A Conservative Lament

Joe Clark charts Canada’s shift from foreign aid to foreign trade

It might reasonably be assumed that a prime ministerial memoir such as this would be titled “How I Lead,” and it is to his credit that Joe Clark, as he did in his first book, A Nation Too Good to Lose: Renewing the Purpose of Canada, has opted not to make himself the primary subject. He does mull over his years in office as prime minister (1979–80) and secretary of state for external affairs (1984–91), naturally enough, and now and then he does see fit to congratulate himself for a job well done. But the point of How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change is not to burnish its author’s reputation. It is to contribute to a debate about the nature and purpose of modern Canadian foreign policy, particularly since Stephen Harper took office in 2006. In that sense the book is hardly a memoir, even if Clark uses his experiences in office as justification for some of his criticisms of the current prime minister, but rather a serious, deeply anxious lament that Harper has betrayed a long-standing foreign policy consensus between the Liberals and Conservatives, to the detriment of the country and the world beyond.

How We Lead begins with a scattershot discussion of how the international order is being reshaped by astonishingly fast technological and political developments, or as Clark calls it, “change in a rush.” The new global environment is a complex one, with formerly marginalized states becoming more important actors and non-governmental organizations playing expanding roles, but Clark does not see this as a problem for Canada, which he touts as a country with a tradition of pragmatic, competent and multilateral diplomacy. He proudly recalls its “golden age” after the Second World War, even while admitting that the purported achievements of that era are, to some extent, the stuff of “constructive myth.” What matters most today, Clark argues, is that Canada maintains its long-established identity as a moderate, patient, bridge-building presence on the world stage, one committed to using “soft power” and to “leading from beside,” a tactic he defines as cooperating with other countries rather than trying to direct them.

Clark’s perspective, it is worth noting, has been influenced not only by his personal experiences in office, but also by his understanding of Canadian history, which he delves into in some depth. Crucially, he argues that “historically, there have only been a few significant differences on foreign policy between the two national political parties—Liberal and Progressive Conservative—that formed governments in Canada through the twentieth century.” To reinforce this point he recalls Canadian diplomatic achievements such as Lester Pearson’s resolution of the Suez crisis of 1956 and John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney’s opposition to apartheid in South Africa, all while praising the leaders of both parties for rising above their domestic differences and pursuing similar policies on the world stage. “In the six decades after the end of the Second World War,” the book declares, “this country’s international policy was Canadian, not partisan.” That rosy view is not entirely accurate—the parties’ bitter struggle over free trade in the late 1980s reflected more than just a “significant difference,” surely—but Clark’s point about the general consistency of Canadian foreign policy under Liberal and Progressive Conservative prime ministers is certainly a defensible one.

Anyone familiar with Clark’s political career and handling of Canadian foreign policy will be unsurprised by this point of view, but many readers will be taken aback by the stinging criticisms of the current Conservative government that follow. Much of How We Lead is, in fact, a sustained analysis of how badly Stephen Harper leads. Clark finds common ground with his government in some areas, notably its pursuit of global trade opportunities and staunch support of Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan. But he sees a sharp and regrettable break from the past on such files as the Middle East, where Harper has displayed only “single-minded” support of Israel; the environment, where he has reduced Canada to the status of “a denier and an outlier”; and foreign aid, which he has curtailed and directed toward prospective trading partners rather than the most desperately needy countries. In terms of diplomatic style, Harper “has shown more interest in the podium than in the playing field,” eschewing genuine relations with distasteful states such as Iran and preferring to denounce them as evil. “Canada now talks more than we act,” Clark says, “and our tone is almost adolescent.” It is hard to think of any former prime minister who has so strongly condemned a sitting prime minister ostensibly from his own political party.

Ah, but then, of course, Clark and Harper are not from the same party, even if they are both small-c conservatives. Clark tried in vain during his second incarnation as Progressive Conservative leader (1998–2003) to stop his party from uniting with the more hard-right Reform Party, and he still cannot bring himself to accept the “merger” of the two parties, putting the word in scare quotes. Clark’s analysis reflects his unease with the outlook of the present government: he feels that his own Red Tory philosophy, moderate and constructive, is essential to good foreign policy making, and points out that Harper has explicitly rejected it in favour of a negative view of what government can and should do. This has imbued Harper with a lack of respect for activist diplomacy in general, and for building relations with other countries, especially pariahs like Iran, as Clark himself had built during his own tenure. Noting that Harper cut off relations with Iran for no immediate reason, thus foreclosing any prospect of helping to resolve a future crisis there, Clark states, “it’s not impertinent to ask what would have happened in 1979 to the six Americans who became Canadian ‘house guests’ in Tehran if we had shut our embassy because we disapproved of the regime.” His condemnation of the Harper government extends even beyond foreign policy; Clark also disparages its shabby treatment of Parliament, its constant attacks on other parties, and its failure to try, as the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives did in the past, to reach beyond its electoral base and seek to develop positions on national issues that would elicit majority support from Canadians. “Being inclusive,” Clark notes ruefully, is regarded by the Harper Tories as “a luxury they need not indulge.” His deep concern at the dethroning of the big-tent national parties that once governed Canada, Liberal and Progressive Conservative alike, is palpable in the latter chapters.

So, at the end of the day, is How We Lead a convincing book? It is certainly readable. Clark does not always put his case elegantly—he relies a lot on bullet points, lacks a clear organizing structure and concludes the book rather weakly—but he makes it from the heart, and his earnest, personal style is unmistakable. The various criticisms he makes of the Harper government may often be familiar, but they carry weight because of who Clark is and how well he illustrates, from his personal experience, what impact a more engaged brand of Canadian diplomacy can have on the world stage. Whether readers will agree with him will depend a lot on their own politics, as one might expect of any political memoir. But they will get more out of How We Lead, an insightful commentary on a pressing topic of national significance, than they would from any run-of-the-mill, self-congratulatory
autobiography.