Stephen Harper and a ‘Rising’ Canada

By Colin Robertson, Vice President, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

Stephen Harper aims to position Canada as a ‘rising power’. While protecting our privileged access to the USA, Canada under Harper’s leadership actively seeks new markets for our goods and resources. It draws on our pluralistic population with family entrees to every nation on earth, especially in an ascending Asia.

The Harper approach to the conduct of Canada’s foreign policy is brash. He has little respect for traditional diplomatic politesse nor those who practice it.

To achieve his objectives, Harper has rearmed the Canadian Forces. Defence policy is ‘Canada First’ especially in the exercise of Arctic sovereignty.

Economic diplomacy is now central to our foreign policy. Immigration policy has been reformed to serve Canadian interests.

Development is now firmly integrated to complement and support foreign policy, especially trade and commerce.

Harper’s ultimate goal is to position Canada as rising power. Getting there will require pragmatism, compromise and, like it or not, respect for diplomatic politesse.

On certain ‘values’ issues like Israel, Harper is unequivocal. In defence of these values, Harper will is stand alone and let the rest of the world know it.

In the aftermath of war, Secretary of State for External Affairs Louis St. Laurent, who would shortly become Canadian prime minister, called Canada a power of the ‘middle rank’.

St. Laurent’s Gray Lecture (January 1947) laid the foundations for the conduct of foreign policy that has since guided Canadian prime ministers. It has three dimensions: close partnership with the USA and Britain; upholding and extending the international rule of law and rules-based institutions; and a strong commitment to multilateralism through the United Nations and the Commonwealth.

While Stephen Harper recognizes the importance of the relationship with the United States and Britain, he is doubtful about the value of multilateralism. He is prepared to depart from the norms of international law when they do not serve Canada’s interest. Nor does he aspire to ‘middle rank’.

Play our cards well – using our geo-strategic position, complemented by our resources and pluralism – and he believes that Canada can be a rising power.

Elected on a platform of government as enabler for the free market, Stephen Harper’s principal policy goal has been to build the Canadian economy.

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Convinced that Canadians are more conservative than liberal, Harper’s political goal has been to polarize Canadian politics into a right-left contest that eliminates the center-straddling Liberal Party.

In their provocative book, The Big Shift, John Ibbitson and Daryl Bricker argue that Harper has upset the Laurentian ‘liberal’ consensus that has governed Canadian affairs since Confederation.

In its place, Harper would build a conservative Canada, building on the shift of people and power to the more libertarian western Canada. He also seeks to enlist new Canadians, the majority now coming from Asia, who favour less government and want more emphasis on law and order.

But it is economic conservatism that is Harper’s central idea and overriding objective.

Government should enable the market to create growth. This, Harper believes, will produce the greatest economic benefit for the people.

This means less government intervention in the economy – lower taxes, less regulation – and a more restricted interpretation on the application of federal powers than previous governments.

Foreign policy is a means towards this end, mindful that Canada that must survive, and can thrive, by trade.

Harper sees our resources, especially energy, as a powerful enabler. Shortly after taking power he declared that Canada was an ‘energy superpower’. We have abundant energy resources but until we can find a second market – now an avowed Harper goal – we are second-tier price-takers.

Ideology matters for insurgencies. To a degree greater than previous prime ministers, Harper views the world through Manichaean or binary lens.

There is good and bad, and right and wrong. This is most visibly and forcefully expressed his support for Israel – constant and unequivocal, and ready to go it alone. It helps that this view is shared by two of his three strongest ministers: Jason Kenney and John Baird.

The Harper approach means more emphasis on key bilateral relations – the US – or those multilateral forum where we can make economic gains: the TPP, CETA, and Pacific Alliance.

It means less emphasis on the multilateral talking-shop forum like the UN, Commonwealth and Francophonie because they matter less.

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The Arctic is part of the Canadian zeitgeist and a critical piece in Harper’s foreign policy.

Not all has worked out as planned. On climate change, the Prentice doctrine of moving in lock-step with the United States has withered. We are still awaiting the promised oil and gas regulations and this has not helped efforts to secure Mr. Harper’s principal US ask – the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Actively supporting democracy abroad has fallen apart on Palestine, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. It is replaced by the Baird ‘dignity agenda’ but it has still mostly words.

It is too soon to assess whether the recent merge of development into trade and foreign policy is going to work. Development may have embraced trade, but will trade embrace development?

Approaching eight years in office, Harper has delivered on the economic front. “Relative to our peers, Canada is working,” said former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney in his farewell remarks (May 2013).

While they may doubt his empathy and handling of the Senate scandal, most Canadians give him better marks than his political adversaries on handling the economy. This, of course, was Harper’s overriding objective from the outset.

Harper’s ultimate goal is to position Canada as rising power.

Getting there will require pragmatism, compromise and, like it or not, respect for diplomatic politesse. A binary approach does not win friends or influence people.


A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP. This commentary is based on his presentation on “Making Sense of Harper’s Foreign Policy” at the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council, December 9, 2013.

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