Can Trump pull USA from NAFTA

Can Donald Trump pull the U.S. out of NAFTA all on his own?

Some lawyers say withdrawal without congressional approval would be unconstitutional, but the politics of the play might be another matter

CHARLESTON, WV - MAY 05: United States Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump models a hard hat in support of the miners during his rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee following his landslide win in indiana on Tuesday.(Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

Listening to President Donald Trump, or reading his Twitter musings, sure leaves the impression he claims unfettered power to yank the United States clear of the North American Free Trade Agreement whenever he feels like it. “I think we’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point, okay?” Trump said in a rambling late-summer speech in Phoenix. He followed up with this classic Trumpian Tweet: “We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada. Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?”

A superficial reading of NAFTA lends some support to the notion that Trump might have the power to act on his bluster. The deal among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, which came into force in 1994, does include Article 2205, which lets any of the three countries back out on six-months notice. And, since U.S. presidents have broad power over foreign affairs, that might seem to be Trump’s clause to trigger. Indeed, some trade experts read it that way—but others see it differently.

READ MORE: NAFTA: A brief historyFor instance, Riyaz Dattu, of the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto, says Trump’s problem is that while presidents negotiate trade deals, Congress passes the laws to make them a reality in the U.S. “President Trump would have to get Congress to repeal the [NAFTA] provisions that were written into U.S. law,” Dattu says. He concedes, though, that the potential clash over presidential and congressional clout when it comes to quitting a trade deal is “an area that has not been tested.” Trade and constitutional lawyers on both sides of the border agree that if Trump tried to act unilaterally, a court battle would likely ensue, perhaps ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

That assumes, however, sufficient political will among Trump’s foes to fight him over NAFTA. Colin Robertson, a former diplomat with long experience in the U.S., who has analyzed the new NAFTA talks in depth for the Ottawa-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute, predicts Trump would carry the day. “In a practical sense, if he says, ‘I’m pulling the plug,’ I don’t think there will be enough pressure in Congress to question his authority,” he says.

RELATED: NAFTA: What each country wants out of a new deal

Still, Robertson says potent U.S. domestic forces have already pulled Trump back from the brink once when he was close to trying to exit the agreement on his own say-so alone. When his administration was approaching its 100th day in power last April, rumours spread that he was contemplating a hasty NAFTA withdrawal. The U.S. farm lobby weighed in with the White House against that precipitous move, Robertson says, and succeeded. NAFTA supporters hope that if Trump again came close to abrogating, domestic forces would rally once more rally to persuade him to retreat.

If not, the question of Trump’s unilateral power to turn his anti-NAFTA rhetoric into reality will stop being an intriguing debating point for lawyers, and turn into a matter of massive real-world implications for a continental economy.

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Can Trump pull out of NAFTA?

Can Donald Trump pull the U.S. out of NAFTA all on his own?

Some lawyers say withdrawal without congressional approval would be unconstitutional, but the politics of the play might be another matter

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On Mr. Trump’s foreign policy

What Donald Trump’s foreign policy would look like

Former top diplomat Colin Robertson on what Trump means for Canada and countries around the world

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto shake hands at a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, August 31, 2016. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

During a normal U.S. presidential campaign, Canadian foreign service and trade specialists map out the implications of a win for either side with some confidence. But the 2016 race wasn’t normal. Insiders struggled to imagine a Donald Trump presidency. Now, they won’t have to. Colin Robertson is a former top diplomat with experience in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, and is now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. On election night, Robertson spoke with Maclean’s as Trump’s triumph was unfolding.

Q: We’re into uncharted territory. How would you imagine the Canadian government stepping into the Donald Trump era?

A: First of all you’d look for what would come closest to this. And the closest historical analogy would be Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Well, Jeremy Kinsman was part of the Trudeau government’s advisory committee on the foreign policy side, and he was Canada’s ambassador in Rome at the time [of Berlusconi’s time as prime minister]. If I were them, I’d be phoning him. Are there lessons from that that we can apply to this because their personalities are similar?

Q: What about the tradition of U.S. presidents visiting Canada as their first foreign trip?

A: I think you would still invite the president to come to Canada. Or, if that wasn’t going to work, then the Prime Minister would want to make an early trip down to Washington and those members of his cabinet who had been named.

MORE: Trump wins an election that was really a census in disguise

Q: The Republicans will end up controlling not only the White House, but likely the Senate and the House, too. What are the implications of that? For instance, aren’t there plenty of free-traders among the Republican senators?

A: Well, you have a president who is protectionist, and he will say he has a mandate from the people. You have within the Senate different factions. Yes, you’ll have free-traders, but you’ll also have others, like [Alabama Sen.] Jeff Sessions, who will say, “Our president won.”

Q: So by and large you’d expect the Republicans in Congress to follow Trump’s lead?

A: If you remember, when Barack Obama was elected, it was unitary government—[Democrat majority leader] Nancy Pelosi in the House, [Democrat majority leader] Harry Reid in the Senate. Within a couple of days, Harry Reid had said, “He’s the leader of the party, but he’s not the leader of the Senate.” So I think potentially you get [Republican Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell saying something similar. There are checks and balances for good reason. It applied to President Obama and it will apply to President Trump.

MORE: Trump has won. Now the market freak-out begins.

Q: Where will Canada find itself in all this? Trump has talked tough about trade relationships, and we’re the biggest trading partner the U.S. has.

A: Would we be the first target? No. The first target in terms of trade would be China. The wall with Mexico—I don’t know how that plays out, but difficult. Burden-sharing with [military] allies? We wouldn’t be a first target, but we’d be a target. President Trump would say, “You’re right at the bottom [of the NATO countries] in terms of defence spending [as a share of GDP]. How soon can you reach your NATO target of two per cent of GDP?”

Q: So we would be under pressure to ramp up military procurement?

A: With Trump, he’s tended to talk in punchlines without the texture and detail that a normal candidate has. We’ll have to look at the fighter jet procurement and the refurbishing of the navy.

Q: You saw a lot of potential for co-operation between the Trudeau government and a Hillary Clinton administration on energy and environmental files. How might that work with a Trump presidency?

A: He’s said he would approve pipeline permits on day one. Well, it can’t happen on day one—there’s a presidential permit process that has to be respected. There’s not a current application for a permit for TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline, but if that were to happen, it might move along quite quickly. Trump has also talked about taking his piece of the action. We’d want to seek clarity from his energy secretary about what that means.

MORE: Ten to watch in the Trump White House

Q: What about the climate-change file? Canada and the U.S. both committed to the United Nations Paris agreement on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions last year.

A: Prime Minister Trudeau has said we are going to move to carbon pricing. Clinton had endorsed Obama’s Clean Power Plan. That certainly is not the case with Donald Trump. That would put us potentially at a competitive disadvantage. So you would immediately start getting pressure from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to reconsider, and there would be pressure from the oil patch on Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

It would also put real pressure on the Trudeau government to get pipelines to either coast. Just being dependent on the U.S. market—Trump might use that. You’re dealing with somebody who is not conventional, not to say irrational. Bluster and blackmail is part of his history as a negotiator.

Q: You’re a veteran diplomat. Sketch the reaction in major capitals today. Will all governments be reeling?

A: Not in the Kremlin. But even in China, they crave stability, and this is not stable. The only one smiling will be Vladimir Putin.

Q: Do you think there will be any steps taken by other world leaders to try to make sure that the new president doesn’t destabilize things too much?

A: I think probably leadership would come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the senior leader within the G7. I think that’s where it would start. So you’d have conversations. You could well have a polite request for an early emergency G7 meeting. You wouldn’t want to alarm. But it’s probably necessary because he’s such an unknown quantity.

Q: Where’s the comfort here? Maybe we should be thankful for the U.S. system of checks and balances you mentioned.

A: Yes, the system was designed to prevent basically a king.

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Remembering Ken Taylor

Remembering Ken Taylor: ‘An unconventional diplomat’

Oysters, martinis, and effective diplomacy. A colleague remembers former diplomat Ken Taylor

October 15, 2015

Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, briefs a reporter on the current conditions in Iran one week before leaving Iran with six Americans in a 1980 file photo. Taylor, who sheltered six U.S. citizens during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, has died, says a family friend THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Peter BreggPeter Bregg/CP

On news of the death of Ken Taylor, at 81, I called Colin Robertson, another former Canadian diplomat, who served under Taylor in the early 1980s in New York, soon after Taylor became a hero for his role in hiding six Americans in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Robertson, who lives in Ottawa now and works with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, spoke about Taylor’s glory days following the “Canadian Caper.”

Q: What were your thoughts on hearing that your old boss had died?

A: Ken was a great Canadian patriot, a hero, but Ken was also really cool. I first met him when I was posted to New York in 1980, and he had of course already performed the great “Canadian Caper” in Tehran, and the government had appointed him our consul general there, partly because of his celebrity, the magnetism Ken had, and the importance of New York to the diplomatic establishment.

Q: So it was a good fit.

A: He took the town by storm. Anywhere he went. Even before he arrived, we saw it. Americans everywhere would thank us for what we’d done. Sending Ken to New York was exactly the right thing. He fit right into that highly cosmopolitan city, but he was still proudly Canadian. We had issues he was able to advance.

Q: What was he like to work under?

A: He was an unconventional diplomat, certainly for that era. First of all, he didn’t wear the classic blue suit; he always was always in a fashionable suit that suited him. Of course, he had that great hair, all the curls, and then the dark glasses that were his signature. Always a smile on his face. He was always approachable and personable. He had no desk in his office. He had a coffee table. You’d sit around it and deal with issues.

Q: He must have made quite an impression on you as a new guy.

A: I traveled with him as a junior officer. In his briefcase, there was always a novel—Bonfire of the Vanities—or a magazine—Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t the heavy-duty stuff. I remember him teasing me. I was traveling with a copy of Foreign Affairs. He said, “Colin, you gotta lighten up.”

There’s one episode that really sticks with me. We were traveling up to Yale, where he had a series of speeches to give. We didn’t take the car. He said, no, let’s take the train, because we could go to the bar car and have a martini. After we’d had oysters at Grand Central Station. And we talked. He pointed out that it was really important to understand the society as a whole if you were going to be a good diplomat. It wasn’t straight politics, or economics, or trade; it was understanding the culture in which you were working and having an empathy for it.

Q: You saw that in his way of doing diplomacy?

A: Ken had empathy for everybody, including the Iranian people. Remember, this was a time where the Iranians were not terribly popular, because of what had happened to the United States. He had a way—his own gentle way—of encouraging Americans that while they might have a disagreement with the Ayatollah and ruling elite in Iran, the Iranian people had great affection for America, and never break those links.

Q: And you feel that was effective, not just a nice way of looking at the world?

A: Ken defied the traditional norms of diplomacy, but he always achieved what we set out to. He was remarkably effective. As a boss, you couldn’t help but like him. He left it to you to get the job done. He wasn’t a micro-manager in any sense. He traveled a great deal because he was in great demand. But when he was there, it was just fun and interesting and you learned the craft. This how he did business. I’ve talked to people who were with him in Tehran, and before, and this is how he was. He created a sense of team around a shared purpose.

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Canada and the World

Just how seriously is Canada’s voice taken now?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a much weaker record on foreign policy than he would have Canadians believe

John Geddes Macleans

October 9, 2014

It was a moment made-to-order for Stephen Harper’s dark way of talking about the world. Going back to the 2011 election, the Prime Minister has often portrayed Canada as an island of safety in a global sea of dangers. Sometimes that imagery comes off as alarmist, but the rhetoric works when the topic at hand is the rise of Islamic State extremism in Syria and Iraq. So, when Harper rose in the House of Commons last week to make his case for joining U.S. President Barack Obama’s air campaign against the terrorists, he sounded very much himself in framing the disturbing new threat. He also said that deploying CF-18 fighter jets was necessary to maintain Canada’s international standing. “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world—and we should, since so many of our challenges are global—being a free rider means you are not taken seriously,” Harper said.

Perhaps inadvertently, though, Harper suggested a question: Just how seriously is Canada’s voice taken now? Conservatives’ claims about having restored Canada’s clout on the world stage have always rested heavily on their reinvestment in the military. But Harper’s early defence-spending hikes turned to cuts after the 2009 recession, while he staged a tactical retreat from his high-profile pledge to buy F-35 jets to replace the aging CF-18s—eroding his image as an unwavering builder of the Canadian Forces’ might. After more than eight years of his rule, does Canada’s military reputation really rank noticeably higher? As Obama assembled his coalition to bomb Islamic State (also know as ISIS), the U.S. signed up a raft of other allies days, or even weeks, before Canada, including bigger military powers such as France and Britain, but also the likes of Australia, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Of course, standing on defence isn’t the only measure of Harper’s strength or weakness in the world. Back before his 2006 election win, he set Canada-U.S. relations as the litmus test. As Opposition leader in 2002, Harper delivered a tough attack in the House on then-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s “consistent and complete inability” to bolster Canadian economic interests in the U.S. As PM, however, Harper hasn’t fared better. American border restrictions remain a serious Canadian government frustration. The low point came in early 2012, when Obama told Harper there would be no quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to siphon Alberta crude to U.S. refineries. A wounded Harper sent out Joe Oliver, then his natural resources minister, to tell reporters the “decision by the Obama administration underlines the importance of diversifying and expanding our markets, including the growing Asian market.”

For those who remember Harper’s opposition days, that message delivered by Oliver, now Harper’s finance minister, had an ironic ring to it. Back in his 2002 assault on Liberal foreign policy, Harper had derided Chrétien’s attempts at diversifying Canada’s trade beyond the U.S. as an unrealistic echo of the so-called “third option” pursued by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, “which did not work then and is not working now.” Harper learned the hard way that there was something to the old Liberal position that Washington’s intransigence leaves Canada no choice but to cultivate trade options overseas. Still, Conservative fans of his no-nonsense style can at least take solace in the way Harper has ditched the old soft-power Liberal brand of multilateralism—the ethos behind former preoccupations such as creating the International Criminal Court, or a treaty to ban land mines—for much sterner stuff.

Or has he? In the days leading up to a key Harper speech at the United Nations late last month, advance stories were full of confident predictions about which world issues he would tackle. After snubbing the General Assembly for three years—ever since his government’s embarrassing failure to win a UN vote for a temporary seat on its Security Council in 2010—the PM had to be returning to blast Russia for incursions into Ukraine and to denounce Islamic State outrages in Iraq. Or so it was assumed. As it turned out, he spoke almost entirely about an aid initiative to improve the health of mothers and newborns. Alluding only vaguely to border tensions in Eastern Europe and bloodshed in the Middle East, he urged UN members to look past violent conflicts to “the long-term opportunities and efforts that can truly transform our world.”

It was a classically Canadian internationalist plea, issued in the New York temple to multilateralism held sacred by Harper’s most bitter critics. Was this really the same Harper who had so often scoffed at Canada’s historic approach to the UN as a matter of  “going along to get along”? Even more scornfully, he once summed up his foreign-policy philosophy this way: “It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations.” But, with the maternal and child health initiative, a growing preoccupation of Harper’s for several years now, he is clearly trying to put his stamp on what looks like the sort of UN-focused project his Conservatives used to mock Liberals for championing.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be an absurd stretch to suggest that the Harper who championed the Forces, was suspicious of the UN, and assigned enormous importance to Canada-U.S. economic relations, has disappeared. But he has found those pillars too unsteady to bear the full weight of his foreign policy. It’s been a steep learning curve. Before he won power in 2006, he had barely travelled outside Canada and had focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, mostly economic and constitutional. “Since coming to office,” he told Maclean’s in a 2011 interview, “the thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectations—I don’t even know what my expectations were—is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but, in fact, that it’s become almost everything.”

Harper inherited the most challenging overseas file in a generation: Afghanistan. Five weeks after being sworn in as Prime Minister on Feb. 6, 2006, he was on a Kandahar airfield telling the assembled troops, “You can’t lead from the bleachers; I want Canada to be a leader.” His Conservatives backed that up by boosting annual defence spending from about $15 billion the year before they took power to closer to $20 billion. Impressive as that top-line figure is, though, it hardly tells the whole story.

David Perry, a senior analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa, offers perhaps the most fine-grained analysis of Canada’s military budget available, outside of classified documents. Perry says defence spending, adjusted for inflation, is actually lower today than it was in 2007. He points to four consecutive years of shrinking outlays on new military hardware, a trend he now calls “seemingly irreversible.”

Perry even argues that there never was any sharp divide on defence between Liberal and Conservative times. The real watershed came in 2005, he contends, when the Liberals, flush with surpluses after slaying the deficit, reinvested heavily in the Department of National Defence. Taking over the following year, Harper built on that new spending policy, to be sure, but only until the 2009 recession. Since then, according to Perry’s analysis, spending restraint has again been the order of the day, with defence absorbing fully a quarter of all federal spending cuts in last spring’s budget.

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Translating budget numbers into a real understanding of military readiness is notoriously difficult. Senior officers are reticent to speak out. Back in 2012, however, Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, then commander of the army, surprised a Senate committee by disclosing that his land force’s operating budget had been slashed by 22 per cent. Devlin retired last year to become president of Fanshawe College in London, Ont. In a recent interview, he said cuts shrunk battalions, which are supposed to be made up of about 800 troops, to 500, and those diminished infantry units are getting “dramatically less” training in the field. “That’s what affects operational readiness,” Devlin said.

If Harper wants to keep making overseas commitments, Perry adds, spending will have to be increased again. He pointed to stepped-up NATO activity in Europe, reacting to Russia’s menacing posture along Ukraine’s border, and the six-month Iraq deployment, which could be prolonged. Successive years of belt-tightening have reduced the Forces’ flexibility to take on such new missions. “Relative to three years ago,” Perry says, “there’s much less ability to absorb incremental costs having to do with operational activity.”

More obvious than operational strains are problems in wrapping up major procurements. The lifespans of the CF-18s—on average nearly three decades old—are being extended at great cost, as a result of long-running indecision over their replacement. After announcing their intention to acquire 65 of the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in 2010, the Conservatives were pummelled for hiding the true cost, likely $45 billion, and for failing to make the case for the cutting-edge F-35s over jets already in production. As well, two Aurora surveillance planes that will be accompanying the CF-18s to Iraq are also about 30 years old, part of a fleet slated for replacement by the Tories early on, until that plan was abandoned as too costly. One can only imagine the ridicule Conservatives, in their opposition days, would have heaped on the Liberals for such handling of major Air Force procurements.

So the military rebirth touted by Tories as Canada’s new calling card abroad is under strain. The Ottawa-Washington relationship—flagged by Harper, before he got the job, as any PM’s top foreign-policy priority—is stressed. Harper’s rapport with other world leaders hardly makes up for these gaps. He’s chummiest with like-minded conservatives—such as Australia’s Tony Abbott and, more controversial, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—from countries that don’t rank as top trading partners or first-tier powers. That leaves pursuing trade deals, such as those hammered out with South Korea and the European Union, as the acknowledged strongest element of Harper’s international efforts. “This government has, from the very beginning, emphasized the substance of a trade agenda,” says Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, otherwise a forceful Harper critic.

But trade alone isn’t typically enough to cement a leader’s reputation as an accomplished global player. If Harper’s recent UN speech was any indication, he’s staking a different sort of claim. Spotlighting his leadership on the UN Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, which he co-chairs with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, takes Harper far outside the bounds of familiar Conservative emphasis on “interests” (typically trade and investment) or “convictions” (notably, backing embattled countries such as Israel and Ukraine). It takes him to the UN.

It’s the same UN that runs the climate-change negotiations where Harper’s delegations—defending Canada’s oil sector—are widely regarded as obstructionists. It’s the UN that John Baird, Harper’s foreign minister, once accused of indulging a “preoccupation with procedure and process” so stultifying, he swore off any future Canadian involvement in “how the UN arranges its affairs.” And it’s the UN where criticisms of Israel frequently arise, which the Harper government unfailing decries—as it did last summer when then-UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for a ceasefire after Israel’s bombing of Gaza caused many civilian casualties, prompting Baird to scold Pillay for being neither “helpful nor reflective of the reality of this crisis.”

What a strange turn it will be if Harper’s signature foreign-policy achievement ends up being a UN-based project. Perhaps the maternal and child health initiative represents a sort of reconciliation, on his own terms, with the multilateralism long associated with the loathed Liberals. And, on other fronts, fresh chances for him to buff up his international credentials may be emerging. This fall’s economic update is expected to herald a return to balanced federal books, perhaps allowing Defence an injection of new money, or, at least, relief from further restraint. In responding to the Islamic State crisis, Harper has been unstintingly outspoken in crediting Obama’s leadership, along with sending the CF-18s, which can’t hurt bilateral relations.

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Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Not surprisingly, Harper’s sharpest critics doubt his capacity to convert opportunities into a new sophistication. Roland Paris detects no sign of Harper “paying attention to the context of foreign affairs.” Even some of the Prime Minister’s avowed admirers see plenty of room for improvement. Derek Burney, a top architect of Brian Mulroney’s Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, now a senior adviser at the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, often leaps to Harper’s defence. Yet he regards this PM’s top priorities, such as his rock-ribbed support for Israel, as too often detached from any strategic framing of Canadian interests. “What we’ve had is rather spasmodic foreign policy based on conviction or principle—very stout,” Burney says. “I like the conviction, but I’d like to see more strategy on places like China.”

Among foreign-policy experts, geopolitical strategy is much in the air again. Once overshadowed by investment and trade, during the optimistic end-of-history era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, deep thinking about intractable problems has returned, especially in the wake of troubling developments in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and, lately, Hong Kong. All serve as reminders that convictions are no substitute, in an often bewildering world, for elite expertise. To obtain that rarefied commodity, argues Colin Robertson, a veteran former diplomat, whose postings included Washington and the UN, “you need hard-core, classic diplomatic skills.” After eight years of skeptical Conservative oversight, however, he doubts a demoralized foreign service is working seamlessly with Harper and his senior political aides. “If you beat a dog all the time, then the dog isn’t going to do what you like,” says Robertson, now vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

But Burney counters that Harper’s detractors are delusional if they imagine Canadian foreign policy should return to some bygone Liberal brand of diplomat-driven multilateralism. “Let’s not luxuriate in the myth of how wonderful it used to be,” he says. In fact, there was a good, strong whiff of that sort of nostalgia in the air on Parliament Hill during the debate over the Iraq air-strikes deployment. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau played to the notion of a special Canadian vocation for peaceful contributions such as medical aid or refugee airlifts. “We can be resourceful, and there are significant, substantial, non-combat roles that Canada can play,” Trudeau said, “and some we can play better than many, or perhaps any, of our allies.” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said, “Canada’s first contribution should be to use every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource at our disposal.”

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The stark contrast exposed by the partisan clash over the air strikes might play to Harper’s advantage. Last month, the Ottawa polling firm Abacus Data asked Canadians about sending fighter jets against Islamic State in Iraq, and 57 per cent supported the plan, against just 34 per cent who opposed it, with 14 per cent who were not sure. That suggests Harper can expect far stronger approval of this decision than he enjoys overall on foreign policy; the same Abacus poll said 28 per cent favour his foreign-policy approach over Trudeau’s, not much better than the 23 per cent who think they’d prefer Trudeau’s if he became prime minister, over Harper’s. (Twenty-six per cent had no preference.)
Harper’s record on repositioning Canada in the world is uneven. But the urgent question of this moment isn’t about how well he works with the White House on economic matters, or if he has equipped and funded the military quite so generously as he lets on, or even if his approach to UN-based multilateralism is consistent. The immediate concern is about Canada’s contribution to a global coalition to stop Islamic State terrorism from spreading. Policy debate is abstract. Military action is tangible.

The test, at least in the coming weeks, will likely have less to do with the Prime Minister’s foreign-policy acumen than with the accuracy of CF-18 strikes somewhere in Iraq, or perhaps Syria. Sorting out how this changes the wider view of foreign affairs under Harper will have to wait until sometime after the smoke clears.

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