Canada Foreign Policy
Saturday, January 21, 2006

It’s just about over. Canadians go to the polls in a few days, and this country will have a new government and almost certainly a different party in power. Stephen Harper’s Tories, if surveys and public sentiment can be believed, are set poised to take office. This is also the end for PM Paul Martin.

Martin has had a distinguished political career, until about two years ago. Within weeks of unseating Jean Chretien, signs began to appear that Martin was ill suited for this nation’s top political job. After so much promise, after so many pinned high hopes on his ability to clean up corruption and reinvigorate the Liberals, he delivered only failure at worst and lackluster performance at best. The Dithers image sticks to this day.

The questions now revolve around Martin’s life after politics. If the very worst-case scenario is realized and the Liberals fall to under 60 seats, he may not even lead the opposition. If this scenario develops, it’s almost certain he would make known his intention to leave public life, likely within three or so months after the election. Even if he does come in second, he may be around a little longer, but not much longer.

In addition to arguably being this country’s weakest prime minister, Martin also seems to be its most tragic figure. In no small way, his own attitude contributed to his downfall. In the early days as PM, he distanced himself from and alienated the left wing of the Liberal Party. He even enraged the pro-Chretien faction to the point where some became openly and vehemently critical of the new leader. Have some of these people removed themselves, albeit temporarily, from public life? Have they even worked against Martin? Do they wish for him to lose, and to lose badly on 23 January? Has all his hubris culminated in this, one of the worst election campaigns ever, possibly serving to drive voters to the Tory and New Democratic Party camps?

For Stephen Harper, the concern is whether or not the new government will be a Tory minority or majority. For NDP leader Jack Layton, there have to be dreams of ascending to opposition status, damaging the Liberal brand name to the point where it can never hope to recover.

And so the political obituaries are likely to go from the evening of 23 January and for at least a few days. And if the press does find itself in the position of being able to dwell on the demise of the Martin regime, something of perhaps far more importance may go unnoticed, at least for some time.

As one prominent Conservative once said, and I paraphrase, an election is no time to discuss issues. But for maybe just one moment in this campaign, that could have been have different. Foreign affairs were mentioned, and in a way that might have led to serious policy debate.

First, nothing moved for the Liberals. In practice, Liberal policy has been evolving, but of course the rhetoric is static. All that Canada did in and for the outside the world, including new dangerous assignments, fits within the paradigm of peacekeeping and aid. Does it matter that peacekeeping may be more of a national myth than reality? Not at all. Is it of concern that Canadians may actually have seen combat in Iraq? Certainly no, but let’s not dwell on or even mention any of this. Is it material that the nature of the mission in Afghanistan is shifting, and the result may lead to Canadians fighting in that country for at least a generation? Of course not. It’s all about peacekeeping and rebuilding.

The Tories did mention foreign policy, but their rhetoric leaves much to interpretation. The result here is that many simply assume Stephen Harper as PM would translate rhetoric about beefing up the military into having Canadians fight wars. Again, the reality may be far more complex, and much more nuanced than the Liberal position. Perhaps, and this is pure speculation, Harper does not disagree with those numerous critics in the international community who say Canada has spent the past decade, perhaps two, running away from its obligations, obligations to the world which mean more Canadian soldiers need to spend more and more time fighting enemy insurgents and less on peacekeeping. But how to revitalize the armed forces? Perhaps there is no better way than getting involved, say in Afghanistan, which in turn could translate into the means for advocating even more time, effort and resources need to be spent on rebuilding a military infrastructure that’s been in decay for some time.

And then there’s Jack Layton, who during this campaign offered a third way. Or did he? According to Layton, Canadians want to be peacekeepers, not fighters. And just to make sure, why not have a debate? While he and the NDP may be late in dealing with foreign policy issues, they appear to be the first, at least in this election campaign, to claim a national debate must be placed on the agenda. The NDP leader says “Canada's role is the peacekeeping role, the peacemaking role, nothing more than that …Canadians feel helping the Afghanis build a democratic society is a role that is appropriate for Canadians to play.” In addition, on 17 January 2006, Layton “pledged Tuesday to use his party's influence in the next Parliament to maintain the Canadian military's good-guy peacekeeper role around the world.” But does Layton really want to distance himself from the Liberals and the Conservatives? Perhaps he may find much common ground, and all he wants is the debate: “A move to offensive operations is ‘a significant change in Canadian foreign policy’ that needs to be agreed upon democratically, Layton said” [all Layton quotations and text cited in Murray Brewster’s “Layton: Canadians Don’t Support Afghan Offensive,” CP, 17 January 2006. Story posted at].

It’s almost surely the case that issues brought up in an election campaign fade away when the voting is over. Foreign policy has received almost no attention under the Martin government. But could it be that Layton’s remarks point to how things may just change under a new government? Will the NDP get its foreign policy debate? And is this just the kind of thing that might finish other political careers?

Posted by Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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