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Stephen Harper: World Statesman

John Kirton considers how deserving Stephen Harper is of the title.

By: /
27 September, 2012
By: John Kirton
Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto

Today, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in New York City to accept from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation its award for being the “World Statesman of 2012.” He is following in the distinguished footsteps of his Liberal party predecessor, Jean Chrétien, his partner in liberating Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and his current contemporary close colleague in the G20, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But back at home, congenitally critical commentators and many modest Canadians will ask, with surprise and skepticism, whether Stephen Harper is really the world statesman of the year.

Those Canadians wedded to the past, who prefer a foreign policy of nostalgia, will instinctively respond, “Certainly not.” They will claim that Harper should be spending his time in New York today at the UN General Assembly, reading the short speech that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will forcefully present in his place. They will argue that Harper’s greatest foreign-policy failure was his inability to win, in 2010, what is, in fact, a short-term second-class seat on the UN Security Council, and to devote Canadian armed forces to peacekeeping missions under the UN flag. They will note that these things were routinely done by the much-loved Lester Pearson. They will not add that this stopped 44 years ago, and that the world, and Canada within it, has changed a great deal since then.


Among the conflicting claims of the foreign foundation and the Canadian critics, scholars who carefully chart Harper’s foreign policy can confidently conclude that, on the whole, he has been enough of a global statesperson to make this award an appropriate one.

He has certainly been so on the criteria the foundation listed for choosing him this year. Harper has clearly and consistently been “a champion of democracy, freedom and human rights” – the powerful, guiding, globally appealing principles of Harper’s foreign policy since the start. Despite the current age of austerity, he has largely practised what he has preached. He has led on the religious component of human rights by having created an Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He has firmly supported Israel, which, despite its imperfect policies, remains the deepest and most durable democracy in the heart of the Middle East. He has also been a leading critic of Iran, whose leader Harper and all his fellow G8 leaders dealt with at their 2009 summit by proclaiming, “We condemn the declarations of President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust.” Holocaust denial is no small thing. Such affirmations of “never again” need to be repeated again and again, especially as Ahmadinejad continues to use UNGA to say similar things.

More broadly, when the most basic human right – the right to life – was imperilled on a large scale in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya last year, Harper led, along with Canada’s two mother countries of France and Britain, in using military force to effectively implement the revolutionary new global principle of the international responsibility to protect, importantly pioneered by the Right Honourable Paul Martin and by Michael Ignatieff. And, despite the mounting costs in Canadian lives, Harper has similarly kept faith with Chrétien and Martin’s willingness to use military force in Afghanistan to defend and deepen democracy, women’s rights, and the rule of law there.

Closer to home, on the core national interests of territory, sovereignty, and security, Harper has performed well. In the Arctic, he has added to his initial military emphasis and subsequent claims of expanded Canadian jurisdiction a multidimensional approach. Here, the economic, social, and environmental needs of Canadians living in the Arctic have a growing place, as does Canada’s international co-operation with its Arctic neighbours, including Canada’s superpower neighbour on the far side of the North Pole. Harper has relied on new regional initiatives and the broadly multilateral rule of law entrenched in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is a UN treaty to which Harper’s Canada remains a ratified signatory, unlike Canada’s superpower neighbour lying largely to the south. Among the world’s systemically significant countries, Harper is also somewhat of a leader on biodiversity – another landmark UN convention to which Harper’s Canada remains attached, while Barack Obama’s United States still stands apart.

A further case of Harper’s effective global leadership at the UN is in promoting maternal and child health – two of the eight Millennium Development Goals least likely to be met by their due date in 2015. Harper devoted the G8 summit he hosted in 2010 to raise more than $7 billion in new money for the cause, had this amount expanded to more than $40 billion at UNGA in September 2010, and co-led a new accountability commission to ensure that the new money was delivered, disbursed, and did the job.

Then there is the economy. Here, Harper has put to good use his post-graduate degree in economics, his family familiarity with accounting, and his Paul Martin-like commitment to balanced budgets in the medium term, rather than rely on the sugar highs of serial stimulus spending sprees that produce cancerous deficits and debts all too soon. And he has practised as well as preached his free-trade principles, concluding more full free-trade agreements abroad than any other Canadian prime minister, with the great powers in the European Union and even India due to join the list.

Behind such signs of global leadership lies an ever-developing foreign-policy vision on Harper’s part. It began with an assertion of Canada’s global leadership, added Canada as an emerging energy superpower, and extended to “enlightened sovereignty” as Canada’s approach to global order in a much-changed 21st-century world. At a surprisingly long news conference at the end of the Pittsburgh G20 Summit in September 2009, Harper spoke thoughtfully about Canada being one of the world’s oldest major powers with a democratic tradition unbroken by foreign occupation or civil war. It was a Canada one could count on in a trouble world. If one needs a global vision in order to be a world statesman, Harper has passed this test.

Yet, in a fast-changing, complex world, such statespersons cannot rest on their laurels, and Harper’s greatest tests lie ahead. The first is not losing the war and the peace – and human rights and democracy – in Afghanistan once the Canadian and NATO military forces pull out. A second is Syria, where the slaughter sears and innocent civilians need Canada’s help as much as those in Kosovo did in 1999 and those in Libya did in 2011.

A third is managing the global economy amid the recession in Europe, the slow recovery and a looming fiscal cliff in the United States, and declining growth in the big emerging countries while there are few governments and central banks with much financial firepower left that is guaranteed to work. A fourth test is the potentially existential threat of climate change, where the easy step of abandoning the flawed Kyoto Protocol needs to be followed fast by a Canadian-led global control regime that works.

The greatest test comes on the ultimate national interest of survival, now that a separatist government is once again in control of the province of Quebec. The ghosts of Charles de Gaulle from 1967 and distant Gabon a little later remind us that the fight for the future of a united Canada will be fought all around the world. As an authentic Torontonian of the Trudeau generation and a proud Progressive Conservative of the Clark-Mulroney one, Harper knows that his Canada includes Quebec, and that he needs to speak French at least as well as Canada’s sovereign does. But every day in every way, Harper needs to put France and Britain first, even on symbolically important issues, such as sharing Canadian embassy facilities with both mother countries and not just the anglophone one. If he can get the great national unity test right, and save a bilingual, multicultural Canada from the separatists, Harper will deserve more awards as a world statesperson in the years to come. And some might even come from the toughest crowd in the global village to please – his fellow Canadians at home.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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