Wolverine Diplomacy

Making sense of the Harper government’s foreign policy

Since Stephen Harper led the Conservatives to power in 2006 he has declined to spell out his government’s foreign policy in a formal statement. Instead, Canadians have been treated to declarations that play well on the nightly news or fit easily into a tweet. We are told that Canada will “no longer go along to get along,” or that “moral ambiguity, moral equivalence are not options.” More recently, if the prime minister’s spokesman is to be believed, the prime minister told Russia’s Vladimir Putin to “get out of Ukraine.” Yet the connective tissue that would show how these declarative dots fit in a broader policy is missing.

That has left ample room for debate over whether the Conservative government has a coherent foreign policy and if so what has shaped it. Supporters say they detect one and it is “bold, brash and ideological,” in the words of Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and now vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a think tank. Critics say it is idiosyncratic and incoherent. Roland Paris of the Centre for International Policy Studies recently described it as tub-thumping that has marginalized Canada.

One of the more entertaining debates on this matter strayed into whether Harper was a hedgehog, which knows one big thing, or a fox, which knows many things. The one big thing was economic diplomacy—putting Canada’s economic interests above all else when relating to the rest of the world. Those who favour the fox analogy believe there is more to Canadian foreign policy than a succession of trade deals and the promotion of energy exports.

Certainly, Canada’s economic interests seem top of mind for the government. Its top foreign policy priority for 2014–15, as stated on the website of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, is expanding and diversifying commercial relationships with emerging and high-growth markets. While it has not published a formal foreign policy statement, it has put out the Global Markets Action Plan. This calls for all of Canada’s diplomatic assets to be “harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors” and for development aid to be used to “leverage” Canada’s trade interests.

When you put that together with Harper’s persistent if undiplomatic lobbying in the United States for presidential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and his government’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and any climate change measures that might impede the production and export of those same resources, a reasonable case can be made that Canada’s foreign policy has narrowed to a single objective. As The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson put it: “in the Harper era, trade trumps everything.”

 

A Marxist Approach to Foreign Policy

 

While Jerome Klassen does not use the hedgehog analogy in his new book, Joining Empire: The Political Economy of the New Canadian Foreign Policy, it is clear he believes Canada’s foreign policy has a single goal: the advancement on a global scale of the related interests of the country’s capitalist class and the defence lobby. The empire referred to in the title is “a world economy and nation-state system increasingly run by transnational corporations and the political-military infrastructure of the American state.” While Canada cannot aspire to run this empire—that spot is already occupied by the United States—it has adopted a policy Klassen calls “armoured neoliberalism” in order to gain access to the empire’s upper echelons.

According to Klassen, this new approach began to take shape under the Liberals and has continued under the Conservatives. The sharp distinction between the two parties that some political observers perceive does not exist in his mind, at least not in the last two decades. He writes that governments of both stripes have fallen under the spell of Canadian corporate elites. Military missions in Afghanistan and Haiti were pursued in part to advance the interests of corporations rather than those of the locals. He uses as an example the $50 million development contract for SNC-Lavalin to rebuild the Dahla dam and irrigation system, which locals and the author contend was a failure.

Canada’s missions in Afghanistan and Haiti “were clear-cut failures” in that the Taliban was not defeated in Afghanistan and democracy has not taken root in Haiti, says Klassen. Still, if Canada’s real goal was, as he contends, to show it had the stuff to be one of the big boys in the economic, political and military structures of global capitalism, to join the empire of capital, they could be considered a qualified success.

 

Not Everything Fits

 

Some of what the Conservative government has done internationally can be made to fit into Klassen’s theory. Some, unfortunately, does not. How, for example, can Harper’s sabre rattling at Putin or the decision to impose economic sanctions on Russia over its intrigues in Ukraine fit with protecting Canada’s economic interests? Canada may not do a lot of trade with Russia (bilateral goods trade was just over $2 billion in 2013), but Canadian companies have investments of almost $5 billion in Russia. The same corporate elite that the prime minister is supposed to be placating calls repeatedly for him to tone down the rhetoric.

It is also difficult to fit Canada’s outspoken support for Israel and related severing of diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 into a policy framework where commercial gain for Canadian business is supposed to be at the top. Foreign minister John Baird cited human rights violations and support for terrorism as the reasons for closing the embassy in Tehran.

Critics contend these moves are made solely with an eye to the next election. There is likely some truth in this observation. No successful politician—and even Harper’s critics would give him that—can afford to ignore the electoral impact of policy decisions. There are 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and six ridings out of the current 308 where Jewish voters form a large enough group to swing the vote to the Conservatives. Yet when electoral calculation is added into the mix of what motivates foreign policy, Harper begins to look more like a fox than the single-minded hedgehog.

 

Foreign Policy Discretionary?

 

There is a school of thought that there are only a few fixed notions behind Canada’s foreign policy. Ian Brodie, former chief of staff to Harper, says that since the Second World War they have been defending North America, preserving the western alliance from external threats and internal divisions, and defending Canadian fisheries and lumber interests. “Otherwise, Canadian governments are free to pick when and where to engage internationally,” he wrote in an online commentary for the Canadian International Council.

It is hard to tell whether Brodie wrote the bit about fisheries and lumber with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. A more up-to-date summation would surely include mining and energy interests. The world has changed since fisheries and lumber drove Canadian foreign policy.

How Canada should adapt to global shifts is the theme of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World by Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson. Unlike Klassen, who focuses almost exclusively on current Canadian policy (he does not broach what an acceptable alternative would be until the third last page of the book), these authors look at what it should be. Unfortunately, the world has changed a bit more than Burney and Hampson could have anticipated since they finished writing the book. Russian intrigues in Ukraine, the significant drop in global oil prices, the Russia-China energy deal and the China-U.S. climate change agreement make some of their observations look dated.

The Conservative government is already pursuing a number of the goals the authors set out, although perhaps not with the vigour they would like. It is attempting to open new markets for Canadian firms, especially in emerging markets, while preserving Canada’s relationship with the United States. In the latest iteration of policy toward China, it does appear to have settled on the “determined and consistent course” that Burney and Hampson advocate. And it is being selective about which multilateral institutions it wants to engage with.

Engaging with labour to ensure that Canada’s foreign policy is enlightened and coherent, as the authors suggest, would be a departure for the Conservative government that seems reluctant to consult beyond a narrow circle. So too would be championing reform of the United Nations institutions, instead of ignoring those it does not like. Still, one gets the sense in reading Brave New Canada that the policies Burney and Hampson are most critical of—the nostalgia for virtuous multilateralism, involvement in peacekeeping or the desire to be an honest broker—were Liberal policies that have long since been ditched by the current government.

 

How Much Has Changed since the Liberals?

 

What adds to the confusion over Canada’s foreign policy is the current government’s habit of renaming and slapping a Conservative label on policies it likes, even if they originated under the Liberals. Ed Fast, the trade minister, described the markets action plan as a “sea change in the way Canada’s diplomatic assets are deployed around the world.” Those with longer memories will know that previous governments of both stripes happily mixed business and diplomacy. The late Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau merged the departments of trade and commerce in 1982 and unsuccessfully pushed his “Third Option” to lessen Canada’s trade dependence on the United States. As a correspondent in Europe in the 1990s, I encountered numerous Canadian diplomats eager to expound on the merits of Nortel, Bombardier and Canadian wine. It is more a change of tone than approach.

The same holds true for multilateralism. Much has been made of Harper shunning opportunities to address the UN general assembly. In one instance, he visited a plant supplying the iconic Tim Horton’s coffee shops instead of addressing the UN. Yet he has put time and taxpayers’ money into a multilateral initiative to improve the health of women and children and promoted that program in a September 2014 speech to the UN. He happily attends G7 and G20 meetings and went to The Hague for the nuclear security summit in March 2014. Canada used to be known for joining every club going as a way of leveraging its middle power status. Under Harper it still joins clubs, but is more selective.

In his perceptive analysis of current foreign policy, Gerd Schönwälder, a senior associate at the Centre for International Policy Studies, noted that both the Conservatives and the Liberals adopted values-based foreign policy, often voicing the same values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but interpreting them differently.

The clearest break from the past is the prime minister’s determined effort to persuade Canadians they are a warrior nation with a proud military past. The Liberals may have initially sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan, but the Conservatives celebrated their presence there. Peacekeeping, already on the wane under the Liberals, dropped off the list of priorities. The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Ottawa closed its doors after losing federal funding. In the midst of widespread spending cuts to balance the budget by 2015, the government is spending tens of millions to commemorate the War of 1812 and the First and Second World Wars.

To say that Harper has one big idea would be to oversimplify a foreign policy that by necessity has many components. He is neither hedgehog nor fox. The best analogy would be an animal Harper once said epitomized Canada: the wolverine. It has a reputation of being tenacious and aggressive in the face of much larger predators. That neatly sums up the prime minister’s approach to politics and to the rest of the world.