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What will it look like when commercial interests lead Canada's way in the world?
That is what the Harper Conservatives are planning in their new Global Markets Action Plan: a Canadian foreign policy where economic interests rule.
Yes, this government has already made that a work in progress. But this document, drafted under the supervision of Trade Minister Ed Fast and being unveiled this morning, marks the clear ascension of economics to the top of the foreign-policy hierarchy.
That's a long way from where the Conservatives began. Their 2006 election platform only timidly mentioned trade agreements, and defence and human rights were the international notions at play – it castigated the Liberals for appeasing dictators for "narrow business interests." But post-financial crisis, Stephen Harper's view of the world has changed.
This plan is intended to turn Canada's foreign service upside-down, downgrading the Pearsonian diplomats, with their concerns for multilateralism, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and engaging all corners of the world. There'll be a new boss, driven by the hard-nosed interests of business.
But it's supposed to go further than ripples in the ranks of diplomats. What would it change?
If you are imagining ambassadors with pockets full of miniature bottles of maple syrup to hand out to potential customers – well, there's some of that. Diplomats will, the plan says, "open doors, generate leads and resolve problems." They've always done some of that, especially trade commissioner, but the plan is to make the sales pitch an overarching priority for all. Always Be Closing.
Canada will pick favourites – or rather, identify the nations where its commercial interests lie. That's already begun, as part of an internal foreign-policy review under Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, which identified the priority countries for Canadian diplomacy, but this would categorize them, and is some sense, rank them.
In a first group, there's the big future priorities – the big emerging markets: BRICs like China and India, the biggest nations of southeast Asia, as well as Mexico, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and few others. Then there are countries where there's specific Canadian interest, like the uranium trade with Kazakhstan or mining in a number African nations. The third group are big existing trading partners like the U.S, or Europe.
That could be just a different way of colouring the map, but this plan calls for more. Foreign aid, air routes, tourism promotion, even the recruitment of foreign students will be enlisted to serve those priorities, according to the plan. Presumably, immigration policy and the processing of visas will have to be part of it, too. And of course, reorganizing the foreign service to priority countries.
In foreign aid, the Harper government's move to link aid projects to the mining sector and the investments of Canadian companies would be entrenched and expanded. That's in particular for the those second-group countries where Canada has specific trade interests, like Mongolia or Mali. Folding the Canadian International Development Agency into the Foreign Affairs department was a part of the plan.
But it's not just aid. This is a plan to make things like air routes between Toronto and Istanbul part of the strategy. It calls for improving "connectivity" to those priority markets, notably by signing air-transportation agreements to make travel connections and cargo shipping easier.
The plan identifies tourism and education as factors that can create links to those priority markets; that means promoting Canadian tourism in, for example, Turkey or Mexico, or recruiting foreign students from those countries, will be seen as a way to expand trade.
If those concerns for connectivity are real, it will also require a revamp of Canada's immigration policies – notably visitors' visas. The visa system essentially provides an open door to Canada's well-established trading partners, and sets obstacles for people from the emerging markets that are supposed to be the new priorities. Just look at how imposing a visitors' visa requirement on Mexico hurt not just tourism but relations with the country, and Canada's reputation.
Some of those adjustments are definitely needed, if Canada is to adjust to a changing world. Business is business. The ambition to have the foreign service serve as a help meet to small businesses trying to sell abroad is probably an exaggerated hope, though. Mr. Harper's government has repeatedly found other countries want to talk about more than trade. And Canadians, too: that's why his first election platform promised foreign policy would be about more than business.
Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.