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What is Stephen Harper Afraid of?

By: /
14 July, 2011
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Stephen Harper shared his views on international affairs with Maclean’s magazine last week, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Harper’s world seems to be full of danger and struggle. In response to open-ended questions on foreign policy, he repeatedly came back to these themes. Most interestingly, he offered a Manichean vision of international relations as a struggle between good and bad, and of moral clarity as the greatest asset and most reliable guide to foreign policy.

War and conflict figure prominently in this story. In the interview, Harper traced a connection between war and the emergence and development of the Canadian nation, arguing that the War of 1812 “essentially began to establish our sense of national identity” and was the “genesis of the geographically wide and culturally diverse nation we have today.” He then explained that Canada has consistently been “on the right side of important conflicts” – including the Second World War and the Cold War – “that have shaped the world and that are largely responsible for moving the world in the overall positive direction in which it is moving.” There is a theory of history encapsulated in this short statement – one that emphasizes, again, the enduring struggle between moral forces, and the transformative and redemptive potential of this struggle. These “big conflicts,” he explained, have been “the real defining moments for the country and for the world.”

Kenneth Whyte, who conducted the interview, probed further: “You suggest that we are in one great conflict, or that we’re heading to one that we need to be prepared for.”

Harper responded: “I think we always are.”

Let’s pause for a moment. After describing a pattern of historic confrontations through to the Cold War, Harper suggests that we are either in the midst of a new monumental struggle, or we are heading into one. That’s remarkable news. It would seem important to learn more about this.

But when asked about the nature of the present threat, the prime minister seemed to grasp for a response:

“Well, I think it’s more difficult to define now. We know there are challenges to us. The most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism. We know that’s a big one globally. We also know, though, the world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I’m saying we have to be prepared to contribute more, and that is what this government’s been doing.”

The fact that Canada may need to “contribute more” to protecting our security may be true, but that portion of Harper’s response tells us nothing about the threat itself. We are left with “Islamic extremist terrorism” as “a big” threat. Is it the big one? Are there others?

The world is a messy place, so I empathize with the prime minister when he talks about the difficulty of defining threats in a complex world. But let’s be clear: complexity itself is not a threat. Nor should we respond to complexity with simplistic theories of history or vague allusions to looming conflicts.

If Canada faces a clear and present danger, Harper should tell us exactly what it is. Otherwise, he should stop scaring people – and himself.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

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