Where’s the Public Outrage Over Harper’s Foreign Policy?

Public policy discussion these days suffers from a curious anomaly. Vast numbers of experts disagree with the government’s performance on many issues. But there’s little reflection of this mood in the popular media or on the street. Announcements which might have triggered marches and demonstrations a couple of decades ago pass almost unnoticed. NGOs and professional organizations wind themselves up to a fury, and the net result is a benign op-ed piece or a letter to the editor which few Canadians will even bother reading. There seems—on the surface—to be no sense of outrage. 

In less than a decade we’ve gone from a respected partner with broad interests and solid partnerships to a country with minimal interest in the world beyond North America and few thoughtful approaches to current international crises.

Foreign policy offers an example of the phenomenon. Since achieving majority rule, the Harper government has pursued a ‘little Canada’ policy, designed to expunge Pearsonian traditions, while focusing efforts abroad on a narrow band of issues. Consider only a few examples over the last few months and years:

  • It has cut Canada’s role in international peace and security issues, responding on an ad hoc basis and ostensibly reluctantly to the requests of others, like France in Mali, but having no policy position and only a minimal role in the issues likely to define the path to global peace in years ahead.
  • Its legislation, now sitting in the House of Commons, threatens to gut the international convention on cluster munitions, and reduce Canada to an outlier on humanitarian issues like anti-personnel landmines, where only a decade ago we were the undisputed global leaders.
  • Its approach to international development assistance promises to reduce Canada’s already modest impact abroad. Through the merger of DFAIT and CIDA, its intention is to slice human resources and development policy expertise, and use aid resources to buttress Canadian corporate activities abroad, with diminishing concern for humanitarian objectives (in violation of its own legislation).
  • Our presence abroad is being reduced where it matters most. In addition to siphoning off Canadian diplomatic assets, carefully and cost-effectively acquired since the Second World War, the government is reducing Canadian capacity abroad through massive under-spending of the DFAIT budget, some hundreds of millions in 2011-12 alone. It is also reducing commitments, cutting partnerships with others, and under-funding Canadian missions, while reducing support to a raft of organizations which once counted on Canada as a valued partner.
  • It is withdrawing Canada from international conventions that Canada once helped to build; the Convention on Desertification is the most recent, contradicting the government’s own stated international aid goals. The announcement caught the UN off-guard and insulted European allies (particularly the host-state Germans) who will now have to compensate for the Canadian void.
  • It has silenced Canadian ambassadors and robbed them of programs that helped them do their jobs effectively. It has ended DFAIT’s international cultural programs and sliced much of the international public affairs program, which had enhanced Canadian influence abroad and acted as a supportive pillar for other Canadian objectives.
  • Still in a snit about losing a Security Council seat, it has reduced support to the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations, and refused cooperation with the UN in planning crucial peace operations to come to grips with current international conflicts.
  • It has compromised the effectiveness of the most important instrument of Canada’s international security policy, the Canadian Forces, by reneging on re-capitalization commitments initiated in Paul Martin’s tenure and re-branded for partisan purposes under the Harper government. A number of acquisition programs for the Army, Air Force and Navy have intentionally been scrapped or botched, casting into doubt the acquisition of any major capabilities for the future.

The much-publicized attack on the deficit has been the smokescreen for governmental policies designed to reduce the role and scope of the federal government. Canada’s gradual withdrawal from the world—from conventions, multilateral cooperation, even security cooperation outside of North America—is part of the price, as is the reduction of Canada’s diplomatic capabilities. No doubt more is in the works. But in a stealth agenda, we’re unlikely to know until it happens. And with each move there will be media releases offering outright fabrication as to the underlying rationales. (See, for example, the nonsense advanced to drop the desertification convention.)

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If Canadians are disturbed, where do our friends and allies stand? The ‘little Canada’ policies pursued by the Harper government are viewed abroad with perplexity. In less than a decade we’ve gone from a respected partner with broad interests and solid partnerships to a country with minimal interest in the world beyond North America and few thoughtful approaches to current international crises. The Prime Minister is viewed as a person uncomfortable in international affairs who has no interest in making friends abroad. His foreign minister has spent most of his recent time trying to repair damage inflicted in previous portfolios or earlier in his tenure. Canada’s increasingly rigid positions have isolated us in the G8, while our statements on the Middle East and other questions, for example, have made Canada an interlocutor whose opinions are barely worth discussing. (See John Baird’s astoundingly vacuous comments on the Middle East peace process as a case in point.) A befuddled diplomatic community, both in Canada and abroad, is asking when the real Canada will return.

Insiders bemoan the Harper government’s decimation of DFAIT and the basic instruments of foreign policy, as well as his foreign minister’s hapless blunders abroad. But the broader and more significant issue for Canadians is the question of effectiveness. At a time when globalization and internationalization make a successful foreign policy indispensable to a country’s future, the government is pursuing marginal ‘little Canada’ policies, while tossing overboard decades of good will which could be marshalled to sustain the pursuit of our values and interests. The most pressing case for outrage—and a justification for raising our collective ire—is this shedding of Canada’s influential position in the world. It is certainly changing how our allies, partners and long-term friends are viewing us. 

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