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Red Tory blues: Joe Clark’s new book critiques Harper on the world stage – and falls wide of the mark

Joe Clark.

Michelle Valberg

How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change
Joe Clark
Random House Canada

Joe Clark has written a book that explains what's wrong with Stephen Harper's foreign policy. Except that, on everything that matters, the two completely agree.

This will come as a shock to Clark, who was foreign affairs minister under Brian Mulroney, and prime minister before that. The whole purpose of How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change is to explain how this country has lost its way under the Conservatives, and how it can find its way back. The problem with Clark's book is that, with one exception, he argues passionately about issues of relatively marginal interest or importance. What concerns him most concerns most others least.

Throughout Canada's history, both Conservative and Liberal governments pursued essentially identical foreign policies that promoted strong alliances, development, human rights, free trade and concern for the environment. "In the six decades after the end of the Second World War, this country's international policy was Canadian, not partisan," Clark observes. And then Stephen Harper arrived and wrecked everything.

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He cooled the relationship with China; replaced decades of carefully calibrated policy in the Middle East with a full-throated support for Israel; downgraded the importance of both diplomacy and development aid in favour of defence and trade; abandoned peacekeeping, multilateralism and environmental commitments, and diminished and disparaged the influence of career public servants in formulating policy.

Clark's book "is a warning that this outward-reaching country could gradually turn inward, and, in the process, depreciate national and personal assets that will become more valuable in the world that is taking shape than they have ever been before."

But here's the thing. Clark cheerfully agrees that on all the big issues – at least as far as most Canadians are concerned – the Harper government is getting it right. He credits the Conservatives with competent economic management, acknowledges the Prime Minister's about-face on China, praises Jason Kenney's immigration reforms, salutes the commitment to expanding trade and congratulates the government on developing a well trained and well funded military.

"A steady economy, a respected military, vigorous trade initiatives and a forward-looking immigration policy are important assets," Clark acknowledges, "but they draw on only part of Canada's proven capacity and potential as an international citizen." Maybe, but that's one awfully big part.

Though not for Clark. Where, he asks, is the commitment to diplomatic engagement with other countries, to development aid, to multilateral relations, to working with non-governmental agencies in fighting poverty, to building civil society in developing nations, to balance in the Middle East and to buttressing the UN?

Focusing on trade over aid and defence over diplomacy "narrows who we are, what we can do and what we represent – and that narrowing is no accident," he protests.

But how important are the issues Clark raises? After all, over the past 20 years, the number of people living in the most extreme poverty has been cut in half, from 43 per cent of the global population to 21 per cent. That's almost a billion people lifted from the very bottom in less than one generation. The Canadian International Development Agency (canned by the Harper Tories) and its equivalents in other developed nations didn't do that. Economic growth in China and India and other developing nations took care of the job. So does CIDA, or whatever replaces it, really matter anymore?

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Global migrations are a pressing concern, as millions of people flee from the poor world to the rich, settling into racially defined ghettos that scar Los Angeles and London, Boston and Berlin. But Canada's immigration policies – first established by Liberal governments, reformed and improved by the Conservatives – allow us to bring in vast numbers of people who adapt to their new homeland with unparalleled harmony. Isn't that a more important contribution to Canada in the world than anything our government says about Israel?

Yes, it might be a good idea to work more co-operatively with NGOs in certain countries. But China, in its hunger for natural resources, is transforming Africa for good and for ill, and nothing that Foreign Affairs and Oxfam jointly attempt will change that.

The one area where the Harper government has done real damage, as Clark rightly points out, is the environment. In abandoning the Liberals' foolish Kyoto commitments without delivering a convincing alternative, the Conservatives have blackened Canada's reputation and put future petroleum exports at risk. This may rank as the Harper government's most important foreign policy failure, and it's a large one.

But for the rest, Clark's book offers an analysis that diminishes the Conservatives' accomplishments in trade and immigration, while obsessing over how Canadians are viewed in the corridors of the UN.

Anyone else worried about that sort of thing should read his book.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's chief political writer.

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