’t. Thankfully, foreign policy’s second track is the right rail.