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john ibbitson

Under the Harper government, Canada has experienced the most radical shift in foreign policy since the Second World War.

What was elitist is now populist; what was multilateral is far more bilateral; what was co-operative has become assertive; what was – you name it: global security, global governance, conflict resolution – is now trade before all.

This approach for Canada is so transformative that you could call it The Big Break – a rupture from everything that had come before.

From Louis St. Laurent to Paul Martin, Canadian foreign policy had embraced and advanced collective security, alliances with other democracies and the international rule of law, all while shouldering our share of the burden of international responsibilities and cooperating with, while keeping a wary eye on, the American superpower to the south.

But by the time Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, cuts to the defence budget had forced Canada to mostly withdraw from its peacekeeping and NATO responsibilities. And, the shocks of Sept. 11, 2001, had left Ottawa struggling to cope with an enraged United States and a Middle East on fire. Canada's foreign policy had become increasingly incoherent.

Mr. Harper was determined that his approach would reflect the values and concerns of the Conservative coalition: The West plus rural and suburban Ontario, which include ridings with large populations of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific.

That meant, for example, taking a tough stand against the communist regime in China, while counting on businesses to continue chasing deals.

It meant improving the capability of Canada's military and fostering patriotic pride by taking a new interest in the Arctic.

It meant participating fully only in those multilateral forums that could advance Canada's interests.

And it meant putting economic diplomacy ahead of other concerns – in the Harper era, trade trumps everything.

But this makes it sound as though the Conservatives had thought out their foreign policy in advance. In reality, they stumbled and bumbled and reacted and back-tracked.

The "principled" stand on China came a cropper, as business opportunities dried up and the Prime Minister began to realize that he had managed to offend an emerging economic superpower.

Even an upgraded military couldn't bring peace to the chaos of Kandahar. The economic downturn forced procurement budget cuts that made a mockery of the Arctic strategy.

Ambivalence and contradiction cost Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council. And despite the commitment to trade, the Harper government refused to get involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership talks.

Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa, recently rejected a claim by former diplomat Colin Robertson that the Harper government's foreign policy was ideologically based.

"I think ideologically based almost gives too much credit to what is, essentially, a fairly incoherent foreign policy," he retorted. True enough, at least in the early years.

But as the government gained experience, it adapted its principles to fit a fluid reality. The Conservatives learned.

Mr. Harper has worked to restore relations with China to the point that Paul Evans, of the University of British Columbia, writes in his forthcoming book, Engaging China, that by 2012, "the high policy of engagement was back where the Martin government had left it in 2005."

The army is steadily withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Conservatives have avoided several subsequent potential quagmires, and a new defence strategy blueprint is expected to refocus the Canadian military from expeditionary adventures to national defence, with special attention paid to the Far North.

Canada signed a landmark agreement with the European Union and finally won a seat at the Trans Pacific Partnership talks. Signature new trading agreements could be the most important legacy of this government's majority mandate.

As he became more experienced on the world stage, Mr. Harper got a better sense of which multilateral forums advanced Canadian interests – the G20, G8 and the Arctic Council, for example – and which were mostly talking shops – such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth and le Francophonie.

Foreign Affairs has been steadily reoriented toward economic diplomacy, with the Canadian Internal Development Agency folded back into the department to allow aid to follow trade.

Sum it all up and what do you have? A Big Break. A new determination to make Canada's foreign policy more conservative in word and deed. It's quite a change.

Some people hope that this break is really only a bump; that after the next election a new and different government will restore a more balanced, multi-lateral approach to Canada in the world.

Perhaps. But for another party to form the government, it will have to take into account the rise of the West, the power of the suburbs and the new waves of immigrants.

And if this faction actually likes this new approach to foreign policy, then the new government will have to take that reality into account as well.

Should this come to pass, The Big Break will no longer be seen as a break at all. We'll have a new term for it. We'll call it bipartisan.

Adapted from an address by John Ibbitson, a Globe and Mail writer on leave at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where he is a senior fellow this year. Watch the speech.

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