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More execution than revolution

by David Carment and Joseph Landry

Embassy
December 3rd, 2014 

In a series of recent studies, CIGI fellow and Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson argues that Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is nothing short of "revolutionary." Under scrutiny Ibbitson’s claims do not hold up. Such is the evidence gathered from 15 meticulous peer-reviewed studies published in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal this fall. 

They conclude that Canada’s foreign policy has been ambiguous in purpose and troubled by significant reversals. Where significant changes have occurred, the focus is on de-institutionalizing the policy process by marginalizing and defunding think tanks and NGOs closely associated with former, mostly Liberal governments, such as the IDRC, the North South Institute, Canada Corps and Rights and Democracy. 

Even in small but important ways where Canada exercised its influence, funding has stopped, including a widely acclaimed Canadian studies abroad programme. When given the choice of establishing an independent agency tasked with the promotion of democracy abroad, the Harper cabinet ended up voting down the proposal. This is a government that has conducted no formal foreign policy review during its entire time in power. 

While some of these changes are little more than superficial rebranding, they are the preferred strategy of an ideologically-driven government determined to diminish the influence of   interest groups who stand in opposition to the Conservative agenda. If anything, the Harper government has merely replaced one elite with another who are less accountable, more secretive and seemingly immune to public engagement. 

For example, the decision to fold CIDA into DFAIT to create a super-bureaucracy called DFATD remains undefended in public circles. The mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom, an opaque organisation housed within Fort Pearson, is ambiguous at best and its impact unknown. The multi-million dollar government-funded extractive industries research institute has, so far, proven ineffective in providing support to developing countries where Canada has mining interests.  

But if accountability is in short supply, the Harper government has done little to assuage its critics. Indeed the government’s hard line stance on Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis is clearly driven by domestic politics and not geostrategic or moral imperatives or for that matter any evidence that Canadians are better off as result. Notwithstanding the “get out of Ukraine” line that Harper directed to Putin at the G20 summit, the resources committed to solving the Ukraine crisis through diplomacy have been minuscule. 

The failure to properly bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, ongoing controversies surrounding the likely purchase of the F-35, and the recent move to quietly pull out of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification also stand out as decisions taken in the absence of public consultation and without due regard for the negative cascading effects they have created. 

Canada’s stubborn position on climate change along with its very public warning to the Palestinians regarding a potential suspension of Canadian aid if an Israel war crimes case was brought to the International Criminal Court are such examples. Canadians are right to be concerned about increasing isolation on the world stage. 

That is because these moves carry consequences, like the controversial decision in 2011 to unilaterally withdraw from the Kyoto protocol; a policy which has resulted in the failure of the government to secure the support of the Obama administration to move an oil pipeline from Canada to the US.  

Public engagement doesn’t seem to matter much to Harper’s conservatives, but that doesn’t mean Canadians are being ignored. For example, Foreign Minister John Baird recently introduced a digital diplomacy initiative, which is more an exercise in selling Canadians on Conservative foreign policy than the promotion of due diligence and thoughtful critical debate. 

More troubling is the strong disconnect between the bifurcated, value-oriented and interest-oriented foreign policy approaches that the Harper government relies on, leading to voter confusion and ambiguity of purpose on the international stage. 

For example, Harper’s defence policy communicates a positive image of Canada as a warrior nation, an image popular among Conservative voters, even if it means spending less money on defence. 

Similarly the government’s support of the asbestos industry and the manner in which Canada has undermined international efforts to restrict and ban the international asbestos trade are at odds with the millions committed to global health initiatives. 

On the important China file, the relationship between the two countries quickly deteriorated after the Conservatives came to power. However several years later, working to woo the Chinese vote at home, Harper’s more constructive engagement resulted in a 180-degree reversal of the government’s hardline stance. Values in this case took a back seat to economic and political interests.

Or consider that the Harper government publically justified the missions in Libya in 2011 and against ISIL this fall by relying on values-based rhetoric stressing humanitarian crises and ethnic cleansing. This mostly empty rhetoric lay in contrast to Canada’s US and European allies, whose core interests focused on the ability to lead, the power of international law and the need to bring democracy and stability to the region.  

It is clear that Canada has undergone significant changes in foreign policy but they are not revolutionary. It is not enough that accountability within the current government is in short supply. Canadians should be concerned about the dysfunctional process by which counterproductive and contradictory policy choices are made.   

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a sustainable, let alone revolutionary, foreign policy where Canadians are shut out of the conversation. 

David Carment is a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute fellow and editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. Joseph Landry is a doctoral student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Issues 20.1 and 20.2 of CFPJ containing these articles can be accessed at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcfp20/current and iaffairscanada.com.
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