Harper wandering in a foreign policy wilderness

The Canadian Government faces a number of serious questions regarding its policy agenda. The 2013 Throne Speech last October was less than inspiring, with very few new ideas and what […]
Published on January 7, 2014

The Canadian Government faces a number of serious questions regarding its policy agenda. The 2013 Throne Speech last October was less than inspiring, with very few new ideas and what seems to be an overall lack of a guiding vision for Canada.

While the government might be playing it safe in anticipation of the approaching 2015 federal election, it needs to gain a series of policy victories and a strong record from which to run, rather than having to defend a weak, and often visionless, agenda to date.

One area in particular need of improvement for the Canadian government is in foreign policy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been criticized for many of his policies, but foreign policy seems to be especially prominent in the ranking of those areas experts feel need attention.

To date, Harper’s foreign policy record is nothing to brag about. What began as a concentrated effort to focus more on national issues and Canada First became incredibly convoluted in the wake of the global recession. Harper’s original plan to bolster Canada’s domestic interests required significant resources in order to be achieve. Once the recession hit, it seems the political will disappeared with it and Canada has been left without a grand strategy to guide its foreign policy.

But now that 2014 has begun, the opportunity exists for the government to improve its foreign policy record and set Canada on the right course internationally. To do so, however, there are a select few areas that require immediate attention.

The first is Canada’s engagement with multilateral institutions. Simply put, Canada does not have the capabilities necessary to pursue and protect its own interests without the help of international organizations and allies. Since The Second World War, Canada’s foreign policy strategy has been strongly based on multilateral engagement as a source of security and value-projection. Engagement does not necessarily mean buying into every aspect of an institutional agenda, however. The UN, for instance, tries to do too much and is dominated by thinking that has little policy application in the real world.

But the structure of the UN was never intended to solve every problem for every person in the world. Rather, its purpose was to enshrine the international balance of power, to keep countries talking, and to prevent the outbreak of a third world war. Canada would do well to realign itself with organizations that help in its protection rather than slighting them inconsistently.

A key justification for a grand foreign policy strategy is that it articulates a vision and requires consistent action(s) to implement it. Canada’s foreign policy under Harper has been plagued by inconsistency, which only furthers arguments about his disinterest in foreign relations.

Canada’s recent rhetoric on human rights serves as a useful example of why consistency is essential. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been rightfully vocal against rights abuses in Iran, but such a noble stand has not extended to other states equally as deserving of rebuke. If a government believes in universal human rights and their protection, they cannot ignore the abuses of their trading partners. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China are all deserving of a scolding for their human rights violations, but it would appear the Harper Government places trade above rights.

It should be noted, however, that virtually every government in the world places economic interests over human rights, and so Canada is not doing anything remotely independent in this regard. But if this is the chosen path, it is better to say nothing about the Iran’s of the world if the China’s of the world are to go unmentioned.

Lastly, and most importantly, Canada’s foreign policy must extend beyond economic interests. There is no doubt that trade opportunities, market access and economic prosperity are core components of a successful foreign policy, but they are not the only parts of one.

Canada’s interests are diverse and therefore the country needs a foreign policy that reflects such diversity and complexity. Going it alone and alienating long-time friends does little to serve Canada’s national interests. Let 2014 be the year of a coherent grand strategy and not another year of wandering in the international wilderness.

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