Harper’s Foreign Policy Reflects His Values

Critics of Harper’s foreign policy would do well to remember that those policies aren’t meant to appeal to you, argues John Ibbitson.

By: /
19 June, 2014
John Ibbitson
By: John Ibbitson

Globe and Mail writer-at-large

Canada has a new politics, the politics of polarization. This is why Canadian foreign policy has become polarized as well. Many people have difficulty accepting this.

Following on the publication of his new book, How We Lead, former Prime Minister Joe Clark is once again criticizing what he calls the “megaphone diplomacy” of the Conservative government. And Benoit Maraval, the former French diplomat, recently wrote an article for the Canada International Council that castigated Stephen Harper for condemning perceived enemies, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he should instead be trying “to take a more proactive and assertive role in trying to bring everyone to the table.”

It may well be true that Canada would play a more constructive role internationally by returning to its Pearsonian traditions of playing the honest broker, the friend to all sides, the seeker of common ground on which everyone can stand in peace. But it won’t happen on this government’s watch. It may well happen if and when the Liberals or NDP come to power. Progressive and Conservative foreign-policy values have become diametrically opposed. And the Conservatives, at least, want to keep it that way. Here is why:

Mr. Harper believes the welfare state was created out of a broad post-war consensus on the need for greater equality. That consensus foundered when the oil shocks of the 1970s undermined governments’ ability to sustain the social safety net. From that shattered consensus emerged two groups: those who depended on government, and those who sustained it.

“Political realignment in most Western countries today represents a battle over tax dollars between two groups of urban, professional, middle-class voters — the taxpayers of the private sector (‘the Right’) and the tax recipients of the welfare state (the ‘Left’),” Mr. Harper wrote in 1989. “Viable political coalitions become based on these and seek allies among other groups of voters.”

But “political realignment has not occurred in Canada because of the major parties’ preoccupation with Quebec,” he continued. “The arrangements designed to include Quebec in a national party, and ultimately the country, have been incompatible with any coherent ideological agenda, especially an Economic Right agenda.”

Twenty-five years later, Quebec no longer determines the national government. The Conservative coalition of Western and suburban Ontario voters has displaced it. Canada is finally polarizing between left and right, progressives and conservatives, as Stephen Harper predicted it would. Its foreign policy is polarizing as well.

Conservative foreign policy is very different from Liberal foreign policy (or from what NDP foreign policy would be if that party ever came to power) because it reflects conservative values. So Mr. Harper was an early and earnest critic of Mr. Putin. The Harper government staunchly defends Israel. It places little stock in being a good environmental citizen. There will be no foreign-aid funding for abortion services. And on, and on.

There are a great many people who believe this is wrong, just as they believe the Harper government’s dedication to tax cuts and oil pipelines is wrong. Eventually, there will be enough of them to defeat the government. The new government will bring in progressive domestic and foreign policies. Eventually it, too, will be defeated and the Conservatives will return to power, restoring conservative domestic and foreign policies. And on, and on.

I believe Mr. Harper is right. Politics in Canada has become more polarized. The federal Conservatives will always be emphatically more conservative than their Progressive Conservative predecessors, or their Liberal and NDP opponents. The difference between Conservatives and progressives is stark, and will always be stark. At election time, voters will have to make choices.

There is a caveat. The suburban middle class in Ontario is now the dominant voting bloc in the country. Many of them are immigrants. Mr. Harper believes his foreign policy priorities align with the priorities of the Ontario suburban middle class, including aspirational immigrant voters. He may be wrong. But the limits of polarization can be defined as the degree to which these voters can be persuaded to change their vote.

Mr. Clark will never see the day when Canada returns to a bipartisan, consensual foreign policy based on Pearsonian values. But he will see the day when the Conservatives are defeated, and Canada embraces a progressive foreign policy, one that may look very Pearsonian. And then he will see the day when the Conservatives return to power, and Canada’s foreign-policy priorities change once again.

Other countries have had this for decades. Somehow they get by. We will too.

This piece was crafted in cooperation with the Globe and Mail, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and the Canadian International Council and appeared in the Globe and Mail’s Globe Debate Faceoff.

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