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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Conservative Party convention in Ottawa June 10, 2011. (PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Conservative Party convention in Ottawa June 10, 2011. (PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS)

John Ibbitson

The Harper Doctrine: Conservative foreign policy in black and white Add to ...

A few years ago at a conference in Washington, an American diplomat asked a Canadian journalist a blunt question.

"Why doesn't Canada show up any more?" he wanted to know. "You're just not at the table like you used to be."

Canada under Stephen Harper is, emphatically, back at the table - pounding it, actually, while loudly brandishing what could be called the Harper Doctrine.

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Tuesday, the House of Commons will debate and approve extending participation in the NATO mission in Libya. That mission is led by a Canadian general. Libya is one of two countries in the region to which Canadian forces are committed, though the mission in Afghanistan is winding down.

Not that long ago, the Canadian military had been starved to the brink of extinction, the federal government had been forced to cut back on peacekeeping commitments, foreign aid was all aspiration and little execution, and our diplomats trumpeted soft power because we had no other kind to offer.

Today, Canada has the political will and military muscle to back up a new and more militant foreign policy.

The Prime Minister reflected this new reality in his triumphalist speech to the Conservative party faithful on the weekend, where he articulated Canada's approach to the world in a single, potent sentence.

"We know where our interests lie and who our friends are," he declared, "and we take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not."

He didn't call it the Harper Doctrine, but we can. It is startling both in its boldness and its utter lack of nuance.

Under the Harper Doctrine, Canada doesn't just support the state of Israel. It supports Israel four-square, without reservation.

It doesn't contribute to NATO and United Nations missions by sending a rusting destroyer or some other token measure. The army has been re-equipped, the air force is being re-equipped, the navy will be re-equipped, despite plans to rein in the dramatically enlarged defence budget. And this government doesn't hesitate to send that military overseas in the service of Canadian and allied interests.

The Harper Doctrine permits real money to be spent on foreign aid, but that aid must mirror core Conservative values - so no funding for abortion or for aid groups seen as soft on Israel.

The Harper Doctrine aggressively asserts Canadian sovereignty in the far north, even as it seeks closer integration with the United States on security and trade.

And to execute the Harper Doctrine, Canada has for the first time in a decade a powerful new foreign minister who has the ear of the Prime Minister and who intimately shares his world view. John Baird could be in that job for a while, unlike the seven in ten years who came before.

Harper's detractors in the opposition parties, on university campuses and among some nongovernmental organizations abhor everything about his doctrine: Its slavish adherence to Israel, they say, renders Canada useless as an honest broker in Middle East conflicts.

For them, the billions spent on bringing the military up to grade could have been used to bring the deficit down more quickly, or to reduce inequalities within Canadian society; the interventions in Afghanistan and Libya are simply modern imperialism dressed up in humanitarian garb; Canadian assertions on Arctic sovereignty are unenforceable and wrong in international law, while negotiating a continental security perimeter with the United States will further compromise sovereignty.

For these critics, the empty-headed belligerence of the Harper Doctrine lay behind Canada's humiliating defeat in its bid for a seat at the Security Council.

The Harper Doctrine is so categorical, and so starkly at odds with NDP and Liberal values, that foreign policy could increasingly become a polarizing element in Canadian politics.

But at least Canada has a foreign policy again. No one is asking where Canada has gone any more.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly said Afghanistan is part of the Arab world. This online version has been corrected.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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