The High Price of Harper’s Foreign Policy

Guest post by Bob Rae, MP

John Baird’s recent trip to the Middle East—and seemingly incoherent announcements before and after—give us a chance to re-assess the Conservative government’s foreign policy.

The Reform Party’s reverse takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party, and subsequent election as a minority government in 2006, meant that we had a government that never stopped acting as if it were in opposition. To the extent that it had a foreign policy, it was only a tool for domestic partisan purposes.

The disengagement from diplomacy has had its comic moments, but now the consequences are far more serious.

When John Diefenbaker was elected, he used to fulminate about “the Pearsonalities” in the East Block, then the offices of the old Department of External Affairs. Ironically, Dief’s External Affairs Minister, Howard Green, came to get along famously with his civil servants, and realized that a long war with the public service was thoroughly counter-productive. Brian Mulroney, who entered office with the same mind-set, also came to understand the value of effective civil and diplomatic services; what was rumoured to be a huge “bloodbath” among the senior ranks never came.

Times have changed. The Harpercrats decided it was time to fight the diplomats, and took tight, ideological control of DFAIT. Foreign policy became highly centralized in the PMO. The Minister’s office dutifully kept a close eye on every memo. Diplomats were told that no assumptions should be made about the continuity of long-standing policies and no new policy guidance was forthcoming. Canada’s diplomacy stopped in its tracks.

 “Gender equity” became a bad word. “Responsibility to protect” and “human security” were forbidden. “International law” was OK, but “international humanitarian law” was not. The scourge of “child soldiers” became the more benign and less urgent “children in war.”

But the changes were more fundamental than the petty political correctness and arrogance of the language police. Down with multilateralism, the UN, Africa, a balanced Middle East policy, China, Russia…the list goes on. Except for those few areas where Harper came with clearly fixed ideas (such as the Middle East), Canadian foreign policy has been marked by indecision, insecurity and inconsistency during the past seven years. It is a cocktail consisting of 50 percent ignorance and 50 percent ideological claptrap, all monitored by the now infamous and inexperienced “boys in short pants.” And it seems that all too often decisions, even those with major policy implications, are made and implemented in secret, without thought or consultation with Canadians or our allies. After seven years in office, the cocktail has become more sophisticated, but it’s just as lethal.

What has been lost in all this are issues of great substance. Our military effort in Afghanistan was never matched by diplomatic imagination—not because our public servants in Ottawa, Kabul, Kandahar, Islamabad, Delhi and other capitals didn’t (and don’t)- have talent and dedication, but because the political will and leadership was missing. Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird finally discovered China and Asia, but only after years of lost time, effort, and opportunity. We now get many more press releases and lectures, but they are all bombast for domestic consumption and without substance.

The irony of Mr. Baird’s travels across the Middle East is too great to pass without comment. As Minister of Transport, he had everything to do with the cavalier and short-sighted treatment of Emirates Airlines. It cost the Department of National Defence tens of millions when Canada decided to extend the military mission in Afghanistan, but suddenly lost its military base in the UAE. We are told the relationship is being “repaired,” but at the cost of millions in business lost.

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Mr. Baird then made a huge fuss about our new “presence” in Iraq. Nothing new about it at all. When I was in Baghdad in the summer of 2005, we had a foreign service officer working in the British Embassy. The Ambassador in Jordan covered Iraq. Now we have—wait for it—a foreign service officer embedded in the British Embassy, and the Ambassador in Jordan is covering from Amman.

Canada’s reticence to engage in Iraq has left us on the margins there, where we remain. The embassy in Iran is closed, so no listening station there either.

But it’s on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that we continue to play entirely on the margins. The decision to turn the issue into a “domestic play” rather than an opportunity for serious diplomacy means that real influence and respect has been replaced by a soapbox.

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So it was that Mr. Baird had nothing really to tell the Palestinians except that he was still lecturing and delaying any meaningful decisions. The relationship with Likud and its ideological partners is so strong that on his return, rather than desisting from ideological approaches (which is now more critical than ever), he decided to lecture the European Union from the pages of the National Post. If Mr. Baird were truly interested in substantive action, he would have taken this opportunity to speak directly to the EU and the players in the Middle East.

At the beginning of the Harper era, it was amateur hour on the Rideau. Now it’s a bigger problem than that. Mr. Baird is capable of being a more serious foreign minister than Mr. Harper is allowing him to be.

We are not even remotely leaders on any of the critical issues facing Canada and the world. The disengagement from diplomacy has had its comic moments, but now the consequences are far more serious. We are missing the opportunity to advance Canada’s genuine interests, and risk a deeper isolation than we have faced since the late 1930’s. This does us no good. And we shall pay an even higher price as time goes on.

Foreign Minister John Baird wrote a response to this commentary.

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