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Cameron: Is Conservative foreign policy different from Liberal foreign policy?”

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5 September, 2011
By: Maxwell Cameron
Professor, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia

Differences between Liberal and Conservative foreign policies are easily summarized but their sources are deep and complex. Liberals believe in rules, multilateralism, soft power, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian intervention, and the United Nations. Conservatives see the world as a dangerous place, where hard power rules. In such a world it is imperative for a country like Canada to stay inside the security perimeter of the United States. 

More important than the policy differences, however, are the differences in the underlying frames used by liberals and conservatives (here I use lower case “l” and “c” to designate the ideologies not the parties). An emerging body of evidence—much of which is nicely summarized in Berkeley linguist George Lakoff’s recent book The Political Mind—suggests that liberals and conservatives think differently. Whereas liberals emphasize caring, fairness and reciprocity, conservatives focus more on loyalty, authority, and obedience. That is why the Conservative government wants to restore the moniker “royal” to the name of the Canadian forces. It also explains why the Conservative government has systematically eliminated terms like “gender equality” and “indigenous rights” from the foreign policy lexicon. Such terms evoke inconvenient cognitive frames. 

Message discipline also reassures Conservative supporters, who are typically intolerant of ambiguity, that their leader states his intentions clearly and delivers. A major danger inherent in framing policy options in terms of authority and obedience, however, is that science and evidence take a back seat to the shared beliefs of the leader and his followers. The best example of this is the failure to take climate change seriously.

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