Solid Americas strategy would reap big rewards for Canada

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Excerpted from Globe and Mail May 24, 2011. Campbell Clark’s Time to Lead: Solid Americas strategy would reap big rewards for Canada

Stephen Harper steps onto the world stage this week for the first time as a majority-government Prime Minister, with a four-year mandate that gives him a new opportunity to make good on a foreign-policy promise he made four years ago to expand Canada’s presence in the Americas…

A solid Americas strategy, fully implemented now, can bring together Mr. Harper’s foreign-policy goals. It can build political capital with Washington, improve security, marry the region’s needs with Canada self-interest, and expand trade. It can serve Canada’s interests, and the world’s.

The region offers the lure of expanded trade with big, booming economies such as Brazil. The potential is already being proven, with Canadian trade with Latin America rising 28.8 per cent in 2010 from the previous year, faster than with any other region. And with China and other Asian countries expanding investment and trade with Latin America, a bigger presence in Latin America provides a back door to promising Pacific Rim trade.

But the place to start is closer to home, with a major effort to secure stability and growth in Mexico, our biggest Latin American trading partner and NAFTA colleague, as well as the Central American nations on its border.

A bold step there, pouring in hundreds of police and justice trainers and new resources to combat the crippling forces of extreme economic inequality, organized crime, insecurity and weak institutions, can build Canadian ties by countering troubling threats in a region that has largely turned to democratically elected governments, but still faces instability…

The grand shift that Mr. Harper promised was unfunded, unfocused and beset by distractions. The government pushed through free trade and aid with Colombia and delivered a major response to Haiti’s earthquake. But across the hemisphere, many other governments see Canada’s new era of engagement as a chimera, and still wonder what it means. It’s time for Mr. Harper’s government to make it clear.

“Now they’ve got a majority government, they can afford to be strategic,” said former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. “They’ve decided through a couple of minority parliaments that the Americas matter. Well, now put some meat behind it.”

The missing substance to the plans has been a liability. An internal government evaluation, completed in January, found the strategy Mr. Harper pledged lacked funds, focus and co-ordination…

But the strategy needs a strategy, and Mr. Robertson has one to offer: “Start with Mexico and move south.”

Canada’s links to Latin America are deepest in its trade, travel and personal ties to Mexico, so expanding them is a way to build Canadian strengths, he argues. Aiding its education system and bringing Mexican students to Canada can pay off in bigger trade ties in the future. And a broader strategy can serve as a pattern for Canadian commitment in the hemisphere…

“If we can train Iraqi police, as we were doing in Jordan for a while, why aren’t we doing this with the Mexican police, where our interests are much greater?” Mr. Robertson asked.