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Jeffrey Simpson

Canada and its PM are about to flunk an international test Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a unique opportunity in the next year to carve out for himself, and by extension his country, a small niche in the international arena.

Whether the Prime Minister will choose to try remains unknown, since he is neither a visionary politician nor one, thus far, known for making any mark on world affairs, something admittedly difficult for any Canadian leader to accomplish.

Next year, Mr. Harper will be playing host to the G8 meeting in Canada, and playing co-host (with Korea) to the G20. Before those meetings, there will be the Winter Olympics in British Columbia, a non-political event that nonetheless will see a parade of world leaders through Canada.

Next month, Mr. Harper will be in India and at Singapore for the Asia-Pacific summit. Provisionally, he is to make a separate (and long-delayed) trip to China in early December.

Mr. Harper is uncontested at home. He's running a minority government that might just as well be a majority. His polling numbers have improved, the Liberals are in customary disarray, and the NDP remains intent on avoiding an election.

In other words, calm political waters at home give Mr. Harper the luxury, or opportunity, to stretch his wings internationally, should he wish to stretch them.

Alas for him, Canada will flunk a forthcoming international test. Canada's climate-change negotiators at Copenhagen will be playing defence before, during and, likely, after those talks. Canada's stated position - a 20 per cent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020 - is seen internationally as a modest target almost certainly not to be achieved.

Mr. Harper has never given a major speech on climate change in Canada, a testament to how he dislikes the issue. (As a senior cabinet minister recently said privately, the Prime Minister just slumps in his chair when the subject arises at cabinet.) Canadian positions - such as no deal without binding commitments from developing countries and no purchase of offshore credits - will be stretched to the breaking point.

So Canada will be following rather than leading at Copenhagen, spin-doctoring as bravely as possible domestically about positions that internationally will be seen as disappointing.

The unpleasantness of Copenhagen aside, Mr. Harper could try to lead an international debate on how countries should emerge from recession. There was a remarkable co-ordination of international efforts to combat recession. Now the question arises: Should the same kind of co-ordination be developed as an exit strategy?

Canada, being in better fiscal shape than most other countries, could decide to balance its budget quickly, to restore a valuable buffer against future shocks, the aging of the population and other spending pressures. But Mr. Harper apparently does not want the fast-exit strategy from deficits, so he might be willing to go along with a slow but co-ordinated exit strategy.

Slow and steady seems to be the preference of other industrialized countries whose deficits are much higher as a share of total economic output than Canada's. The issue is whether Canada would want to wait on, say, Germany or France, let alone the more crippled countries, such as the United States or Great Britain. If Canada waits on them, the waiting could be long.

Mr. Harper has spoken forcefully about international free trade, so he could try to press for a resumption of the World Trade Organization's Doha Round. The problem for Canada with the WTO round is that it, as a protector of supply-managed agricultural products, lacks credibility.

He could try to breathe some life into the stalled Canada-South Korea free-trade talks, or take up with the new Japanese government the idea of a free-trade deal with them.

He could take up the cause of Africa, following warnings from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund about disastrous conditions there. His government, however, has not accorded the continent a very high priority. Africa, after all, was a Liberal priority.

He might have thoughts about further economic integration of North America, a subject from which U.S. protectionism, the recession and post 9/11 reflexes in the U.S. have sucked the life. Beating up on Buy American is good politics, and good policy, but it's not really a substitute for long-term economic thinking in a North American context.

These are just a few ideas - there are many others on offer - from which a prime minister wishing to engage internationally during this unique period might choose. Will he be so inclined when it would appear that Canadian politics is all about the local and parochial?

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