Last year on November 29 Canada was one of eight countries to vote “no” at the United Nations on whether or not Palestine should be granted “non-member observer” status. The absolute incredulity most Canadians felt at this decision demonstrates the growing disconnect ‘The Harper Government’ has from ordinary multicultural loving, peaceful Canadians. It serves to reinforce worldwide perceptions that Canada is no longer the gentle giant of the north, the country that could be relied upon to step in with aid and a helping hand; but rather, an increasingly hard-line minion of the United States.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done it again. By confronting Iran, he has championed Canadian values, and democracy. It’s ironic that one of the criticisms of his assertive, affirmative foreign policy is that it is somehow “not Canadian.” Fighting evil and refusing to maintain business as usual, even to the point of withdrawing your diplomats, marks a fulfilment of Canadian ideals, not a violation of them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullocracy disrespect peace, order and good government. Canada’s controversial, principled prime minister has once again showed that he understands what each of those core concepts means.
Actually, we should ask the opposite question. What made serious, good, idealistic Canadians start believing that appeasement was the Canadian way? Diplomacy is, of course, a noble pursuit. And peace is preferable to war. But history teaches that frequently strength, morality and vision are the best guarantors of peace – especially when facing evil, ambitious, greedy powers. As every parent knows, giving in often makes unacceptable behaviours worse, not better.
Canadian academics and politicians took a lead role in trying to heal the world after the horrors of World War II. The Canadian contribution to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with McGill University’s John Peters Humphrey taking the lead, is a justifiable source of pride to Canadians. Similarly, Lester Pearson did great work in teaching the world that human rights standards should be universal and that peace can be achieved through what Winston Churchill called “jaw jaw” not “war war.”
But Pearson was no relativist. Among his great achievements was helping the world recognize its obligation to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. Supporting the initiative entailed taking a stand, articulating a moral position and rocking the boat. Similarly, when he said in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that “ideas are explosive,” Pearson was acknowledging the power of ideas, while admitting that some ideas can be forces for good, even as others can be extremely harmful.
Unfortunately, the cataclysmic 1960s upset the moral compass of many of Pearson’s and Humphrey’s successors. As the United Nations degenerated from the world’s democracies’ attempt to spread democratic principles worldwide into the Third World dictators’ debating society, many in the West lost heart. Rather than defending the universality of certain key principles such as human rights, they succumbed as a crass coalition of Soviets, Arabs and Third World Communists politicized and thus polluted the human rights apparatus in the UN and elsewhere.
On Nov. 10, 1975, when the U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan – a Stephen Harper precursor – stood strong against the “Zionism is racism” resolution, he was making a stand against the new perverted world order that was emerging. Saul Rae, father of interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and the Canadian ambassador to the UN at the time, supported Moynihan and denounced the infamous antisemitic and anti-democratic resolution. But the resolution passed, and the appeasers caved.
Since the 1960s, many in the West have been more guilt-ridden than principled. Suitably abashed at the West’s culpability in an earlier era’s crimes of colonialism, imperialism and racism, many have refused to stand up to the new criminals of today, because they’re still seeking forgiveness for those earlier sins. But a moral inversion has occurred, as some of the victims have become victimizers, which is what is occurring with Islamist terrorists and the Iranians.
Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian mullahs have harassed their own people, devastated their own economy and violated their own culture’s character. Moreover, they violated centuries-long international rules by kidnapping and holding American diplomats hostage, they entered into a bloody war with Iraq that caused more than one million deaths, and they have threatened Israel – and the United States – with destruction. Persian civilization was sophisticated, disciplined, and tolerant for its day. Iranian Islamism has been crude, violent and infamously intolerant in an increasingly tolerant era. Now, this outlaw regime is seeking nuclear weapons, and progressing rapidly in its perverse quest.
I confess: I don’t get it. How is it progressive or peace-seeking or in any way Canadian to indulge these monsters in their immoral pursuits? We need to echo Moynihan in his eloquent denunciations. And we need to follow Harper’s way, refusing to conduct “business as usual” with regimes that are unnaturally evil.
t is shocking how much Canadian foreign policy has changed since The Harper Government has been in office. Previous Canadian leaders have recognized Canada’s lack of ability to be a true power player on the world stage due to the small sizes of our economy and population, and pursued foreign policy strategies accordingly. They have acted with respect to Canada’s multicultural heritage, and the fact that we are not only a nation built by immigrants, but we continue to welcome millions into our fold every year. After all, it was one of our own prime ministers who ended the Suez Crisis of 1956 and established the United Nations peacekeeping force. Over the past fifty years they have shaped Canada into that peacekeeping, aid-generous nation the world had come to love and respect, until Harper took it upon himself to change all that.
Harper seems to be pursuing a twofold foreign policy. Firstly, he continues to strengthen ties with Great Britain, a colonizing power of yore that has been bereft of influence since World War II. With taxpayers’ money he funds trips for members of their monarchy to tour our state. He has returned the “Royal” title to our military regardless that most Canadians are completely indifferent to the fact that the Queen of England is the technical head of state. We have had full control over our government since 1982 and our future can only entail Canada and Britain moving further away from a colonized/colonizer relationship – there is no reasonable explanation for this longing for the past.
Secondly, while attempting to redefine our national identity as longing for the grand imperialist days, he is drawing Canada closer and closer to the US. There is no denying that Canada has always been the US’ best friend, and indeed, follower – except, thankfully, to Iraq (though this writer is in doubt that Harper would have made the same decision as Chretien not to follow the US there had he been prime minister). Canada’s economy is still dangerously reliant on the US’ and his attempts to diversify Canada’s trade portfolio have been, despite campaign promises made, lacking and, frankly, embarrassing – will anyone ever forget the temper tantrum he threw on a trade mission to Brazil in 2011? By relying so heavily on Canada’s relationship with the US, Harper forgets his place. As Canada’s prime minister, he is supposed to look out for the interests of Canadians, not Americans, and is supposed to help uphold Canada’s formerly positive image worldwide – not help the US bully Palestine in the name of protecting Israel. But that is not reality. It is his commitment to Israel and human dignity that makes the foreign policy tick.
From closing embassies worldwide, in particular Iran, to butting into issues where he does not belong, many of his actions have been completely without merit. In the name of saving costs at home, he has cut funding abroad – and thus done serious damage to the state of Canada’s international relations. His decision not only to vote ‘no’ to Palestine, but also to send Foreign Affairs Minister Baird to New York to campaign for the no vote, has only served to empower extremists, and distance Canada further from the rational and self-deprecatingly understanding foreign policy decisions it has made in the past.
Immediately after the more reasonable members of the UN voted that Palestine did deserve its “non-member observer” status, Harper immediately recalled all Middle Eastern ambassadors to Ottawa, where they will await further instructions. Regardless of what one’s views are on the Middle East, it seems fair enough to say that the place of Canadian ambassadors is in their embassies, protecting Canadian interests and citizens abroad, whereas Harper’s is not at the centrer of the conflict, where he would apparently like to be; but back at home minding his own business. He would do well to remember that Canada’s title as a peacekeeping nation was hard-won – and that he shouldn’t squander it for extremist ideals that are not representative of his kin and country.
Since 2006, when Conservative Stephen Harper became Canada’s prime minister, America’s typically quiet and modest neighbour to the north has been much more assertive in pursuing its foreign policy. It has been forceful in advocating what it sees as both its interests and its values. And it has done so in language unlike that of any other Canadian government that has preceded it. It seems that Canada has become, well, unCanadian.
Consider for a moment some context. In Canada’s parliamentary system, the PM wields enormous power. He can often coerce legislators into supporting his proposals. Unlike the American system, with its separation of powers, the Canadian government almost always allows its leader to ratify his chosen policies. As a result, the PM’s words carry especially great weight—they signify the legislative direction the country is likely to take.
Canada’s new foreign policy can therefore be said to have begun with Harper’s very first address to Parliament as head of government, in April 2006. In that speech, Harper chose to acknowledge first “our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, whose lifelong dedication to duty and self-sacrifice have been a source of inspiration and encouragement to the many countries that make up the commonwealth and to the people of Canada.”
Though Canada is indeed a member of the British Commonwealth, those ties are rarely celebrated as forthrightly as in this statement. Harper has rehung a portrait of the queen on a wall of the prime minister’s office, linked the monarchist rhetoric to an appeal to traditional conservatism, and even publicly scolded the governor general for referring to herself, not the queen, as the Canadian head of state. A journalist called Harper “one of the most monarchist” prime ministers since John Diefenbaker, who was in power when General Eisenhower was the US president.
Harper’s pro-monarchy stance is only one of his many endeavors to define Canada as part of the Anglosphere. The effort is strikingly in contrast to other recent approaches that situate Canada more “progressively,” as part of an amorphous, UN-led “international community.”
Harper also consistently stakes out hawkish ground on international matters. In that same first speech, he said: “This was the hard lesson that this country learned in two world wars—we learned it before the United States—and it was driven home to us again with great force on 9/11.” He followed with praise for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, who were “standing up for Canadian values abroad.” This, too, has been a theme Harper has continually stressed in his time in office—that Canada has a strong role to play in the world, a role primarily defined by building a powerful military and supporting fellow democracies.
Perhaps even more surprising than the rhetorical gestures, Harper has supported his words with deeds. Under his reign, Canada’s military spending has reached its highest levels since World War II. The country spent $14.8 billion (Canadian) per year on its military when Harper first took office; that figure now stands at $21.8 billion, sixth highest in NATO. Budget deficits for this fiscal year stand at $37.3 billion, showing that Harper’s commitment to beefing up the military has pride of place in a realm of hard choices.
And it is more than just a matter of numbers. While other nations often shrink toward the rear echelon of coalition forces, Canada has actually sought a leadership role in its military missions abroad. Harper successfully pushed Parliament in 2006 to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan an additional two years, even though he was not required to hold a vote on it at all. In 2007, a Liberal motion to end Canada’s Afghanistan role in 2009 was defeated by a voting coalition led by Harper’s Conservatives. Finally, in 2008, the Harper Conservative government’s motion to extend the military mission into 2011 was approved.
Harper was also adamant about Canada participating in NATO’s recent mission in Libya, and insisted on staying the course until it was completed. Canadian fighter jets flew ten percent of NATO’s sorties in the conflict.
Significant as these contributions have been, Harper has engineered an even more significant turnaround in the diplomatic arena—important because Canada, as a modestly sized country, counts on its ability to exert soft power. Since the end of World War II, Canada’s wealth, location, and history have allowed it to punch above its weight in international forums. Multilateral-ism—especially the United Nations—has been a sacrosanct commitment for previous Canadian governments. But in Harper’s first speech to the United Nations, in September 2006, he signalled a dramatic shift by questioning the international body’s relevance in language that might just as easily have been used by someone like Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s ambassador to the UN. He said that Afghanistan’s security was crucial not only to that country but “to the health and future of this organization.” He criticized the pace of UN reform, and was skeptical about the organization’s effectiveness in Haiti, Sudan, and Lebanon, and about the new Human Rights Council. “I must tell you, the early signals suggest that too little has changed, that the page has not yet been turned,” he said. Harper has since repeatedly challenged the UN on its perdurable hostility toward Israel.
Indeed, Harper’s most noticeable change to Canadian policy has come in regard to Israel. Simply put, Canada is now the single most supportive nation of Israeli policy, exceeding even the United States, Israel’s traditional senior partner. Change began early. In March of 2006, right after he took office, Harper pushed Canada to become the first country to cut off financial aid and diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power following Palestinian elections. In the summer of 2006, as Israel warred with Hezbollah, Lebanese civilian deaths led to calls for a cease-fire from other Western countries. But Harper staunchly defended Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and, more controversially, supported what he called its “measured” response. Harper laid the blame for the conflict solely at Hezbollah’s feet. Since then he has continued to speak out against the threat of “Islamism,” in the kind of uncompromising terms the United States has moved away from under Barrack Obama.
Harper’s impassioned partisanship in the Middle East conflict is all the more noteworthy for being so against that which, before his premiership, was considered the Canadian grain. The country had a long history of neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike the US, which is seen around the world as “Israel’s lawyer,” in the words of the diplomat Aaron David Miller, Canada has largely acted as a neutral broker between the parties. Harper’s comments were controversial for that reason. But instead of backing down, he doubled down.
In February 2007, Harper attended the launch of the Knesset’s Canadian Israel Allies Caucus. He directed Canada to abstain from UN resolutions singling out Israel and to boycott the Durban II Anti-Racism Conference because of its anti-Semitism. He has also repeatedly spoken out against the evils of “the new anti-Semitism,” which targets the Jewish state. As a result, he has been awarded the Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism by B’nai B’rith International, the first Canadian ever to be awarded the prize. And in December 2008, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations presented Harper and his government as a whole with its inaugural International Leadership Award for his support for Israel. When Canada lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2008, Harper blamed the defeat—not unreasonably—on his unconditional support for Israel that flies in the face of the world body’s hostility to the Jewish state.
But Harper’s stance on Israel—while mirroring his own inner light—has also been good politics. An exit poll in the 2010 federal election found a stunning turn among Canadian Jewish voters toward the Conservative Party. To judge by the fact that in that election Harper’s party won its first majority government after two terms of minority coalition rule, its Israel policy seems to be paying dividends.
At the same time, this policy shift grows out of a larger worldview that prioritizes confrontation and support for democracies over the traditional Canadian values of neutrality and mediation. Canada, as Harper has said, will no longer “go along to get along.” Indeed, Harper has been more critical of China’s human rights record than his predecessors; he boycotted North Korea’s stint as head of the UN Conference on Disarmament; he devoted resources to claiming Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic; and he renewed the NORAD agreement with the US. Collectively, these policies represent a distinct foreign-policy perspective far more familiar to American neoconservatives than mainstream Canadian politics.
So what has caused the Conservative foreign policy revolution? It is tempting to look at Steven Harper and say simply that the personal is political. He is the first prime minister produced by the Canadian New Right that emerged in the 1980s. Though nowhere near as popular, powerful, or nationally appealing as the American conservative revolution led by Barry Goldwater that culminated in the Reagan presidency, Canada has always had an important—if usually in the wilderness—right wing. Much like its American counterpart, from whom it takes its ideological cues, the Canadian New Right comprises neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals, and fiscal conservatives. It is centered in specific regions. It has a powerful voice in newspapers like the National Post and the Sun media chain, and on blogs, and began to strongly influence Canadian politics in the late 1980s and 1990s with the ascension of the Reform Party.
Founded in 1987, the Reform Party emerged as the coalition that underwrote Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s majority disintegrated. Composed of business leaders, small government populists, social conservatives, and Western Canadians who felt themselves without a voice in the Canadian establishment, Reform won fifty-two seats in the 1993 election. The party became the Official Opposition in 1997, with its seat total bumped to sixty. But it failed to gain traction east of Manitoba, and in 2000 it disbanded. A somewhat moderated version was formed, called the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.
From this arch conservative milieu, Harper emerges. He gave a speech at Reform’s founding convention, drafted its policy platform, and devised its slogans. First elected to Parliament in 1993 as a Reformer, he became a prominent member of the party caucus. As an MP, Harper always prioritized economic issues and downplayed social conservatism. (He opposed efforts to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and supported efforts on gun control.) In this, he was far more keenly attuned than most members of his party to the sensibilities of Canadians, who are open to conservative appeals on economics and foreign policy but loathe them on abortion and other subjects that Harper once gingerly termed “issues of conscience.” But the intra-party conflict that his ideas embroiled him in proved too strenuous for Harper, and he left Reform in 1997 to head a right-wing economic think tank, the National Citizens Coalition. But he never really left the political arena; in early 2002 he won the election for the Alliance party leader. He was then re-elected to Parliament and devoted his first eighteen months as leader to merging his party with the Progressive Conservatives. He was successful—in December 2003, the Conservative Party of Canada was born and began its surprisingly quick trek to power.
The consistent thread throughout all this is Harper’s fidelity to ideology. Though Canada’s rightward turn might seem surprising to those outside the country, Harper has in fact greatly moderated his political attitudes as prime minister. In 2003, with the Conservatives out of power, Harper co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing Canada’s opt-out of the Iraq War, a conflict that was deeply unpopular in Canada. He argued on behalf of corporal punishment and repeatedly castigated Canada’s alleged social democratic system in the harshest of terms. Such extreme viewpoints (extreme, at least, in the Canadian context) have been out of view during his time as prime minister. Foreign policy is the only area in which Harper has been able to act on his ideals, mindful as he is of Canada’s profound affinity for such left-wing initiatives as universal health care, women’s reproductive rights, and gay marriage.
Regionalism is the other chief influence on Stephen Harper. Born in Toronto, Harper moved to Alberta soon after high school, worked for an oil corporation there, and studied economics at the University of Calgary. Often called Canada’s Texas, Alberta—especially Calgary, part of which Harper represents in Parliament—is the capital of Canadian conservatism. Flush with wealth from tremendous oil and gas reserves, it has the lowest taxes in the country—a ten-percent flat tax, the dream of current US Republican Party hopefuls. Right-wing governments have formed provincially in Alberta for decades. In the 2006 federal election, every single seat went to a Conservative, and in the 2008 and 2011 elections all but one seat did the same. Alberta has felt oppressed by the federal government for more than a century, and even occasionally flirts with a secessionist movement. As a young man, Harper became converted to the Albertan way of thinking and has never relinquished it. More than just a representative of the right wing, then, Harper is a product of the Albertan right wing.
Colin Woodard, author of the new book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, believes that Alberta should be seen as part of a larger “Far Western” region of its own. Along with Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of British Columbia, Alberta forms the Canadian contingent of this region, alongside the United States’ contingent of Montana, Wyoming, and parts of California, Colorado, and Arizona. “These places share an agreement that outsiders treated them as internal resources colonies. They have an emphasis on conservative family values and a sense of self-reliance, a tradition of individual responsibility.”
Whether or not Alberta is alone or part of a larger regional culture, there is no doubt its powerful ethos shaped Stephen Harper. Now, as he sits forcefully in the prime minister’s seat, that ethos is finally shaping Canada as a whole. To the American left, Canada is still a sort of paradise. Universal health care, gay marriage, and a love of multilateralism—liberals in the US can only dream of having it this good. But they shouldn’t get too starry-eyed. Canada under Stephen Harper is a different country than it ever was before, and what they might like to think of as a paradigm is definitely shifting.
The confidential draft of the Harper government’s new “foreign policy plan” recently obtained by CBC News offers a disturbing view of Canada’s growing economic challenges abroad and diminishing political influence in a world looking to Asia.
By extension, it also raises some serious questions about how well — or poorly — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has managed Canada’s trade policy, clearly one of his government’s most important files.
The draft foreign policy plan written by senior government officials for cabinet carries some uncharacteristically blunt language.
We need to be frank with ourselves — our influence and credibility with some of these new and emerging powers is not as strong as it needs to be and could be. Canada’s record over past decades has been to arrive late in some key emerging markets.
Stephen Harper was four years late to the party in both Asia and Africa. Instead, Canada embarked on a hemispheric foreign policy focused on the U.S., and on Latin America and the Caribbean. Six years later, it hasn’t worked out exactly as planned.
As the new foreign policy plan points out, the world’s economic and political centre of gravity is shifting to Asia which, by 2030, is expected to have a middle class of 3.2 billion people and almost half the world’s largest cities.
It’s not that the economies of emerging South American countries aren’t booming. Last year, Brazil surpassed Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy.
The problem was the Harper’s government’s initial 2007 foreign policy plan to get on the bandwagon in Latin America and the Caribbean — the so-called Americas Strategy — apparently turned out to be more photo op than action.
An internal performance audit of the Foreign Affairs strategy, released earlier this year, was scathing. “The biggest challenge facing the implementation of the strategy is the lack of clarity on the strategy’s goals. Only a few people within government, partner countries or organizations have a clear sense of what the priorities of the strategy and its intended results are.”
The Harper government has tried to court South America with a steady parade of ministerial visits. But those have been too often followed by what one analyst has called prolonged political siestas.
While the Harper government boasts that it has cut a large number of free-trade agreements and other deals in Latin American and the Caribbean, the auditors note that much larger competitors such as the U.S., Europe and China have all made similar arrangements.
The internal audit concludes that after five years of the Harper government’s much-touted America’s Strategy, “there is evidence to suggest that Canada’s credibility in the region could decline.”
EU, U.S. and Africa relationships all have issues
The Harper government claims it is close to a free-trade deal with the European Union.
But critics question what that would do for trade any time soon when the European economy is in the tank and teetering on the brink of collapse.
Even Canada’s practically indestructible relationship with the U.S. has been showing stress cracks over the past four years under Harper and Barack Obama.
The prime minister was apparently caught off-guard by the Obama administration’s protectionist “Buy America” policy, and outraged by the White House decision to delay construction of the Keystone pipeline from Alberta to Texas.
The draft of Harper’s new foreign policy plan also blames the U.S. for delaying Canada’s entry into negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a powerful trading bloc seen as the gateway to Asian markets.
Even the highly publicized Beyond the Border plan to help ease congestion at Canada-U.S. border crossings all but fell off Washington’s agenda, and had to be rescued with pressure from Ottawa.
Going ahead, the new Harper foreign policy plan cautions “it can be expected that Canadian interests will continue to be affected by internal U.S. politics or narrow interests.”
Then there’s Africa, a continent to which Harper has given at best passing attention.
As the draft foreign policy puts it: “…over time, African countries have the potential to challenge the likes of Brazil and China as major investment destinations.”
Gaga for Asia
All of which helps to explain why Harper and his government have gone gaga for Asia, particularly China, a country with an annual output of goods and services expected to surpass that of the U.S. within the next five years.
Alas, the PM’s initially taking a slow boat to China means Canada is on no pleasure cruise now.
The foreign policy paper states: “The situation is stark: Canada’s trade and investment relations with new economies, leading with Asia, must deepen, and as a country we must become more relevant to our new partners.”
Despite the Harper government’s best efforts, Canada does not yet have an FTA (free trade agreement) in the Asia Pacific region, and our existing initiatives with Singapore and South Korea have been stalled for years.”Canada’s trade with China has been steadily increasing despite icy relations between the two countries after the Conservatives first came to power.
Part of the problem back then was Harper’s willingness to talk about China’s abysmal human rights record, its brutal suppression of political dissent, not to mention Chinese cyber-spies hacking Canadian companies and stealing their technologies.
As the prime minister put it not long after taking office, Canadians don’t want to sell out their values to the almighty dollar. It’s a different story now. As the Harper government scrambles to make up for lost time, its new foreign policy plan puts pragmatism over principle. To succeed, we will need to pursue relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align.