There Is More to Foreign Policy Than Trade

There is nothing wrong with promoting commercial interests, says Roland Paris. But those interests shouldn’t eclipse other foreign policy efforts.

By: /
28 November, 2013
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

The problem with Canada’s new Global Markets Action Plan is not that it seeks to promote Canadian commercial interests in foreign markets where our companies have the potential to succeed. No, the problem is that this strategy now looms over the rest of Canada’s foreign policy, which has largely withered during the years that the Conservatives have been in power.

The fact that this strategy document was issued at all speaks to its importance for the Harper government. To date, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shunned calls to produce a comprehensive foreign policy statement, even though most of his predecessors did so.

Nor did the Conservatives demonstrate much interest in internal strategic documents that officials prepared from time to time. One of Ottawa’s worst-kept secrets was the lengthy preparation of a foreign policy plan in 2011-12. It apparently got as far as the Cabinet table, but ended with a fizzle.


When a government that normally dislikes foreign policy strategies goes ahead and issues one, it is worth paying attention – and the content of the Global Markets Action Plan is striking. It declares that “all Government of Canada diplomatic assets are [to be] harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors.” On its face, this is a sweeping edict.

Some observers point out that in Africa and elsewhere, Canadian diplomats are already pursuing commercial objectives over other goals, which is often true. But the formalization of this policy is a significant step. It delivers a clear directive to Canadian diplomats (and presumably also development officials, now part of the same ministry): your primary mission is to promote the interests of Canadian companies abroad. Full stop.

Of course, every government has a right to set its own priorities, and the fact that the Harper government is pursuing new opportunities for Canadian companies is not objectionable in itself. Promoting Canadian competitiveness should be a centrepiece of Ottawa’s international work.

But there is much more to foreign policy than trade. What about peace and security, human rights, our environment, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms control, refugees, poverty, collapsing states, and the overarching system of global rules and institutions, which has come under growing strain? The list goes on. Many of these areas have been neglected by the Conservatives, who seem to view foreign policy, in general, as a soapbox for loud pronouncements, rather than an arena for constructive engagement.

So, yes, there is a place for promoting commercial interests in our foreign policy. But the public interest – the national interest – demands that Canada be actively involved in the full array of foreign policy challenges facing this country and the world.

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