Our turbulent times reveal how emphatically, and how permanently, the Harper government has transformed Canada’s foreign policy.
Though Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a ratcheting-down of hardline Conservative rhetoric and a return to Canada’s role as an honest broker in the world, when push comes to shove, Liberals and Conservatives are shoving together.
As I wrote earlier this year, the Conservative government has rejected the old bipartisan consensus that Canada should play the role of helpful fixer, of referee, of peacekeeper in foreign affairs.
Tory rhetoric has been hardnosed and Tory actions emphatic in support of Canadian (or at least Conservative) values. That approach cost Canada a seat at the United Nations Security Council and generated warnings from critics at home that this country was squandering its hard-won reputation as a valuable intermediary in times and in regions of conflict.
One of those critics is Mr. Trudeau. “I’m of the school of international relations that says it’s important to talk to each other,” he said earlier this year. “It’s especially important to talk to regimes you disagree with.” And he decried the “weakening of Canada’s fairness and openness to the world.”
That may be Liberal rhetoric, but that is not how Liberals have reacted to recent events in Gaza and Ukraine.
No country acted as promptly or emphatically as Canada in support of democratic protests against the Yanukovych government in Kiev, and in blaming Russia for the violence that followed his ouster.
After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, Stephen Harper wasted no time holding Russian President Vladimir Putin responsible for the tragedy. We can expect a new and tougher round of sanctions. This time Europe may join Canada and the United States in punishing the regime in Moscow for stoking the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
But although there is solidarity between Canada and its allies in responding to events in Ukraine, the Conservatives’ unqualified support for Israel has left the Harper government offside during the latest crisis in Gaza.
Earlier this week, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.” The administration is trying to balance Israel’s right to defend itself with concern over the death toll inside Gaza.
But the Canadian government is having none of it.
“Prime Minister Harper confirmed Canada remains steadfastly in support of Israel’s right to defend itself as long as the terrorist attacks by Hamas continue,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a recent statement. Ready doesn’t get any readier than that.
And how have the Liberals responded to recent events? There is not a sliver of daylight between the Liberal and Conservative approaches.
Liberals take a “very strong line in support of Ukraine, and it’s really important for me personally as a Ukrainian-Canadian,” MP Chrystia Freeland told The Globe and Mail. “For us as a party, we think Canada is stronger in supporting Ukraine if we don’t play politics with this issue.”
But surely on Gaza the Liberals and the Conservatives differ. Surely Mr. Trudeau would echo Mr. Obama in warning about the escalating loss of life. As it turns out, not so much.
At first, the Liberals urged all sides to pursue a ceasefire. The Conservatives also support a ceasefire.
But as the crisis worsened, the Liberals toughened their stand – in favour of Israel.
“Israel has the right to defend itself and its people,” the Liberal Party website declares. “Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”
Liberal MP Marc Garneau echoed the stance. “Israel has no choice but to defend itself,” he said in an interview with Postmedia. “… We would do the same thing here in our country.”
For genuine opposition to the Conservative line in Kiev and Gaza, you have to turn to the NDP. Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar has protested that Canada is “not actually playing a constructive role,” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “No one is going to call us to help negotiate things behind the scenes because of our stated position.”
And when MH17 crashed, Mr. Dewar criticized Mr. Harper’s swift condemnation of Russia as ultimately responsible for the attack. “I think the tone was inappropriate,” he maintained.
But if the polls are to be believed, only Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Harper are likely to be prime minister after the next federal election. And on the basis of the Liberal response to events in Gaza and Ukraine, it appears the Liberals may be more moderate in word, but follow the Conservative line in deed, when it comes to foreign affairs.
Canada has become a more conservative place under Stephen Harper, in the world as well as at home. At least as far as foreign policy is concerned, nothing is likely to change, no matter who is in charge.
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.