Canada’s Foreign Policy: The Case for Reset
Sergio Marchi on the shortcomings of Stephen Harper’s ‘hit and run’ foreign policy.
If a different government emerges after next year’s election, a long list of priorities await it. One of them will be to review and ultimately reset our foreign policy.
During the Stephen Harper years, our trajectory has not only deviated from our traditional and once respected role, but Canada’s leadership on the world stage has been significantly diminished.
Previous Conservative and Liberal governments followed a shared foreign policy approach. Recall Brian Mulroney’s leadership on the issues of South African apartheid, free trade with the United States, and the environment. That common ground was founded on four pillars: A fundamental belief in multilateralism; a vigorous engagement with friends and foes alike; a partnership with civil society; and thinking big.
The current government has pivoted away from all of these, particularly the second point, which was clearly evident in the Prime Minister’s weekend Globe and Mailop-ed on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine.
I agree with the thrust of the Prime Minister’s article. Mr. Putin has behaved like a belligerent, dangerous bully. Beyond victimizing Ukraine, he has also managed to challenge the political will and unity of Europe and United States.
However, Mr. Harper ignored his – and by extension, our country’s – greatest handicap when it comes to Mr. Putin. Namely, that he has not built a personal rapport with his Russian counterpart and thus has no ability to influence his thinking and actions.
At every opportunity, the Prime Minister has chastised Mr. Putin personally and publicly. Fellow G7 leaders also voiced criticisms, but they stopped short of demonizing him with excessive rhetoric. U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have preserved a relationship, giving personal diplomacy a chance to offer Mr. Putin an exit from his perilous perch. Given Mr. Putin’s stubborn pride, this is our best and least-costly path.
Mr. Harper threw this card away long time ago. And this is not an exception.
He took the same tack with the Chinese. He publicly attacked that government’s core values and refused to establish any relationships. He also had never personally visited China. His views were dated, and did not respect the Chinese culture of not “losing face.”
Whenever I visited China as trade minister with Jean Chrétien, the prime minister would always raise sensitive areas of disagreement. But he would do so respectfully and in private. Accordingly, he got results and deepened the bilateral relationship.
Mr. Harper found out the hard way that the Chinese don’t react well to lectures. Recently, he has been back-pedalling furiously due to Canadian interests. But will the Chinese ever trust him?
It’s the same with Iran, where he publicly berates its leaders. He also closed our embassy in Tehran, resulting in no political or diplomatic discourse. How will this help encourage Iranians to end decades of isolation? And when they do, will Iran suddenly forget where Canada stood? Will Canadian companies seeking to serve a newly open market of 80 million people, for example, be punished?
Despite deep differences with the EU and U.S., they are at least talking with Iran: Trying to remove the nuclear threat; to normalize relations; and to make the region safer. That’s what Canada used to do so well. Meanwhile, Boeing just signed a multimillion-dollar agreement to provide Iran with airplane parts.
In the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, our Prime Minister speaks exclusively to the interests of only one party. We used to have balance, recognizing that Israel must have secure, defined borders, while supporting Palestinians in their quest for an independent state they could call “home.” Today, Mr. Harper offers Israel a blank cheque, while showing the Palestinians the back of his hand.
The list goes on.
This kind of “hit and run” foreign policy is a losing strategy. It will never bring opposing sides together, nor will it permit Canadian diplomacy to make a difference. It ensures that Canada is not a player, and this is a huge cost when we consider our country’s once-cherished and valued role.
Moreover, as a small open economy, the best leverage Canada has is by being an honest broker. With removal of that avenue, our economic size alone will never influence international affairs, which ultimately affects our prosperity.
So, Mr. Harper is left writing speeches and op-eds. But those are not enough to move a man like Mr. Putin one inch, even if they were to find their way into his morning clippings, while he enjoys his breakfast of cottage cheese and quail eggs.
A reset indeed.