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Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson

In 2015 election, foreign policy is a question of leadership Add to ...

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

“It’s the foreign policy, stupid”: Said no Canadian campaign advisor ever, or at least not lately.

In Canada, rare is the election where foreign policy is much discussed, let alone is it deciding winners and losers on election day.

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In 1988, free trade with the U.S. was on the agenda, but it was debated largely as a economic initiative, and that was 26 years ago. In most other elections, leaders have campaigned with platforms that included some foreign policy content, but rarely with much intent to make this form part of a “ballot question.”

Chances are this may not be any different in 2015, politics having a strong tendency to repeat itself. But recent events in the world are certainly making it worth wondering if international affairs could have a greater influence on how we vote this time.

The Gaza conflict, new instability in Iraq, the rising power of China, the aggressive posture of Putin’s Russia, are all matters that can raise public anxiety, and cause voters to put a greater premium on stability.

Add to this the question of what role the U.S. can or will play in world affairs going forward. Polls show that many Americans themselves have lost confidence in their country’s influence. Beset by political cleavages, massive debts, disappointment with President Barack Obama and hostility towards Congress, it’s hard to imagine a time when our neighbours to the south seemed less prepared or able to help calm global tensions.

Unfortunately, there seems to be every chance that the world will be an even less stable place next year, compared to this summer. In turn, this might increase interest in the kind of foreign policy leadership that will be on offer from Messrs. Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau.

Canadians show some ambivalence about how we like our leaders to conduct themselves on the international stage. We want leaders to assert themselves on matters of principle, but we are careful not to overestimate the amount of influence Canada can truly have.

The notion of Canada as moral leader or honest broker is not as clear-cut today as it may have been in the past. Are other countries looking for a moral leader? Has our record on climate change weakened our moral standing? Does voicing very strong positions on contemporary conflicts limit our ability to help fashion the kind of compromises that can be essential to achieving peace?

Canada’s policies have often been developed in concert with those of major allies, like the U.S., the U.K., as well as other NATO or Commonwealth countries. It’s a fair question whether our interests and perspectives are as aligned with many traditional allies as they have usually been in the past. When it comes to countries in parts of the world that are increasing in influence, in Asia, South America, and Africa, our alliance-building seems a work in early progress.

With fewer anchor points in world affairs, Canadians may pay more attention to what our own political leaders have to say. Stephen Harper has been vocal, clear and persistent in making his views known. The political risk for the PM lies in whether voters will wonder if his stance is more aggressive than effective – will it lead to more disputes settled, a lower risk of conflict. Could it make them feel that Canada is speaking loudly but carrying little stick?

For opposition leaders, there are risks too. Speaking too little or too equivocally about hotspot issues might make voters wonder if they are ready for the burdens of the highest office. Conversely, aggressive rhetoric might come off as pretentious or contrived.

Barring any dramatic decline in the health of the economy, the next election is likely to hinge more on broad questions of what kind of leadership Canadians want, and whether change is more risky than necessary, or the reverse. There’s more reason than usual to think this calculation will involve consideration of the tensions in the world and the role we want Canada to play on the world stage.

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