Leadership labels: No, Harper is not a neo-con

To call the Canadian Prime Minister a neo-conservative would be to see ideological coherence in his foreign policy, where instead there is none

By: /
11 September, 2015
Harper — not quite the internationalist. (Reuters)
Stephanie Carvin
By: Stephanie Carvin
Assistant Professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

A recent piece by Matthew Bondy in Foreign Policy argues that Stephen Harper is “the Last Neocon” and “Bush-era Hawk.” Bondy largely supports this view by pointing to Harper’s support for the 2003 Iraq War, Afghanistan and his support for “advancing freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Let’s get this straight — Stephen Harper is many things to many people, but he is not a neo-conservative.

In his 2002 essay, “What the heck is a neo-con?” Max Boot (taking inspiration from Irving Krisol) succinctly but usefully describes a neo-conservative as a “liberal mugged by reality.” Essentially, both liberals and neo-conservatives believe that democratic (specifically American values) can and should be spread abroad — a belief that is often described as “Wilsonianism.” However what differentiates the neo-conservative “hard Wilsonians” from the liberal “soft Wilsonians” is the former’s willingness to use force in order to achieve these aims. However, crucially, what underpins both is a shared internationalism.

None of the above can really be said to characterize the foreign policy of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

First, Harper’s neo-conservative rhetoric is conveniently disposable. It is true, given the so-called “Calgary School” company he kept, that Harper was exposed to certain neo-conservative ideas and influences during the formative stages of his career. During this time neo-conservative ideas played a role in forming the prism through which Harper viewed the world. As Paul Wells notes in his book, The Longer I’m Prime Minister, Harper viewed the failure of the then-governing Liberals to support the Iraq War in 2003 was seen as evidence of the Left’s moral bankruptcy. Yet, after 2006, Harper never mentioned the war again, except when he was pressed on the issue in Parliament or the universities. As Wells notes, “how could he be so reliably shocked by moral inconsistency on the Left and so willing to indulge in such inconsistency himself?” Quite simply, neo-conservative principles were no longer convenient.

Second, Harper’s well-worn speaking point about “advancing freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” is actually not out of place in a New Democratic Party statement — like this one. In fact, it is rather a generic speaking point to which all modern Canadian governments (Liberal or Conservative) have paid lip service.

Third, there is no question that Harper has largely played to his right-wing Conservative coalition in Canada. Harper’s wildly exuberant support for Israel (admittedly historically atypical for Canada) and persecuted religious minorities, particularly (but not exclusively) Christians, are key foreign policy elements that his base enjoys. But is this sufficient to describe Harper’s foreign policy as “neo-conservative”?

Such a view can hardly explain Harper’s extremely quiet rhetoric on China since he entered into office, despite the widespread persecution of Christians in that country (and not to mention several serious cyber-attacks against Canada in the last five year largely attributed to China in the media). Nor does it explain his decision to allow Chinese state-owned enterprise CNOOC to buy Canada’s Nexxen in late 2012. These decisions have almost certainly been based by an economically driven realist calculation — not neo-conservative principles.

Further, while Harper’s rhetoric on Russia’s President Putin has been loud and his rhetoric on the Ukraine strong, Canada’s support for the latter really has not gone much above a “pat on the back” and some extremely modest military and humanitarian aid.

However, Bondy’s biggest error is trying to paint an ideological coherence on a rather incoherent foreign policy, where strategy appears to be more of an afterthought. This too is different from actual neo-conservatives who traditionally put foreign policy at the very centre of their political agenda and transformative project. Importantly, while there is some ideological resonance in right-of-centre political parties in the UK, Australia and, yes, Canada, there is very little actual political purchase of such an internationalist project outside of the United States. Mistaking similarities and rhetoric for adherence to this exceptionally American approach to the world is to misunderstand neo-conservatism and mischaracterize Harper’s foreign policy which is far from “internationalist.”

Instead, Harper’s rather uninspiring foreign policy can largely be said to be based on shoring up support from his right-wing base (hardly out of character for a politician), perceived economic interests (especially in the natural resources sector) and a kind of hollow but stubborn moralistic approach shouted loudly at the UN. And even this is not particularly unique. In 1966, Dean Acheson, speaking as a former U.S. Secretary of State, described Canada as “the stern daughter of the voice of God” — likely poking fun at our moralizing in a complex world.

There is no question that the daughter’s tone has changed, but this is no basis for arguing that Harper is a neo-conservative.

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