Speaking to a Conservative gathering in 2011, then-prime minister Stephen Harper vowed his government would "no longer just go along and get along with everyone else's agenda. It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations. And I confess that I don't know why past attempts to do so were ever thought to be in Canada's national interest."
In his new book, Swingback: Getting Along in the World with Harper and Trudeau, Mike Blanchfield carefully documents how this blunt, black hat/white hat approach – which included a denigration of all his predecessors, both Liberal and Conservative – was put into effect, with systematic, central control, from 2006 until 2015.
Blanchfield has been reporting on Canadian politics, foreign policy and defence issues for two decades – first with the Ottawa Citizen, then Southam News and now with The Canadian Press. A recent sabbatical as a Travers Fellow and student at Carleton University has given him some time for reflection. The result, Swingback, has the strengths of an experienced, thoughtful reporter. It is well organized and well researched, relying on notes and interviews from his many forays and trips with both leaders.
Blanchfield exercises considerable self-restraint in passing judgment on the Harper era and what we know of the changes ushered in by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the facts he outlines show that Harper's approaches suffered from the weight of internal contradictions. On Afghanistan, for instance, Harper went from enthusiastic support of military intervention to a quiet determination to withdraw Canadian troops. On China, he began as a fierce ideological opponent of the regime, then realized that commercial and strategic realities required more engagement and leadership. At the UN, he waited too long to begin the campaign for the Security Council seat and drastically underestimated the effort required to make it happen. A last-minute speech to the UN General Assembly – as opposed to the well-publicized visit to a Tim Hortons in New York the year before – failed dramatically to effect a change of heart among those voting for Security Council membership.
But there were, as Blanchfield points out, some important successes. Harper's U-turn on fiscal stimulus after the financial crisis of 2008-09 was no doubt prompted by domestic political realities, but he provided effective leadership within the G20 and G8 on trade issues. His initiatives on maternal health were marred by the ideological commitment to ban "abortion services" from the lexicon (and from funding), but it was still a good example of how a focused and well-funded approach can actually have an impact.
As the Liberal Party's foreign-affairs critic for much of the decade in question, I had the opportunity to watch the Harper era unfold from a different vantage point. Reading Blanchfield's book brought back some vivid memories of that time. For me, Harper's main failing was the way in which Canada's role on the international stage was diminished by his fierce partisanship. His opponents, even Irwin Cotler, were labelled as "anti-Semitic." He alleged that no party before his had taken defence or the need to stand up to tyranny seriously. The decades before his were described as ones of darkness, weakness and calumny. In perpetrating these falsehoods and pursuing this darker path, Harper did himself and Canada considerable damage.
Canada's commitment to multilateralism is neither weak nor mindless. It has nothing to do with "going along to get along" – a mindless chant that has nothing to do with what happened in history. All foreign policy is about values and interests, pursued by governments with varying degrees of success. We are a country with vast geography, a relatively small population and a history of growing engagement with the world. Harper's best ideas were not new and his most novel ideas were not necessarily wise.
In Afghanistan, for example, he actually benefited from a bipartisan recognition that Canada needed to engage on multiple fronts – diplomatic, aid assistance and the military. I am personally aware of a lot of back channel discussions that ensured a consistent mission. The decision to extend the training mission would not have happened without a lot of discussion and negotiation. Similarly, Blanchfield's focused discussion left little room for how the broader landscape of international debate was unfolding. Canada's decisions are never made in a vacuum.
The election of the irrational, noisy and protectionist U.S. President in Donald Trump, the Brexit vote in Britain, the continuing crisis in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, global poverty – just to name a few of the toughest issues we now face – have created real challenges for Trudeau. Sunny ways are better than the alternative, but it will take more than that to allow Canada to exercise practical leadership in a volatile world. Learning from the mistakes and successes of the past 10 years is a good start.
Bob Rae is a partner with Olthuis Kleer Townshend and teaches at the University of Toronto. He served as the 21st premier of Ontario and as interim leader of the federal Liberal Party.