The constant criticism, and widespread perception, of the Harper government’s foreign policy has been that there really isn’t one, beyond the often cited “principled foreign policy” that has dominated the government’s talking points since its majority victory in 2011.
Exactly what that principled foreign policy looks like, though, is very short on details but very big on strong, sometimes inflammatory, rhetoric.
All this had left many Canadians to ponder Canada’s place in the world and exactly what the Harper Government’s foreign policy record says about Canada’s future on the international stage.
Speaking at the American Jewish Congress in Washington DC last week, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird provided detailed insight into his government’s current thinking about both its “principled” foreign policy and perceptions of international security and threat.
The first aspect of Baird’s comments to strike me was the reference to Iran as the “biggest threat to global peace” because it “oppresses with terror at home and sponsors it abroad.” While there is no denying that Iran poses a threat to regional security, especially for Israel which remains a favourite ally of the Harper government, to claim that Iran is somehow more capable of affecting international peace than, say, Russia is a bit of a stretch.
Of course, observers could point to the fact that Baird was speaking to an audience receptive to such a message about Iran and that it was more of a political ploy than anything else.
But, still, this was one of Baird’s more hard-line speeches during his time as Foreign Affairs Minister, and it is telling that the Canadian government believes Iran is a greater threat than great powers which actually have a greater impact on Canada.
The second, and far more poignant, point that Baird made that is worthy of discussion was his statement that Canada would continue moving away from its historical orientation of pursuing a “middle path” in its approach to foreign affairs. According to Baird, “The days are gone when Canada’s foreign policy was defined simply by taking the middle path, by testing the temperature of those around the table, and landing somewhere not too hot, not too cold. . . . Relativism isn’t leadership – it’s the easy way out.”
This certainly helps to explain what many experts have been wondering about for quite some time, which is exactly what a principled foreign policy looks like. According to Baird’s logic, it means that Canada will assert itself far more aggressively and take stronger stances according to what it sees as overtly right or wrong.
The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that Baird is ignoring the historical successes Canada’s foreign policy has achieved precisely due to its middle power status.
Recall that the concept of a middle power is not simply an academic term: it is, instead, an idea that was developed almost entirely due to Canada’s behaviour throughout the Cold War. The middle approach to foreign policy was a reflection of Canada’s capabilities as a state with relatively weak military power but with very high-ranking economic and political power (often termed as soft power). As such, Canada’s middle approach to foreign affairs was a necessity-based strategy that guaranteed survival through alliances but that also allowed Canada to project itself politically in areas like human rights and peacekeeping.
What is especially confusing about the Harper government’s approach to foreign policy is that it rejects a proud tradition of Canadian foreign policy in favour of an approach that can lead to threats to Canada’s national security and/or irrelevance on the international stage.
Taking harsh stances against other states, especially great powers, without the capabilities to back them up does more to erode Canada’s credibility than it does to make it a serious foreign policy actor. There is safety and opportunity in the middle – logic tells us we should not stray too far away from it.
Robert W. Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, a Senior Fellow of Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Vice-President, Research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy
*This piece is available on Troy Media