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barbara mcdougall

"The Global Markets Action Plan," tabled in the House of Commons this week, seemed to be a radical new policy that no one saw coming. It should not have been unforeseen: There have been tea leaves to be read over past months. (Full disclosure: I did not read those tea leaves any better than anyone else.) The tea leaves included the government's accelerated push for new trade agreements, the emphasis on China and India as Canada's new best friends, assistance to Canada's mining interests in emerging markets – all there for Canadians to see.

The document puts forward that Canada's new thrust will be economic diplomacy, with particular emphasis on emerging markets, and that the private sector will be a leading participant, partnering the traditional diplomatic corps, whose primary role henceforth will be initiating trade relationships, putting Canadian companies together with potential customers, and attracting immigrants who can contribute to the new international business agenda.

Oh dear: What about peacekeeping; the United Nations; global governance; building democracy – all those nice things that Canada traditionally has revelled in?

Well, the truth is, Canada has been moving away from those activities for a long time. Not only is the current government uncomfortable with the world of "soft" power, the world itself has needs that are changing. Emerging countries need investment, entrepreneurship, and business partners as much as they need lessons in democracy and student exchanges. They need business-to-business alliances as much as government-to-government.

The Conservative Party was not elected to change radically Canada's foreign policy; indeed foreign policy, as usual, was barely mentioned in the campaign by any party. There has been a continuing assumption over many decades that Canada's international posture would barely change no matter which party was in power. By this standard the current shift in direction is radical indeed. And it was announced without any foundation of public consultation except with business organizations, all of which pronounced themselves in favour. Hardly a surprise.

This government was not elected to meddle with the existing foreign policy of the time, but it was elected on its platform of deficit reduction, economic prosperity and job growth. In the current global economic climate, meeting those objectives in traditional ways becomes harder and harder. The government has clearly decided boldness is the quality needed to shake the economic tree and bring in a few apples in the form of market diversification and new jobs.

Canadians have always worried about their economic dependence on the United States, even though few, even in the business community, have been prepared to do anything about it. Free trade with the United States has created two decades of prosperity for Canada. But the 2008 financial crisis was an eye opener in looking at where we go from here. Recovery in the U.S. has been slow, and may continue to be so. Growth in Canada will benefit from the newly signed free-trade agreement with the European Union, but Europe too will have less-than-vigorous growth in the early years to come. In addition, reliance on energy products in traditional ways looks more and more precarious.

The real growth will lie in Asia and particularly in emerging markets. By mobilizing its own resources and harnessing the resources of the private sector into a focused push into those markets, the government hopes to provide the growth it has promised the Canadian people. It can also use Canada's expertise in natural resources, particularly mining and energy, to assist development and entrepreneurship in other countries which have resources but not the wherewithal to develop them.

"Focus" is the key word. The government's foreign policy to date has drifted. It has lacked vigour and satisfied no one: For some it is too militaristic, for others not military enough. In trying to narrow its development objectives (rightly, in my view,) it has left out poor countries that are deserving and aroused the wrath of the development community. Its friendship with Israel is seen as too one-sided, even though it has retained friendships with neighbouring Arab countries who heartily dislike Israel but need a communications pipeline to what they see as the monster in their midst.

With its new foreign policy, the government seems to have found its footing. It is certainly focussed, and it is much tougher and more aggressive than any foreign policy Canada has had before. The announcement brought a collective gasp from many of the traditional players in the foreign policy field, no doubt to the amusement of many in the Conservative leadership.

There is certainly a case to be made that Canada must continue to play a broader global role. It must continue to work with NATO partners, although military action is no doubt ruled out anywhere after the disillusionment of Afghanistan. It must continue to provide assistance where it is most needed, as in the Philippines. It should do more in assisting the poorest of the poor. There is no evidence in these early days that these activities will be discontinued. But there are still many questions to be answered.

Without a doubt, the policy is both bold and risky. The private sector, especially small and medium-sized business, must start participating in foreign ventures, something there is little evidence of to date. Private sector organizations have promised not only co-operation but vigorous participation, so their members must be relied on to implement the policy. They will know that success in penetrating new markets takes time, and early failures are inevitable, so patience is required on the part of the government and all players before the hoped for job growth will materialize.

This radical change in direction, risky though it is, may well succeed. If so it will be a success for the government's economic agenda rather than for its foreign policy agenda, but in the end, that is just semantics.

Barbara McDougall was Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993.