tighter, as part of his years-long undertaking to fundamentally rebrand Canada at home and abroad, say former diplomats and other observers.
A look at the scorecard over the past year reveals both diplomatic courting and breakups for Canada. There has been talk of sharing consular digs with the Commonwealth, as well as temporary and permanent boarding up of embassies.
Security reports for missions abroad and foreign policy plans have been leaked, and major foreign investment deals have been made.
In November, Mr. Harper visited India for the second time since being elected in 2006, and also made a second visit to China in February of this year.
In late-breaking news, Mr. Harper announced the approval of the $15.1 billion takeover of Nexen Inc. by Chinese oil giant CNOOC, as well as giving Malaysia’s Petronas oil and gas company the green light to buy Calgary’s Progress Energy, on Dec. 7.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harper laid out rules that will block most foreign ownership of oil sands assets by state-owned enterprises.
Canada expanded its reach in 2012 by announcing in July that it would open its first-ever embassy in Myanmar, also known as Burma, after months of easing sanctions against the country in light of perceived democratic and human rights progress.
But the November leak of the government’s long-awaited foreign policy plan was, according to CBC News, focused largely on trade priorities, to the chagrin of some observers. The CBC also reported that it lacked any mention of prior Canadian foreign policy hallmarks such as peacekeeping and international development.
This was “not a banner year for Canadian diplomacy,” argued former Canadian diplomat Daryl Copeland, now a senior fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
“It’s less…what we did do in the world, than what we didn’t do,” he said, adding this has been part of a growing trend over the past decade.
Nevertheless, he highlighted the breaking of diplomatic ties with Iran, which Foreign Minister John Baird announced on Sept. 7, and Mr. Baird’s decision to temporarily recall Canadian representatives from Israel, the West Bank, and the United Nations after voting against the successful Palestinian bid to become “non-member observer state” at the UN. That effort saw Canada end up in the severe minority, with nine nations voting against the bid, 138 voting in favour, and 41 abstaining.
There has been a “fundamental rebranding of Canada,” said Mr. Copeland—one that shows the country drawing a hard line on issues, as opposed to its previous international reputation as a moderate.
But another former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson, said he sees a promising government approach to foreign policy. He wrote in an email of “an increasingly coherent Conservative international [policy].”
He highlighted Trade Minister Ed Fast’s “quiet diligence in promoting trade deals” and Mr. Baird’s “articulation of the Conservative foreign policy.” While Mr. Fast works to tie the knot in trade talks, he argued, “he has been the quiet constantly plodding forward tortoise to John Baird’s Energizer Bunny.”
“Like it or not, John Baird is an authentically Canadian voice on foreign policy. There is no question about us not having a policy.”
Harper in control
The CNOOC and Petronas decisions showed that the Harper government is committed to racing “full speed ahead” into Asia, wrote Mr. Robertson.
He was surprised, however, at “the government’s poor job in selling the Asian strategy,” compared with the amount of time the government talked up its potential trade deal with the European Union.
Meanwhile, Gordon Smith, a former deputy minister at what is now DFAIT, said the government has a “foreign policy that’s driven by the people around the prime minister.”
This has happened with previous PMs, and isn’t entirely new, he added. Even so, he said this Prime Minister’s Office “doesn’t fully trust the public service [and] isn’t comfortable with the kind of advice the public service gives. There’s an uneasiness in that relationship.”
Canada’s relations with the UN are also uneasy, noted Mr. Smith, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“The UN obviously is in the dog house with this government,” he said, pointing to Mr. Harper’s decision not to attend the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27, despite being in New York to accept the world statesman of the year award for 2012, presented by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.