Just weeks after losing a crucial vote for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the Harper government is wrestling with a diplomatic move that could further damage its influence on the world stage.
The government is considering the closing of several Canadian embassies in Africa, a move that has triggered alarm among many foreign-policy activists. Up to four embassies – including those in Cameroon, Zambia and Tunisia – are said to be on the chopping block.
Since Canada has only 21 embassies in Africa today, the cuts would represent up to a fifth of its diplomatic posts on the continent. It would lead to accusations that the government is further neglecting Africa at a time of strained relations between Canada and Africa, especially after Ottawa failed to secure African votes in its bid for a Security Council seat.
If it happens, the closing of the embassies in Africa could be coupled with the opening of new embassies or trade offices in higher-priority regions such as Asia and Latin America. The Harper government has focused much of its attention on the emerging middle-income countries in those two regions, which are seen as more logical trading partners for Canada.
Ottawa has already closed several embassies and consulates in Africa in recent years, including those in Malawi, Gabon, Guinea and Cape Town, South Africa. If the latest cuts are approved, it would leave Canada with embassies in less than one-third of Africa's 53 countries. Brazil, by comparison, has embassies in about half of Africa's countries.
"It will be a sad day if these rumours are true," said Lucien Bradet, president of the Canadian Council on Africa, the leading association of Canadian businesses and organizations with interests in Africa.
"No doubt that we are witnessing an 'out of Africa' strategy," he said. "We'd be cutting more and more of the bridges between Africa and ourselves. It would cause doubts about Canada's declarations of friendship to Africa."
Canada-Africa relations have been strained by the decision last year to eliminate eight African nations from the priority list for Canadian foreign aid. When the UN voted on Canada's bid to join the Security Council last month, many African countries failed to support Canada in the final ballot.
Even without the cuts, Canada's embassies in Africa have been hit with increased workloads because of the earlier embassy shutdowns. Investors have complained that Canada has no embassies or trade offices in fast-growing, resource-rich countries such as Angola.
"Closing embassies in Africa would be a serious mistake for Canada," said Paul Hitschfeld, head of the Ottawa-based Africa Study Group and a former official of the Canadian International Development Agency.
"Africa is growing and will only become more influential in the world," he said. "Closing embassies is counterproductive, in terms of trade, influence and knowledge-gathering. It is the triumph of short-term thinking over our long-term strategic interests."
Edward Jackson, an aid expert at Carleton University and a member of the McLeod Group, an association of foreign-policy professionals, says Canada needs to keep up with emerging powers such as China and India that are rapidly winning allies in Africa.
"If you're going to have any influence in Africa or any credibility in the world, you need eyes and ears and boots on the ground," he said. "Otherwise, we'll be totally outmanoeuvred by these new powers."
Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and former UN envoy on AIDS in Africa, said he's not surprised by the possible closing of more embassies in Africa. "It will do further damage to Canada's reputation," he said. "But having lost the Security Council seat, Canada probably cares even less about what Africa may think."
In the House of Commons last month, Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger asked whether Canada is planning to cut embassies in Africa. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon did not confirm or deny the possible closings.
"Canada constantly evaluates its interests," Mr. Cannon said. "We consistently look at where we can best serve Canadian interests abroad. … New offices are opened; others are closed. We do this in full knowledge of defending Canada's best interests."