Panelists at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa Friday highlighted the difference between the implementation and communication of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy strategy.
The session — titled, “Does conservative foreign policy need an overhaul?” — was hosted by Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Friday morning at the Ottawa Convention Centre. Robertson was joined by panelists Carlo Dade, senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School for International Development and Global Studies, Mark Cameron, former director of policy at the PMO, Monte Solberg, former minister of citizenship and immigration, and Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute.
Robertson’s first question — is there a Harper foreign policy? — directed the discussion for the remainder of the session.
For Staples, the answer is simple. If Harper has a set foreign policy strategy, Canadians don’t know what it is.
“It seems to not necessarily follow predictable lines,” said Staples. “They really seem to be, as many foreign policies are, determined by domestic concerns, whether it’s in regards to throwing your political opponents offside or to satisfy a particular constituency.”
Staples said the influence of domestic policy on foreign policy is not uncommon nor particularly unique to Canada.
In the context of Latin America, Dade said the Harper government does seem to have a foreign policy strategy for this region. Dade was the last executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), Canada’s now-defunct Latin American think tank which fell victim to government cuts in 2011.
“I’d like to give the government credit. We’re in an unbelievably good position in the Americas. How we wound up here, I can’t answer,” said Dade. “We don’t have a strategy so we can’t argue facts or evidence before us.”
Cameron said that while Harper has an articulated foreign policy, it hasn’t always been consistently applied. He said it’s hard for the Harper government to balance longtime Canadian values with Canadian interests abroad.
“Our values like freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, these are things that we believe in but we clearly can’t project those into 180 countries around the world,” said Cameron.
Cameron cited the fact that Canada participated in a military mission in Libya but refuses do the same in Syria as an example of the Harper government’s poorly communicated foreign policy.
However, panelists agreed that Harper has articulated one aspect of his foreign policy effectively — his government’s stance on Israel’s right to defend itself.
“I think there is one thing that the prime minister has done to set Canada apart. He’s made it clear that he’s not prepared to just go along with other countries in the world, even at the cost of not sitting on the UN Security Council for instance,” said Solberg.
On Israel and the Middle East, however, Dade cautioned Canada against following the U.S.
“Canada is not the United States. Sometimes we forget this. Our interests are not as broad, they’re not as far. In terms of hard national interests, in the Middle East, we don’t have them. Sometimes I question our involvement,” said Dade.
During the Q&A period of the session, a participant asked the panel what Harper’s foreign policy legacy might be. Staples said that while he believes Harper has yet to clearly outline his foreign policy, that doesn’t mean it’s too late.
“It’s now time to find some sort of push, some sort of diplomatic keynote initiative … in order to distinguish themselves,” said Staples. “It might be the Arctic, it be might global disarmament, it could be something else, but I think they need to find that in the years ahead.”
Panelists also highlighted the need for an increased conservative presence in the foreign policy discussions of the academic world, including universities and think tanks. Solberg noted this would require the financial support of business and philanthropy…
One of the surprises at the just-completed 2013 Manning Networking Conference was that the event featured a panel on the oft-ignored area of Canadian foreign policy. Even more encouraging was that it was standing room only.
The first question posed to the panelists — “Does the government have a foreign policy?” — was the most interesting. To the uninitiated, the answer would seem to be an easy “yes.” We have diplomats, embassies, a foreign affairs minister and all the other trappings of a functioning foreign policy. But many in the crowd knew better, and you could even hear a few dismissive snorts when the question was posed.
The panel, which included former Conservative cabinet minister Monty Solberg, former Harper Prime Minister’s Office director Mark Cameron, myself and Steven Staples from the left-leaning Rideau Centre, did its best to offer a nuanced answer. But it’s a complicated issue — and a serious one for Canada’s future prosperity and standing in the world.
Of course, Canada officially has a foreign policy and engages in diplomacy with other nations, both directly and through multi-lateral institutions. But the consensus on the panel seemed to be that the government, and the broader conservative movement from which it springs, don’t so much have a foreign policy as a vague foreign-policy vision, dressed up with a mish-mash of policy ideas.
What conservatives lack, both in and out of government, is a coherent explanation of a set of priorities, with a detailed list of objectives to achieve these priorities and an accounting of what resources will be expended to accomplish this. In other words, a strategy.
What also became apparent was that, beyond maintaining good relations with the U.S. and a general focus on defence and national security, the Canadian conservative movement lacks the people and institutions to develop such a strategy. What foreign-policy experts can be found on Canada’s right-wing are almost exclusively focused on those two areas.
Make no mistake — these are important issues, especially in the contemporary Canadian context.
But they are not the only issues of concern in today’s increasingly globalized world. The inability of conservatives to articulate well-researched and fully developed foreign policy ideas beyond managing our relationship with Washington and seeking international stability and Canadian domestic security, is a major blow to the credibility of the Canadian conservative movement at home and certainly abroad. These weaknesses are well known in Washington, Brasilia, Beijing and other capitals. Canada is a fully advanced, thoroughly complicated modern state. We can’t just wing our foreign policy on the fly. Yet, do conservatives in this country really know what a conservative foreign policy would even look like? What would its priorities be? How would it be distinct from those advanced by the opposition parties?
These are serious questions, but not only are they not being answered, it’s unclear that there’s anyone to ask.
The lack of a strong conservative foreign-policy establishment in Canada is becoming a self-sustaining cycle. There are so few right-leaning foreign policy experts in Canadian universities and think tanks that even while more and more Canadian students major in global affairs and international relations, they are only exposed to one side of the political spectrum. And when the media goes looking for experts to comment on government policy or international affairs, they are left with a deep pool of leftist and centrist voices, but almost no conservatives.
The Harper government has done a credible job managing Canada’s foreign policy during challenging times. But even among supporters of the Conservative party, there is recognition that this has been largely based on luck: We’ve been making it making it up as we go along, which has been the analysis of the U.S. embassy in Ottawa. The lack of a consistent and coherent plan, combined with cuts to our foreign-affairs spending as part of the government’s overall cost-cutting efforts, threaten to leave Canadian interests exposed if we should find ourselves needing to respond to a diplomatic situation that we are not remotely equipped to handle.
At the conclusion of last week’s conference in Ottawa, Preston Manning discussed the weakness of Canadian conservatives with regard to the environment and the need for the movement to start developing more capacity, more responses; a constructive conservative vision for what is arguably the greatest challenge facing the country and the globe.
The same argument applies to the need for conservatives to start developing that ability with regard to foreign policy. Signing free-trade agreements and sending troops and ships to the world’s trouble spots is only a small part of what it should be doing on the world stage.