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Ottawa hedges its bets on new player Nigeria

John Baird must have confused a few people on his visit to Nigeria this week when he said he was in the African nation because that's where the puck is going to be. But his trip there was a clue to where the Harper government is going.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs was in Nigeria because it is one of the countries the Harper government sees as a future player in the world, even if its troubles don't make that obvious now. And he was quoting Wayne Gretzky, who counselled hockey players not to skate to where the puck is, but to where it is going.

It is worth noting because Stephen Harper's government seems to be flying everywhere. The PM is off this week to Senegal and the Congo. His government just joined Pacific trade talks and wants to finalize a deal with Europe. Trade Minister Ed Fast was recently in the Mideast.

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But who really matters to Mr. Harper's Canada? Two recent documents – one public and one secret – provide a sense of his worldview and where on the world map his government is placing its bets.

The bet is not really on Senegal, where Mr. Harper will mark a democratic transfer of power, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he'll attend the Francophonie summit. But it is on another African country, Nigeria, a country of 170 million and fast economic growth.

The difference has to do with where Mr. Harper sees dangers, and how his government hopes to counter them. In a speech in New York two weeks ago, Mr. Harper made it clear that what really motivates him on the world stage is responding to threats.

There's no doubt the chief risk he sees is economic, in the decline of Canada's traditional economic partners. In a still-secret foreign-policy review, according to sources who described it at length, his government picked a new set of emerging players Canada has to court to steer through that risk. Yes, China tops the list. But Nigeria is there, too.

Together, the New York speech and the foreign-policy review reveal a lot of the Harper government's foreign-policy instincts, and its map.

The speech provided a dark description of an uncertain world, where Canada's friends are facing tough times. New powers are rising that don't share our values, but we have to deal with them, Mr. Harper said. Instead of searching for consensus at the UN, countries like Canada need to cling to their principles, he argued. He was skeptical the Arab Spring would bring democracy, but saw the need to intervene with arms in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya. This is a PM who sees threats and is motivated by responding to them, rather than by hope.

Because he has seen a danger in economic dependence on the U.S., Mr. Harper has done an about-face to embrace China. And his government has drawn up a list of other future players.

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In a foreign-policy review drafted by Mr. Baird's department and sent to cabinet for approval earlier this year, the government planned to court a list of key players, with economics driving foreign policy. Ottawa will obviously still want to pursue close relations with the U.S. and to close the EU trade deal, but the new targets are the big emerging powers in regions around the world.

China, India and Brazil – obvious future powers – come in a first tier. Mr. Harper is expected to travel to India in November. Mr. Baird's department is at work on a Brazil strategy. Mr. Harper's turn toward China is obvious. After those three, the other BRICS, Russia and South Africa, are in a second tier.

Then there's another group of big emerging players. It includes ASEAN, the 10-nation bloc of Southeast Asian nations with a population of 600 million; Ottawa has applied to enter meetings of its defence ministers and the East Asia Summit. There's Turkey, an emerging country of 75 million, and Egypt a potential future power despite its slow economy right now. The United Arab Emirates, though smaller, is a key Gulf economic hub. Many of those nations are also emerging political players.

Nigeria is on that list, too. It's not that the Harper government is suddenly interested in the aid-for-Africa plan Jean Chrétien supported. Sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth is strong and Nigeria is the biggest fish. Mr. Baird launched discussions on a possible investment-protection agreement. Courting Nigeria is a hedge against economic danger.

And that's why Mr. Baird was in Abuja and Lagos quoting Wayne Gretzky – because Mr. Harper's government is fretting about who will be a big economic player in the future, and where the puck is going to be.

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