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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to party supporters during a Conservative Party event in Saskatoon on Wednesday.

Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Two major international crises, in Ukraine and Gaza, have brought out the lion in Stephen Harper. He has made it clear which side he is on.

But his forceful statements on these two conflicts are not, as some say, proof of a new set of foreign-policy principles. They are more about a new persona.

Mr. Harper's words and actions will, through no fault of his own, have little influence on either crisis. But they attract notice.

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He has responded to chaos in Ukraine by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a throwback and a threat, usually winning plaudits. He supported Israel's incursions into Gaza and blamed Hamas for civilian deaths, pleasing those who favour Israel and Mr. Harper, and angering critics.

It has, according to some, buried old foreign policy ideas of Canada as "honest broker." Former Conservative cabinet minister Monte Solberg said in a Toronto Sun column that Canada has finally found principles and given up sweet-sounding notions. "Geez, who could be against something that sounds as even-handed and nice as an honest broker?" he asked.

Trick question. Mr. Solberg is against it. So is Mr. Harper, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Many people, especially small-c conservatives, disdain the notion. They like to pick a side. That is what Mr. Harper does.

But the substance is not always different. On Ukraine, Mr. Harper's choice was not new or surprising. Canadian governments and major political parties have always favoured pro-democracy forces and pro-West reformers. Most members of Canada's Ukrainian diaspora do, too, as do western governments.

But Mr. Harper has been especially vocal, calling on western countries to stand up to Russia's "aggression." Most Canadians agree. But some have different reflexes.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Sergio Marchi, for example, agreed with Mr. Harper on substance, but faulted him for not having built a relationship with Mr. Putin so he could now influence him.

That is exaggerated honest-brokerism: Canadian prime ministers cannot form friendships with any leader who might precipitate a crisis. Mr. Harper had no particular reason to befriend Mr. Putin, or to believe he could influence him now. If you are not a partisan, neither picking sides nor being an honest broker are principles. They are approaches. Neither works every time.

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But they reflect a world view. Mr. Harper sees a lot of darkness. So he is keen-eyed at identifying threats, sides with "like-minded" allies, and prescribes action.

He is not a hopeful conciliator, so do not expect him to organize multilateral talks with adversaries to work out a new approach or a peace plan. Picking sides does not always lead to unswerving policies, either. His first approach to the rise of China was to pledge he would not sacrifice his vocal criticism of Beijing's human rights record to the almighty dollar, but later warmed relations to encourage trade.

He insisted Canada would not cut and run from Afghanistan, but later packed up before allies did. His government would argue that conditions changed. So did Mr. Harper's understanding. He picked a side, but later saw other threats and interests.

In Israel, however, Mr. Harper has been unswerving. In the current war, he has seen a threat – Hamas militants firing missiles and digging tunnels. He supported Israel defending itself. That, too, is not unique among Canadian political parties and western governments.

But there is a big difference: Having picked sides, Mr. Harper brooks no caveats. Civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas alone. Run-of-the-mill expressions of the need for restraint to prevent casualties are avoided for fear of implying Israel is not restrained. His government has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, but lionized by supporters of Israel.

It's worth remembering, though, that "honest-broker" characterizations of Canadian Mideast policies were never about Hamas. They were about talks with Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, the recognized Palestinian representative, which has renounced violence, but does not control Gaza.

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Mr. Harper's government has officially kept Canada's policy of a two-state solution in the Mideast, but adopted a different approach: It never felt much hope for peace talks, quashed honest-broker ideas and picked a side, so Canada never criticizes Israel publicly.

Mr. Harper is clear about the Hamas threat, but not hopeful about peace settlements with Mr. Abbas.

Does it matter?

In the current crises, dominated by direct players and big powers, Canada is marginal. But persona dictates the dominant approach.

If you want a hopeful mediator trying to bring all sides to new ground, don't look to this Canadian Prime Minister.

For choosing sides, and making clarion calls against threats, that is Stephen Harper.

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