A Not-So-New Foreign Policy Plan

Roland Paris on why the Harper government’s “secret” foreign policy plan isn’t that big of a secret.

By: /
20 November, 2012
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

The Harper government’s “secret” foreign policy plan, revealed by the CBC today, offers few surprises. Its emphasis on pursuing economic opportunities, particularly in emerging markets, is a reflection of what the government is already doing. The real news is not that this document exists – the fact that it has been under development for over a year is one of the worst-kept secrets in Ottawa – but that it appears to amount to so little, given all the time and effort that went into its preparation.

Although the CBC report doesn’t mention it, my understanding is that this plan has already gone through cabinet, with the prime minister in the chair, and that it was presented as an aide-mémoire, rather than as a memorandum to cabinet (MC). The difference is revealing: an MC is a formal document normally including specific ministerial recommendations and an implementation plan, whereas an aide-mémoire is less formal and typically offers factual information or analysis for “exploratory discussions of non-decision items” at cabinet.

In other words, not only does the leaked copy of the foreign policy plan appear to offer little more than an articulation of the government’s current policy, but the prime minister seems to have treated the plan as a discussion item, rather than a decision document.

This, in itself, is not a bad thing. I am more skeptical than my colleague Jennifer Welsh of the benefits of full-fledged foreign policy reviews, particularly when a government already knows what it wants to do.

However, it would be useful for the Harper government to explain its foreign policy as clearly in public as it seems to have done in private. That kind of clarity would provide the basis for a more substantive debate about the direction of Canada’s foreign policy. For this reason, among others, the Tories should publicly release the final version of its foreign policy plan – and let the chips fall where they may.

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