Alberta’s Growing Foreign Policy Presence

Commentary, Trade, Robert Murray

When thinking of foreign policy, one thinks of the processes and actors involved with federal governments making decisions about how to best pursue national interests and interact in an increasingly complex world.

But many aspects of foreign policy formulation have come into question in the last two decades with the end of the Cold War, the rise of non-governmental organizations and actors and the growth in the number of international institutions.

In the Canadian context, foreign policy analysis is normally centred on the federal government and its successes or failures. Since taking office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been frequently criticized for his handling of the foreign policy file and Ottawa’s detachment from global engagement. But a noteworthy trend that seems to be overlooked by foreign policy experts has been the growth in Alberta’s foreign policy initiatives.

Many Canadian provinces have offices and/or ministries dedicated, at least in part, to bilateral or international engagement. Because of the division of powers under Canada’s confederal style of government, the provinces are responsible for certain sectors that would still be valuable in foreign policy conduct, though they typically lack the resources, infrastructure, and/or interest to invest in a coherent foreign policy strategy of their own detached from Ottawa.

But Alberta has forged its own course in recent years, with the significant investment in the province’s Ministry of International and Intergovernmental Relations (IIR) that is responsible both for Alberta’s relations with other provinces and the federal government, as well as Alberta’s engagement with the world.

IIR is primarily focused on economic and investment issues and complements Canadian foreign policy, though in some ways Alberta’s foreign policy has been better received than its federal counterpart. The province has a number of trade agreements, including the highly-valued New West Partnership Trade Agreement between Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, is a member of numerous alliances, perhaps most notable the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) between it, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, and has 10 international offices uniquely dedicated to Alberta’s interests across the world.

The office receiving most attention throughout the last year has been Alberta’s office in Washington DC that is working to lobby the U.S. government on the Keystone XL pipeline project among other key bilateral issues.

Without a doubt, Alberta has forged its identity as a legitimate foreign policy actor and, because of the province’s unique interests and resource base, has seen value in investing substantial fiscal and political resources into growing its international relations capacity. Alberta is also looking east, with six of its international offices located in Asia – China, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. To date there is no India office, though Premier Alison Redford is scheduled to travel to India early in 2014.

One area that remains underdeveloped within Alberta’s international and intergovernmental strategy is the Arctic Region. Under the PNWER umbrella there is an Arctic Caucus chaired on a rotating basis by one of the three jurisdictions core to Arctic affairs – Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories. Looking forward, however, any sort of development and potential resource base in the circumpolar region must be a key component of Alberta’s energy and foreign policy strategy. Certainly it is also incumbent on Canada’s national foreign policy to include Alberta.

Among the chief reasons for interest in the Arctic is the potential resource base that is believed to exist. The research capabilities, extraction technology and expertise needed for Arctic resource extraction in the future are mostly based in Alberta, and therefore it becomes imperative that both the province and federal government work together in order to protect Canada’s Arctic interests and Alberta’s future economic viability.

Albertans are being well served by a robust international relations ministry, though with so much investment the time has also come to evaluate successes. To date, agreements have been signed and alliances formed, but tangible accomplishments, especially on vital projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, remain in question. Investment must be coupled with benefit if there is to be a continued purpose for large-scale international engagement.