Canada Foreign Policy
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
  Archduke Franz ‘Harper’ Goes to ‘Qandajevo’?

One wonders, are Canada’s Colonels handling more than defense issues? Are they also working the foreign policy portfolio? At least a few world leaders have made trips to some the most dangerous parts of the planet, but they have kept their plans secret to the last possible moment. I suspect they’ve had very sound reasons for doing so. Has new PM Stephen Harper noticed this? I may get back to answering this, but first I’ll digress.

Former PM Paul Martin dithered over too many things, most especially foreign policy. When it came to the outside world, particularly relations with the United States, he came across as not knowing what he wanted, how he wanted it, why he wanted it, and when he wanted it. Arguably even more adept at dithering and conveying indecisiveness was former Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew.

Now, some have already argued that the administrations of Stephen Harper and Paul Martin share many attributes in common. Perhaps at a surface level this may be true. For one, Harper has demonstrated his ability to pander to Liberals in a fashion more Liberal than Liberal. Here I mean the defection of David Emerson. No sooner had Emerson been elected a member of the Paul Martin Team than he crossed the floor to join the Tories, to take up a cabinet post. His reasoning: he was an apololitical technocrat, remains one, and insists that trading his allegiances, seemingly within minutes of being re-elected, will allow a member from one of Canada’s three largest cities to serve in cabinet and work for his Vancouver-Kingsway constituents and the rest of the country more effectively. Too bad about not being a politician. Emerson’s mandate likely means he’ll have to negotiate the softwood lumber issue, and Washington, while not short on technocrats, is a notoriously political environment.

In other respects there appears a Martin-Harper continuity. Martin didn’t exactly go out of his way to turn foreign affairs into a job where knowledge of issues translated into influence. Pettigrew was rewarded, and in now a relatively long-standing tradition knew rather little about the international community. In fact, his predecessor, Bill Graham, was somewhat knowledgeable, just might have improved on the job, but was rotated out, and served in Defense [See]. In keeping with tradition, Harper rewarded former Progressive Conservative leader and now prominent CPC member Peter MacKay with the plum job. MacKay knows little about international affairs, and admits as much [There’s no foreign policy in MacKay’s past, prompting some to speculate right after the election that he might become the next Justice Minister. For background on the new minister see ‘The Conservative Cabinet: A Political Balancing Act,’ CBC, 6 February 2006. Story posted at]. He does, however, promise to be a quick study. His performance to date suggests the learning curve will be steep [I’d think his recent mishandling of the Iraq-hostage issue is more than just a mistake. See, for example, ‘MacKay Apologizes for Raising Hopes of Hostages’ Families,’ CBC, 22 February 2006. Story posted at].

Now here’s where the main difference between Martin and Harper can be divined. While Martin dithers, Harper strives to come across as decisive, even oblivious to perhaps the fact there are important distinctions between being decisive and reckless. Our Stephen knows what he wants, when he wants it, and how he wants it. He also knows where he wants to be. That place is Afghanistan [‘Harper Considering Afghanistan for First Foreign Trip,’ CP, 17 February 2006. Story posted at]. Evidently all it took for him to be convinced that a trip to that war-torn country was much needed was a meeting with military officials, who argued, seemingly masterfully, that a visit by the PM would go a very long way to improving troop morale. And not only did Harper suggest he would travel, before 3 April 2006, but intimated he may in fact go to Kandahar, the most dangerous region in that most dangerous country. Perhaps plucking out MacKay to serve in foreign affairs was a way for Harper to break with a rather longstanding tradition: it used to be that a PM would be the one to manage affairs with Washington, leaving some if not much of everything else for foreign affairs. Could MacKay be Harper’s way of saying that the PM will deal with the whole of the rest of the world, leaving foreign affairs downgraded more than ever, and competent only to fulfill largely ceremonial functions?

It may well turn out that any planned trip to Afghanistan never takes place. It may be that Harper takes up an offer or opportunity to go to Washington. No matter. The mere fact the news of such an adventure emerged establishes that Harper has much to learn about the world outside Canada’s borders, geopolitics, foreign policy…perhaps even such basic things as keeping a dangerous mission a secret just as long as humanly possible. If he’s been decisive about Afghanistan, one could also ask how decisive he has already been on other critical issues. For instance, has Harper already blundered away our ability to use energy as a bargaining chip? What promises have already been made?

Bill Graham is now interim Liberal leader. At a time when this country probably needs someone at the top with a feeling for foreign affairs, one might ask whether or not Graham is interested in the Liberal job on a more permanent basis. He has a background, and his existing serious shortcomings can be filled in within a reasonable period. Meanwhile, no matter what happens, Graham could consult with Harper on foreign policy, and he wouldn’t even have to emulate Emerson to do that. Little doubt Harper resents this suggestion; however, he could make use of every bit of help someone like Graham could offer. Paul Martin dithered himself out of office in almost record time. Harper seems to want to crash and burn, and is working on doing so until he finds himself out of office, and in almost record time. But for posterity… I suspect he just might hang around a little longer than his predecessor.

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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