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Are Canadians still liberal internationalists?

The Harper government has distanced itself from a multilateral approach to foreign policy. Do Canadians agree? By Roland Paris.

By: /
25 September, 2014
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will address the United Nations General Assembly today.

I wrote in the Globe and Mail Wednesday that we should not expect to see a warming in Canada’s relations with the world body, which have been chilly since the Harper government failed to win a seat for Canada on the Security Council in 2010.

I mentioned in the article that I had conducted research on whether Canadians remain supportive of the UN and liberal internationalism. The short answer is: yes, they do. This research appears in the current issue of International Journal.

The introduction of my journal article is below. The full version is available for free until the end of 2014, courtesy of International Journal and Sage Publications.


Since coming into office in 2006, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rejected many elements of the liberal internationalist consensus that underpinned Canadian foreign policy in the decades after the Second World War.

This consensus included the conviction that working through international institutions generally served Canadian interests and values, that energetic multilateral diplomacy provided Canada with opportunities for international influence which it would have otherwise lacked, that strengthening rules and norms in all areas of international affairs was critical for a country in Canada’s position of openness and vulnerability to global forces, and that promoting reconciliation and the peaceful settlement of disputes abroad was both a reflection of Canada’s success as a multicultural society and a means of contributing to international security.

Ian Brodie responds to Roland Paris: Harper is an internationalist, albeit of a different kind.

Although there are still fragments of liberal internationalism in Harper’s foreign policy—including his party’s attention to negotiating new trade agreements and its promotion of religious freedom and certain other rights—the Conservative government has clearly, if not ostentatiously, distanced itself from this broad approach to international affairs. Harper and his colleagues seem to regard the principles of liberal internationalism as more Liberal than liberal—that is, as a hallmark of the Liberal Party of Canada—even though they provided a largely non-partisan basis for foreign policy over the preceding 60 years.

Indeed, the most enthusiastic and effective practitioner since Pearson was arguably a (Progressive) Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who reinvested in multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations (UN) and elsewhere, championed Canada’s role in international peacekeeping, negotiated new global environmental accords and trade agreements, and cultivated close relationships with a broad array of foreign leaders.

Harper’s Conservatives signalled a departure from this approach even before they came to power. Their campaign platform for the 2006 federal election asserted that previous Liberal governments had “compromised democratic principles to appease dictators.” This language, a harbinger of what would become a new Conservative narrative about foreign policy, portrayed liberal internationalism not only as a failure, but also as morally flawed. Harper and his ministers have since presented a different reading of Canada’s history and its role in the world, one that plays down the accomplishments of Canada as a multilateral entrepreneur and peacemaker, and instead highlights Canada’s participation in wars and great moral struggles—including the War of 1812, the two world wars, and the Cold War. Previous governments, they have argued, lost sight of this older and truer tradition of moral steadfastness and martial valour. As we shall see, the Conservatives have sought to reinstate this older tradition, in part, by attempting to convince Canadians to discard the symbols and practices of liberal internationalism and to embrace, in their place, Harper’s vision of Canada as a valiant fighter.

Is there any evidence that Canadian public attitudes have shifted away from liberal internationalism and toward the foreign policy values articulated by the Harper government?

This article seeks to answer this question by examining recent public opinion surveys and focusing, in particular, on three indicators of change: (1) attitudes toward the UN, a proxy for public opinion toward multilateral institutions more generally, and also a particular target of Harper government criticism; (2) attitudes toward peacekeeping, historically the most prominent symbol of liberal internationalism; and (3) attitudes toward the Canadian military, the centrepiece of Harper’s narrative about Canada being, as he put it, a “courageous warrior.”

As we shall see, the results are intriguing. While there are signs of some attitudinal shifts during this period, a closer examination reveals that Canadians continue to perceive their country’s foreign policy role through predominantly liberal internationalist lenses. Moreover, these findings apply equally to first-generation Canadians, who are sometimes said to have more Conservative policy views. Although some diaspora groups have strongly embraced certain Harper government policy positions, new Canadians generally appear to be just as liberal internationalist as the rest of the population in their attitudes toward foreign policy.

To explain these results, I draw upon role theory in international relations—a body of scholarship that examines “national roles,” or deeply held assumptions about the kinds of functions that a given state is expected to perform in international affairs. Such assumptions tend to be tenacious; they are not readily abandoned or changed.

The Canadian case seems to provide an illustration of this phenomenon, but it also poses something of a challenge to role theory, which has tended to focus on the assumptions of policymakers rather than those of the mass public. To date, Cristian Cantir and Juliet Kaarbo note, this literature has made “little use of polling data and other measures that would tap into whether the masses really do agree with the elites on a country’s national roles.”

This article, by contrast, uses polling data to expose an apparent divergence between the foreign policy roles articulated by Canadian government officials and those embraced by the general public: there have been fundamental changes in the substance and rhetoric of Canadian foreign policy under the Harper government, but we have yet to see a corresponding transformation in public attitudes about Canada’s role in the world.

The remainder of this article is divided into five sections. First, I review the Harper government’s foreign policy behaviour, arguing that it has turned away from key elements of liberal internationalism. Second, I examine the government’s foreign policy narrative, which calls into question core assumptions of liberal internationalism.

Third, I investigate recent public opinion surveys that have probed Canadians’ attitudes about foreign policy.

Fourth, I examine the views of particular segments of the electorate, including first-generation immigrants. Finally, I use role theory to explain the apparent tenacity of liberal internationalism in Canadian public opinion.

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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