Canada Foreign Policy
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some already argue this is the end of the brief Tory era of Grand(iose) Foreign Policy.

Is Stephen Harper backing away from foreign policy? About a week ago he said he needed a parliamentary “consensus” for troops to stay involved in the Central Asian conflict zone in their current mission past February 2009. Does this mean he is really offering the opposition parties a chance to make foreign policy? That’s highly unlikely. But Afghanistan has proved a very unpopular war with Canadians, and all ongoing polling data suggest Tory support will continue to dissolve the longer Afghanistan drags on. Perhaps Harper sees his minority government lasting past early 2009, which would make it necessary for him to get opposition parties to agree to an extension of the mission, an agreement that might cause them to experience an equal falling-out of public support, resulting in the Conservatives having only manageable public opinion losses owing to foreign policy. But maybe that’s not the end-game either. Maybe Harper is just groping for a way to deflect criticism of Afghanistan until the next election happens, maybe later this year, or more probably sometime next. At that time the Tories may hope to win the slimmest of majorities, allowing them to simply extend the Afghanistan mission past 2009, and the opposition parties’ disagreement might have only negligible impact, at best, on the workings of government.

Maybe the PM is only trying to buy time until the next election. But even this seems somehow too simplistic. Too simplistic, most especially, when one has to account for a very Trudeau-esque move. Former Liberal PM Pierre Trudeau was famous for appealing to the public “over the heads of” the authorities, over the heads of the corporate interests of the Canadian establishment. The people, in their wisdom, would make the rulings and live by their decisions. And so Harper now finds himself appealing over the heads of the opposition parties. He is asking for consensus on Afghanistan, but a consensus proffered by each and every individual, by the public. “I will want to see some degree of consensus among Canadians about how we move forward...I would hope the view of Canadians is not simply to abandon Afghanistan. I think there is some expectation that there will be a new role after February 2009, but obviously those decisions have yet to be taken,” he said [PM cited in “Harper Wants ‘Consensus’ on Afghanistan,” The London Free Press, 23 June 2007. Story posted at].

Canadians are rarely, if ever, invited to a meaningful foreign policy debate. Demanding their vital input in such a forum is almost unheard of. Yet by doing so Harper seems to suggest he understands his Canadian history, especially the past in the province of Quebec. In the past, during the World Wars, conscription and the conflicts themselves threatened to rip apart the country. While English Canada supported the wars, Quebec tended to see them as foreign adventures to be avoided. With this history, is it really no mystery that most of the political elite likely prefers the public out of foreign policy discussion that in any sense deals with the topic of war. And so is it just possible that Harper hopes, this time, he may actually invite Quebecers to the talks, who, after perhaps giving approval for his policies will be disinclined in future to oppose a Canadian role in Afghanistan? With this, there is both a national unity and an assertive foreign policy,–just perhaps?

Mainstream thinking, at least for the moment, says the only thing Harper is doing is looking for an exit strategy, knowing that Canadians’ inability to reach that consensus will give him the excuse to withdraw. As journalist Terry Cooke, writing in the The Hamilton Spectator on 30 June 2007, observes: “Stephen Harper's new position on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is disappointing. Fecklessness about committing men and women to armed combat is something that I have come to expect from Liberals, but it's hard to abide in a Conservative leader espousing principle while apparently opting for expediency...It's obvious that flagging public support due to mounting casualties has driven the prime minister to seek an exit strategy while trying to assign blame to the opposition benches” [Story posted at].

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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