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Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Vadym Prystaiko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Monday March 17, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Vadym Prystaiko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Monday March 17, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper’s handling of Ukraine the latest outrage for old-school observers Add to ...

The crisis in Ukraine has, once again, divided the Canadian foreign-policy establishment, with some veteran observers harshly criticizing the Harper government’s gung-ho approach, while others rally to its defence.

But Ukraine is in some ways a proxy in this debate. The real, raw wound is Israel.

Those who made their names and careers during the Pearsonian autumn of Canadian diplomacy – when Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy championed soft power, when Canada was a key voice in such international protocols as the land mines treaty, when we stood proudly opposed as the Americans and British invaded Iraq – have pretty much detested the Harper government’s foreign policy from Day One.

In the opinion of this former nomenklatura, the Conservatives took a wrecking ball to Canada’s sterling international reputation as an honest broker, pandering instead to ethnic minorities in a shameless trawl for votes.

For the critics, this government’s handling of the situation in Ukraine is simply the latest outrage.

“We’ve got a diaspora-driven foreign policy,” Christopher Westdal, former Canadian ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, told The Globe and Mail. “It might work at the polls, but it doesn’t do much good in the world.”

Mr. Westdal and others argue Canada should be quietly seeking to build bridges with Moscow in an effort to diffuse the crisis. Instead, John Baird stood with the protesters in Independence Square in December, even though Viktor Yanukovych was still president. Canada’s foreign-affairs minister returned to Kiev within days of Mr. Yanukovych’s overthrow. And Stephen Harper is travelling to Ukraine on Saturday, the first G7 leader to do so since the interim government took power.

All this, Mr. Westdal and others believe, is nothing but a ploy by the Conservative government to win over Canada’s 1.2 million Ukrainians.

But opposition is hardly monolithic. The Ukraine crisis has revealed sharp divisions within the foreign-policy community. Here at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), distinguished fellow Paul Heinbecker strongly criticized the Harper government’s decision to withdraw the Canadian ambassador to Russia for consultations.

“It’s a government given to gestures,” Mr. Heinbecker, who was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the Canadian Press. “It’s foreign policy by declaration and by gesture, all calculated with an eye on the next election.”

But Fen Hampson, director of the global security and politics program at CIGI, took a polar opposite view, calling the decision “a principled step in the right direction.” Prof. Hampson urged the Harper government to work with other G-7 members to expel Russia from what is now the G-8, and to beef up NATO forces in Central Europe and the Balkans.

(CIGI itself is non-partisan and holds no policy positions as an institution, but CIGI fellows may freely state their personal views, which may differ.)

At the root of this disagreement is a greater disagreement. The Pearson-Trudeau-Axworthy school of foreign policy thought (which includes many people currently serving in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) believes the Harper government has undermined decades of solid work at fashioning a balanced foreign policy in the Middle East by loudly and unreservedly supporting Israel.

Others see the Middle East as just one region of many and by no means the most important as far as Canadian interests concerned. They prefer a robust foreign policy in which Canada stands by Israel, a democracy and an ally, no matter whom it offends.

Other debates, including the debate over Ukraine, simply reflect this seminal, visceral conflict over the Middle East.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the facts support the government. Whatever the rhetoric surrounding Canada’s actions, those actions – targeted sanctions against Russia, promises of financial support for Ukraine, moves to expel Russia from the G-8 – match the actions of other Western nations.

And the Harper government has a vital ally in its approach to Ukraine: the Canadian people. There is no evidence to suggest anything other than broad, deep support among Canadians of every background and in every region for the democratic aspirations of Ukrainians, which is why the government’s position on Ukraine enjoys all-party support in the House of Commons.

On this file, at least, the government has the people on its side, whatever the critics on the sidelines may think.

John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.

Along with other CIGI experts, Mr. Ibbitson will be contributing at www.cigionline.org/blogs, where this post was originally published.

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