Canada's international clout is "under threat" as its honest-broker role is replaced with a more assertive stand that plays down traditional multilateralism, an internal Foreign Affairs briefing document is warning senior federal government insiders.
The presentation, obtained by The Globe and Mail, is stamped "Secret" and was prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a deputy-minister-level meeting Sept. 9. Departmental officials do not lay blame at the feet of the Conservative government, which has run foreign policy for the past nine years, but their analysis echoes criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper levelled by ex-diplomats, foreign observers and his political opponents.
"Despite Canada's reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat," they say.
This leak comes just ahead of a major election debate on foreign affairs, a move clearly designed to embarrass the Harper Conservatives as they fight for another term in office.
It also precedes a massive week for geopolitics, with the 70th UN General Assembly in New York that will feature speeches by U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin will also hold their first formal sit-down in two years, with Moscow's military intervention in Syria as the main topic.
Canadian deputy foreign affairs minister Daniel Jean will address the assembly on Oct. 3, instead of the Prime Minister or a minister because of the federal election campaign.
Mr. Harper, the Conservative Leader, will take on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the New Democratic Party's Thomas Mulcair Monday evening for a debate hosted by the Munk Debates.
The crisis in Syria will certainly be a major focus as Canada has joined the United States in bombing Islamic State targets in that country, and now Russia is increasing its military support for the existing Assad regime, which the West opposes. Mr. Harper faced an uproar earlier this month over the government's refugee policy after a Canadian connection emerged to the image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach.
Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau have also accused the Conservative government with diminishing Canada's reputation abroad by backing military rather than diplomatic approaches, and shortchanging international aid and diplomacy. Several former diplomats have complained about Mr. Harper's unquestioning support for Israel's hard-line Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his abandonment of Canada's peacekeeping role.
The Conservatives are unapologetic about shifting Ottawa's international priorities, and have often butted heads with diplomats at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. "I think Canada is more relevant, broadly speaking," Defence Minister Jason Kenney told The Globe and Mail this summer. "I think we're on the right side of history when it comes to some of these issues."
Foreign Affairs is arguably the department that has offered the most resistance to the Harper era, chafing at the shift in its mandate and the black-and-white world view the Conservative Leader expresses on some international affairs. Conservative government officials regularly express exasperation when talking privately about Canadian diplomats and what they consider a "go along to get along" approach to global affairs that is risk averse and values harmonious relations with other countries above advancing Canadian interests.
Foreign Affairs, like all departments, is busy drawing up briefing books to be presented to whomever serves as foreign affairs minister, and international trade minister, after the Oct. 19 federal election.
The presentation, called "Canada's International Policy: Strategic Questions in a Changing Global Context," notes that Canada has traditionally been regarded as a "middle power," "honest broker" or "principled actor" in foreign policy, one ready to use soft power in tandem with other countries to "lead/shape/influence" on the global stage. Ottawa has historically used its influence through key multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Group of 20, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the document says.
But things are changing, the Foreign Affairs briefing warns. The examples include:
- “Loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables.”
- “Canada may not be a ‘partner of first choice’ ” for foreign countries.
- “Declining market share in emerging markets,” meaning Canada is failing to sufficiently build commercial ties with fast-developing countries.
- “New donor countries are emerging and Canada’s relative [official development assistance] is declining,” meaning as Ottawa has restrained foreign aid, other international actors such as China have hiked international assistance to expand their global influence.
In 2010, Canada and the Conservative government were humbled when it lost out in voting to win a temporary seat at the UN Security Council, a failure critics blamed on the Tories' unflinching support for Israel, its reduction in the number of African countries receiving aid and what they called its foot-dragging approach to fighting climate change.