Listen Now

The Conservative state of foreign affairs

Andrew Scheer has laid out a reasonable approach to foreign policy, argues Jen Gerson, but when it comes to US relations, China and climate change, Conservatives must prepare for uncertain times ahead.

By: /
3 July, 2019
Andrew Scheer speaks after winning the leadership at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership convention in Toronto, Canada, May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Jen Gerson
By: Jen Gerson

Freelance journalist

Even as he attained the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017 after 13 gruelling rounds of voting, Andrew Scheer was a cipher to much of the public. The nice guy compromise candidate and father of five who earned the respect of his colleagues as speaker of the house in the Stephen Harper years, Scheer wasn’t known for his temperamental quirks, or his strong policy stances.

Indeed, it’s easier to define Scheer by the larger personalities now dominating Conservative politics at the provincial level — such as Doug Ford or Jason Kenney. His political rivals have attempted to cast Scheer as an extremist, a malevolent playmate of populist Conservative movements worldwide, without much success.

Scheer no doubt hopes to define himself more aggressively, and has begun to do so with a series of policy speeches that will outline his party’s post-Harper positions on a range of issues, from immigration and the environment to foreign policy. To those who have watched Harper’s government in action, Scheer’s proposals seem mostly familiar, if more reflective of a geopolitical reality that has rapidly changed in the few years since Harper left power.

In May, he offered a foreign policy speech that was measured and entirely in line with the party’s pragmatic, incremental position on the file.

Under Scheer, it seems likely that Canada would try to play the role of an active and constructive middle power; less beholden to sclerotic international bureaucracies like the United Nations, instead forming tighter alliances with democracies with similar values and organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the G7. Scheer’s plans to relocate Canada’s embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem follow US President Donald Trump’s decision to do the same. In his speech, Scheer noted the increasing isolationism of the United States, which will create more of a role for countries like Canada, while also empowering the rise of authoritarian states like Russia and China.

On the whole, it was a speech that reflected a shift away from the ideologically-driven stance that has tempered the Canadian Conservative movement in recent decades, and toward a pragmatic approach that secures Canada’s interests.

“In conservatism, as reflected in the Canadian ethos, there has been a transition; in the Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney era, it really was a classical neoconservative, pro-globalist, pro-trade, pro-democracy, anti-totalitarian consensus,” said James Moore, a former cabinet minister under Harper. He lists several events that led to the breakdown of that consensus, from the Kyoto Accord and the Iraq war to the sense that Canada had surrendered its foreign policy goals to a corrupt UN during the Jean Chretien era.

“The anti-global liberal order started there. For the left, it starts with corporatism and other things, but for the right in Canada, that’s where it starts,” he said. This skepticism, which has reached its apogee with the success of Trump and far-right leaders in Europe, was heightened for Conservatives under Barack Obama.

“Obama was supposed to be a great friend, a great world economic liberal guy. Then what was going on with the Keystone XL pipeline? This is a no brainer?”

Moore describes a tit-for-tat dismantling of the liberal world order’s credibility felt on both the left and the right. Major global events, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, military misadventure in Afghanistan and Iraq, growing disillusionment with the UN, Obama on pipelines, the rise of Trump, and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, have led to an awakening that leads Moore to believe that, for most Conservatives, realism is the order of the day.

There won’t be a single cohesive ideology — like neoconservatism, for example — that guides Canada’s role or actions in the world. Instead, a middle power like ours must respond to the realities of the world as they come. For Scheer, that will mean closer ties with Israel, and more skepticism towards China — and, perhaps, even the US. This is in stark contrast to previous eras when Harper, for example, tried to build bridges with a then-rapidly reforming China, and the Conservatives counted themselves as the US’s staunches allies in Canada.

“Being a good ally and contributor on the world stage requires more than just talk. Both our allies and adversaries respect strength and confidence,” Scheer said during his speech.

So what should a Conservative Canadian foreign policy look like? Conversations with several experts suggest that there are, broadly, three major trends that Conservatives will need to prepare for in the uncertain times ahead.

Canada-US relations

The primary foreign policy matter facing a future Conservative prime minister would be the fractured relationship between the United States and Canada.

The primary foreign policy matter facing a future Conservative prime minister would be the fractured relationship between the United States and Canada. Moore argued that this relationship was showing wear when Obama refused to sign off on the Keystone XL pipeline. But with the election of an isolationist and erratic Trump, the cordial relationship that has traditionally existed between the two countries has become more unpredictable.

Even if Trump is shunted from office in 2020, the conditions that put him there reflect long term trends that won’t disappear: the status threat of working class Americans who are increasingly falling prey to drug abuse and insecure unemployment, xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment, and skepticism toward multilateralism and trade.

Trade between Canada and the US reached an estimated $714 billion in 2018, making it the second-largest trading relationship in the world — behind only that of China and the US. Yet that relationship hasn’t protected Canada from hardball free trade re-negotiations, punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum, or delays of ratification of the newly negotiated United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement. More worryingly, the new trade deal — which seems to be championed by neither Democrats nor Republicans in the US — includes a 16-year sunset clause, which will introduce further uncertainty for investors. Worse, Canada’s comparatively small population and economy ensures that it will struggle to maintain any kind of leverage in negotiations with a United States that appears to be increasingly hostile and suspicious of the concept of trade as a mutual benefit.

Moore noted: “In 1992, Pat Buchanan got 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary running against George H.W. Bush — who had just won the first Gulf War. [Buchanan] ran on trashing NAFTA, calling Mexicans ‘Jose’, building the wall. Buchanan was saying that in ‘92.”

He was, in other words, ahead of his time. Trump’s election “has been an awakening that this is not going away.”

In his foreign policy speech, Scheer emphasized a strengthening of Canada’s military relationship with its southern neighbour. “The Canada-United States relationship transcends the personalities of those who occupy each respective office. And its longevity is crucial to our respective peace and prosperity. It must be strengthened,” he said, adding that his government would focus on interoperability of major military acquisitions, and promising to consider joining the US’s ballistic missile defence program.

In addition to continuing to repair the relationship between the two countries, lobbying sympathetic lawmakers in Washington, and ingratiate itself with skeptical Americans, Canada’s other recourse is to aggressively diversify its base of trade. Building on the successes of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, then, will be crucial for any Conservative leader. But this is a difficult time to find new superpowers to get cozy with.

The China problem

As China clawed its way out of Maoism, embraced some free-market principles, and brought millions of its own citizens out of poverty, the attitude in the west toward the former Communist state was one of optimism. So unshakeable was our faith in the inextricability of liberal values with economic progress that we assumed China would shake the last vestiges of its authoritarian history as it continued to prosper.

It has not worked out that way.

While China continues to vault its way into economic superpower status, its political culture has taken a darker, more authoritarian turn in recent years. In addition to increasing internal surveillance, allegations of corporate espionage and human rights violations — including the detention of an estimated one million Muslim Uighurs in open-air prisons the regime casts as vocational training centres — President Xi Jinping has consolidated power within the ruling Communist Party.

“For two years, I was the vice president of the Canada-China Friendship Society. Under Xi, there’s been a wake up call about where he’s taking China," said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at both the University of Ottawa and the University of Alberta; she specializes in China’s innovation policies.

Jinping took control of the government, the Communist Party, and the military. He also failed to identify a successor, casting himself in a Chairman Mao-like mould, expecting to hold a position of absolute authority for many years to come. Any one of these changes would not have been cause for alarm, McCuaig-Johnston said. However, taken together, she is now deeply concerned and fears China has rejected the path of liberalization and reform.

Of late, Canada has found itself in a uniquely precarious position with regards to China. After the 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — she is wanted in the US on allegations of bank fraud, among other charges — China retaliated by detaining two Canadian citizens indefinitely. It also upgraded the sentence on a drug trafficking charge for another citizen, condemning him to execution.

China also blocked the import of Canadian canola seed, cut permits to two pork producers and has since increased inspections on Canadian pork products.

“The Canadian government is going to have to focus on where it’s in Canada’s benefit to collaborate. In the past, there’s been a tendency to listen to China’s needs and priorities and be responsive to them and engage with them,” McCuaig-Johnston said. Canada will also need to be much more wary about how much access to its technology and businesses it wishes to give China.

“The more points of engagement we have with China, the more places they can turn the screws when aspects of the relationship run into trouble,” McCuaig-Johnston added. “As we’re experiencing now, we can lose that market in a nanosecond.”

The widening diplomatic spat has serious implications for China’s bid to create 5G cellular networks in Canada. Given the increasingly authoritarian flavour of the Chinese government, along with their noted developments in extreme surveillance, McCuaig-Johnston is nervous about giving a company that is, in essence, state-controlled access to sensitive national telecommunications infrastructure.

“Back doors are what people fear they might be listening [to], might be watching,” she said. “I was in Washington in April for an interdepartmental meeting on 5G and, in fact, almost all of them are dismissing backdoors. They’re more concerned about what they call ‘bug doors,’ where a bug is put into the system and covered up and can’t be detected.” The bug can be unleashed later, at a time when Canada-China relations “go sideways again.”

Given its size and importance to the global economy, China cannot be ignored; however, future leaders of Canada will struggle with how and when to engage with the nation, and on what terms. For his part, in his speech, Scheer noted: “For decades now, many in Canada have looked to China as a way of diversifying our export markets…But in recent years, it has become clear that China’s adversarial approach to Canada and the Western, democratic world has changed those expectations.”

Given its size and importance to the global economy, China cannot be ignored; however, future leaders of Canada will struggle with how and when to engage with the nation, and on what terms.

Climate change and other catastrophes

Conservative parties at the provincial and federal level have staked much of their public profile on noisy, rally-driven opposition to a carbon tax. They argue, not incorrectly, that the tax will have little if any impact on climate change. That said, Canada can’t afford to be a global free rider if it expects to be taken seriously by democratic allies willing to harm their own economies by taking leadership on the climate change file. And the Conservative policies that have been proposed thus far are often rarely as strict or effective as a straightforward market-based carbon tax.

“A Canadian Conservative government after Justin Trudeau is going to be less inclined to impose harsh climate change policies on provinces,” said Ali Dizboni, an associate professor in the department of political science and economics at the Royal Military College. “The Conservative governments we have in Canada provincially, they don’t like climate policies. But I’m thinking a Canadian Conservative government federally would stay in the Paris Accord. I don’t think Canada will withdraw from that agreement, like Trump did.”

Understanding this, both Conservatives and Liberals are probably missing the major issues by focusing too narrowly on greenhouse gas emissions. On the Conservative side, a policy that leans too heavily on reducing emissions risks alienating the portion of its base that remains skeptical about whether a changing climate can really be blamed on human industrial activity. It will also anger those who simply place Canada’s economic well-being above its comparatively small global emissions profile. In his recent speech on climate change, Scheer danced around these concerns by releasing an approach that emphasized the need for new technology, rather than tax increases.

A more productive way to frame the issue might be to suggest that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what’s causing climate change; it’s still happening. And the scientific consensus around why it’s happening is going to continue to present serious geopolitical, ecological and economic problems that Canada needs to be prepared to address.

The first, and most obvious, is that countries seeking to reduce carbon emissions will forgo one of Canada’s most valuable export commodities — oil from the northern Alberta oilsands, which is more carbon-intensive to mine than many other types of crude. The European Union recently lifted its ban on oil sands oil, and the region was one of several industries targeted by a decision by HSBC to divest from emissions-intensive industries like coal-fired electricity.

Climate change presents obvious domestic risks, including a greater incidence of flood and wildfire, which Canada is going to need to mitigate. It also presents opportunities to open new trade and shipping routes in the Northwest Passage, which increases the risk of conflict in the north with Russia and China. Shifting climate patterns could potentially increase arable land in Canada at a time when other breadbaskets must contend with a greater risk of drought or uncertainty.

Concerningly, if the worst predictions of climate catastrophists come to pass, the planet could be entering a phase of unprecedented resource shortage and displacement.

The recent migration of only an estimated five million refugees out of war-torn Syria has had an incredibly destabilizing effect on the politics of liberal democracies of Europe, prompting an increase in populist and even authoritarian rhetoric once thought lost to history.

Canada, surrounded by oceans and a superpower, has avoided the influx of migrants that has upended the political world order. What happens if a climate crisis or other disaster increases the global refugee population by two- or even ten-fold? What role will Canada play in future civil wars? How much humanitarian aid can this country afford while dealing with its own climate change risks? These are practical problems that Canadian Conservatives will need to consider without falling prey to the lure of reactionary politics.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us