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Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird attends an event in Ottawa on December 12, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Last fall, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke to the United Nations General Assembly. John Baird told the assembled world leaders that "Canada's government doesn't seek to have our values or our principled foreign policy validated by elites who would rather 'go along to get along.'"

The idea that Canada is pursuing a foreign policy that breaks with the past by being proudly principled has been repeatedly proclaimed by the Harper government. Proclaimed, but never clearly articulated. So what are these values and principles? And what happens when values collide with the country's economic interests – which the government says are the other leg of Canadian foreign policy?

For much of the period since the end of the Second World War, Canada saw itself as an honest broker or helpful fixer, and the lead worshipper at the church of multilateralism. Despite the fact that Canada was at the centre of NATO and NORAD, military alliances designed to deter and if necessary fight the communist Soviet Union, successive governments and a large part of the foreign-policy establishment also came to see Canada as a kind of aspiring neutral. We were the middle power that invented peacekeeping, and found a selfless fulfilment in it. It came to be accepted by many Canadians as a defining national trait.

But since the end of the Cold War and 9/11, that world has largely been washed away. Canada's military found itself fighting our first real war in half a century, leaving it stretched too thin for much peacekeeping. At the same time, the business of peacekeeping changed. As invented by Lester Pearson, it involved placing a force between two regular armies along a border. There's very little traditional peacekeeping today, because state-to-state wars are so rare.

Instead, we have a host of unconventional conflicts, and countries that have turned into failed states. Multilateral forces have intervened in some cases, former colonial powers in others. It's a mix of policing, fighting and negotiating, and Canada's erstwhile peacekeeping military isn't much involved in any of these new sorts of conflicts.

But with the Afghanistan mission largely wrapped up, future governments will have the ability to contemplate new deployments for the Canadian Forces. Would the Harper government consider new peacekeeping or peacekeeping-like missions? What values would be weighed to settle the question? And how would those values relate to, or be trumped by, national interests?

As with much about the Harper government's foreign policy, the answer is that we don't know.

Conservative foreign policy has been clearly spelled out in some areas. For example, a lengthy document released late last year by International Trade Minister Ed Fast laid out a plan to put economic interests at the centre of Canada's foreign policy. Pursuing new deals for Canadian business is also to be at the core of the foreign service's mission, particularly in embassies and consulates representing Canada abroad.

There's a compelling logic to this approach. And it isn't entirely new: Foreign Affairs and International Trade were merged years ago, and our embassies and consulates already contain scads of diplomats whose job is trade promotion. The Harper government is simply putting a new emphasis on all of this.

But economic interests and trade promotion aren't the sum total of Canadian foreign policy. Not even close.

What happens when those economic interests clash with the values behind a principled foreign policy? How will the government decide between them, and where will it strike a balance? That's difficult to say.

Take the case of China. In the early days of the Harper government, it was willing to be unusually critical of the People's Republic, a non-democracy with limited respect for human rights or the rule of law. But given that China is the second most powerful country on earth, and well on its way to becoming the largest economy, many asked why the government wasn't following the lead of its predecessors, and treading more carefully.

The Harper government eventually became more muted and diplomatic in its criticism of China. Is this an example of realpolitik triumphing over principles? Values taking a back seat to economic interests? How was the balance struck?

Another example of Harper values in action was the refusal to attend last year's Commonwealth summit, as a way of criticizing the human rights record of the host country, Sri Lanka. It was a principled position (and one that may also have had electoral value here at home), but was it thoughtfully executed? This government's impulse is to show a proud disdain for multilateral talking shops, and there are times when that makes sense. (John Baird boycotting a UN disarmament committee headed by North Korea is a good example.) But the British government, equally critical of Sri Lanka, chose to go to the conference in Colombo, with their Prime Minister taking his criticisms directly to the country and the world's cameras. It was a better approach.

The government has put support for Israel at the centre of its values agenda. Critics say this is solely about seeking votes in half a dozen Canadian ridings, but the sense of principled commitment to the country clearly runs much deeper than that. But would Canada's tone change, as it did on China, if the pursuit of values was seen to have negative economic consequences? We don't know.

The government has shown many other examples of standing up on the world stage for what it believes is right: from steadily speaking out against religious discrimination, to vocally supporting global gay rights. Yes, the Harper government has put values at the centre of some parts of Canadian foreign policy. But it has never clearly articulated what these values are – or explained when values should be sacrificed or watered down for the sake of a competing national interest such as the economy. Canadians don't know. They should. Now would be a good time to start talking.