Coyne v. Wells: Canada’s place in the world

Is the Harper government’s recent foreign policy record a sign that it has lost its way?

by Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne

Our place in the world

Photograph by Brian Howell

Last week, Maclean’s hosted a round-table discussion titled “Canada’s Conservative Government: Radical Change or Drift?” at Vancouver’s Norman Rothstein Theatre. The panel included Keith Martin, a Liberal MP, Deborah Grey, the Reform party’s first elected member of Parliament, Monte Solberg, a former Conservative party cabinet minister, and Michael Byers, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia. The debate, which focused on the Harper government’s record on the economy, social policy and foreign affairs, was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and included Maclean’s Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. What follows is an excerpt of that evening’s discussion.

Andrew Coyne: I’m not frankly weeping in my beer that we didn’t get a seat on the Security Council, but it does suggest there’s not exactly a very strong, clear foreign policy agenda with this country, with this government. They do seem to be kind of all over the map on this, so the fact that they went for this Security Council seat, even though everyone knows Harper’s not particularly fond of the UN, seems to me to suggest a certain incoherence. I guess they thought they could pick it up easily, but they wind up with this complete egg all over their face.

And on Afghanistan, in the early years of this government, they were very firm in saying, “We’re not going to cut and run, we’re not going to have artificial agendas, we’re going to stay and finish the job.” And in the middle of the 2008 election, at a breakfast for reporters, I think it was, [Harper] completely turns over the policy and adopts the policy of the Bloc Québécois.

Paul Wells: Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have both complained bitterly about how much rougher the Afghanistan war got after they sent the troops, Chrétien to Kabul and then Martin to Kandahar. My hunch is that by the middle of 2007, they would have been finding a way to pull them back from Kandahar. Harper has left them there this long, at substantial cost. He essentially shrunk Canadian foreign policy, which had grown a little too dispersed and a little too overgrown like weeds. He shrunk it down to essentially two alliances. One with the anglosphere, Australia, Tony Blair and the White House, and two, with Israel. And he has essentially evacuated any complexity from these debates. Any criticism of a decision or policy made by the Likud government of Israel is seen as illegitimate by this government. Any corner of the world that was not of interest, particularly to John Howard or George Bush, is not particularly of interest to Stephen Harper.

I’ve been to Afghanistan a few times. We are highly respected for the heavy lifting we’re doing in Afghanistan, and there’s no one interested in our ideas for what goes on in the theatre because Canada has no expertise on Iran, no expertise on Pakistan. Actually, it’s got plenty of expertise in our missions abroad, but those folks are like Maytag repairmen: no one from the government ever calls them and asks them. And we’ve paid the price for that at the Security Council. I don’t think it’s a great tragedy that we’re not on the Security Council. I remember in ’99 and 2000 when Canada was on the Security Council it didn’t get a lot done. But it got snubbed because it’s been doing a lot of snubbing.

Andrew Coyne: But it sounds to me like you’re saying they’re adrift, then.

Paul Wells: No, I think that they are purposefully retreating from the real complexities of the real world. I’m not here to advertise for the Harper government, I’m just here to notice that they’re making a difference.

Michael Byers: I want to start by disagreeing with Andrew in the importance of the Security Council. We’re not talking about the General Assembly with 192 countries. We’re talking about the central table, 15 countries, five permanent members. If you want to authorize military action in another country you go to the Security Council. If you want to impose economic sanctions on Iran you go to the Security Council. If you want to deal with money laundering by terrorists internationally, you go to the Security Council. This is where international security is done, and Canada has always been there on a regular basis, and this Prime Minister decided, roughly six months ago, that he wanted us to be there again. He invested a lot of political and diplomatic capital, he gave two speeches at the United Nations, and he didn’t actually get the votes. Now, one has to ask why. It’s not because Michael Ignatieff made some comment before the vote. I mean, how many of you know the opposition leader in Portugal? That wasn’t what mattered.

Paul Wells: Coelho! I looked it up.

Michael Byers: There’s always a smart aleck in every class. The point is that countries were looking not just at the last six months but they were looking at the record over the last five years, and they didn’t like what they saw. Now, you can think that maybe we shouldn’t be a leader in dealing with climate change, but other countries want Canada to be. Maybe you don’t think that we should be an even-handed player in the Middle East trying to broker between Israel and Palestine, but other countries think that we should be. Other countries want Canada to uphold its tradition of human rights and they look at us and say, “Well, what is Omar Khadr still doing in Guantánamo Bay?” I mean, the record goes on and on and on.

Deborah Grey: I think those are all factors in it, certainly, but I still think they could make representation to the UN Security Council if they’re not on it. I’m not sure how many Canadians would say, “Oh, this was a really bad day.” What I appreciate about Harper is at least he’s not willing to just flip it all over. I’d probably sooner have a prime minister that did that than say, “Well, to heck with it, I’m going to just leave all that behind just so I can get on the Security Council.” He’s consistent.

Peter Van Dusen: How much of a role do you think Michael Ignatieff played in Canada not getting the seat?

Monte Solberg: I don’t think very much. I do think it’s interesting, though, that Canada has taken the lead when it comes to that UN-sanctioned mission in Afghanistan and has paid as high a price as any country, and we’ve been economically strong, yet Portugal—which really couldn’t be described as an economic leader—somehow makes its way forward. To me, this is ridiculous.

Keith Martin: Well, to put it into context, this is the first time since the UN was birthed that Canada failed to get a seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. And it is, as Michael said, it is where the action is, it’s where we can have real difference and a real effect. Mr. Harper’s foreign policy is driving through areas, Washington, Kabul, and Tel Aviv, and he has, as correctly spoken about—Andrew mentioned it—his foreign policy has contracted down. And that, I think, is underestimating the ability we have to be able to work with other countries to deal with some of the more intractable problems where our friends south of the border can’t do this but we can, whether it’s on climate change or conflict prevention, whether it’s dealing with the Muslim/non-Muslim rift that’s occurred in the world, whether it’s utilizing our diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which unfortunately has been eviscerated under Mr. Harper’s tenure. I would compliment, certainly, Mr. Harper for continuing the investments that have started in the beginning of this decade in our military, and he’s done a great job of that, and we’re all proud of our Canadian Forces members, but foreign policy now requires a combination of trade, diplomacy, development, and defence, and unfortunately Mr. Harper has failed to articulate any coherent strategy to deal with that.

Andrew Coyne: Monte, does it speak well of the priority that this government gives to foreign policy, and the degree of direction it has, that we’ve had a succession of lacklustre, unimpressive foreign ministers?
Monte Solberg: The Prime Minister said an interesting thing not long ago. He talked about how surprised he was at the importance of foreign policy, or how much time it occupies. And, let’s face it, he is more than anyone else the person that leads the way on foreign affairs and . . .

Andrew Coyne: On everything!

Monte Solberg: Well, no, that’s actually not true. I don’t want to bore you with personal stories about my relationship with him, but when I was minister of human resources, minister of immigration, we would meet once every six months at the most, and he let me . . . we had our mandate letter, we went and did our thing. This idea that he controls everything is really partly, at least, a myth. I can tell you we did what we wanted to do within the confines of that mandate letter.

Paul Wells: And yet public servants talk about a situation that comes into their life where they get what they call the Full Langevin, which is where they have been let alone until suddenly their file becomes a hot file, and suddenly the armies descend and they get worked through.

Peter Van Dusen: And for those of you who may not know, the Langevin Block in Ottawa houses the Prime Minister’s offices off Parliament Hill.

Deborah Grey: And I daresay any bureaucrat that served under any government and any cabinet minister has had the Full Langevin as well, and I bet you it’s ugly.

Andrew Coyne: Yeah, that’s true.

Michael Byers: I just want to say that on foreign policy, probably Stephen Harper’s greatest failure is that he’s diminished the strength of our relationship with the United States, and let me give you a couple of examples. On maternal health, he annoyed Hillary Clinton to the point where she publicly criticized us for not including birth control and abortion as part of that policy for the G8. At the G20 he blocked Barack Obama on his efforts to bring in international banking regulation, including a bank tax. He blocked that. And you wonder why we didn’t get the UN Security Council seat? Well, part of the reason was the United States wasn’t lobbying on our behalf as they would have on every previous occasion, and this matters to Canadians in terms of the economy because the United States is our most important trading partner, it’s our neighbour, it’s our friend, and we are compromising that relationship with our inattention to foreign policy.

Andrew Coyne: You’ve provoked me into saying something nice about this government. I thought the general consensus from a lot of people observing the G8 and G20 was that in fact we’d had a lot of influence on the final outcome of the agenda, and particularly on the bank tax, which frankly I was quite pleased to see get killed. And on climate change. The Copenhagen Conference, you may certainly view it as being a disaster and they didn’t do anything, but when you look at where the international community is now on climate change, whether you like it or not it’s awfully close to the Conservative policy on this.

Monte Solberg: Exactly, exactly.

Michael Byers: My point is that that actually annoys people like Obama, and we pay for it at moments like the election in the UN.

Monte Solberg: Are we supposed to kowtow to the Americans now? Is that the idea?
Michael Byers: No. All I’m saying is: on economic policy you want to have rational policies, you don’t want to annoy our allies unnecessarily, and on these issues the Stephen Harper government has. In terms of foreign policy we are punching way below our weight, and we were condemned by the international community for that.

Monte Solberg: I think it’s a little bit odd to hear my friend from the left talking about the need to suck up to the Americans. Never heard that before!
Deborah Grey: That’s a new one!

Paul Wells: If I may, during the run-up to the Iraq War, Stephen Harper’s line that he took in the pages of the Wall Street Journal was that we must never let our biggest ally down. So a bit of where you stand depends on where you sit—when there’s a Republican in the White House then we’d better kowtow to them, when there’s a Democrat then we’d better not. I’m not saying that Mr. Byers’s mirror-image on that dichotomy . . .

Andrew Coyne: I think you are.

Paul Wells: . . . is very different. I remember, because I was at the National Post during the run-up to the Iraq War, I remember the monolithic line that you had better not zig when the Americans zag because that’s not what Canadians do in a pinch. I think in every case we get to make our own decisions, that’s all.

Deborah Grey: George Bush was down there while Harper was Prime Minister. I don’t recall him sucking up big-time to him. I don’t think he was kowtowing to the Americans then. I think he was pretty much his own guy.




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Coyne v. Wells: Canada’s place in the world

  1. These discussions are terrific. More please!

  2. Agrred John G!

    I don't think Harper has lost his way, I just think he doesn't care about Foreign Policy, only when he feels Canada (himself) can make a huge impact and I think that's why he has chosen Israel.

    Personally, I haven't lost any sleep over the the Security Council seat, I don't think Harper cared about it, but did changed his mind at some point, I still think it has nothing to do with Canada why it wasn't elected, than to the politics of the election, "tell me what you got and I tell you if I am in", and Ignatieff comments had NOTHING to do at all with it, still not very wise comments, but it makes more of an impact with voters and his lack of connection. And the Conservatives needed to drop that fast.

  3. I think Coelho may become the new silverfish hand catch

    • I'm on a horse.

  4. Maclean's should do more of this. I hope though that Harper talks more and open up more on what his plans are for the country. He seems to be the quitest PM we ever have.

  5. More! More! More! Was this event recorded? I'd love to see a recording of the full debate.

  6. Does Deb Gray not look and sound like Stephen Harper's mother?
    She should be checked for canes or umbrellas before these appearances – I think she could get physical.

    • Ohhhhh blatant ageism – check your lefty rulebook there Jan – that's not very progressive of you

  7. "My point is that that actually annoys people like Obama, and we pay for it at moments like the election in the UN" Wow!

  8. I was really getting into that debate. Is there a link to the full debate you can provide?

    • it is on CPAC

      • Are you kidding me? The overflowing and cluttered CPAC website claims I'm "missing plug-in." What is this, 1999? Come on, Macleans and CPAC techs, how difficult is it to get a video link embedded here?

      • Oh this is good stuff see CPAC.

        Specifically on the UAE Deal, many a free market gurus have criticized the Harper Govt: how can you deny landing rights to the UAE Airlines? From a more Libertarian (maybe not just economics) perspective, why would we give rights to a regime(REGIME) that practices some free market priniciples that they like, but denies so many other fundamental libertarian principles?

        Kudos to Mr.Wells shirt, tie, suit combo – and as always his well argued stance

        • In regard to the debate, my suggestion to Canadians, and dippers (in particular), don't mistake Prairie populist Tommy Douglas with today's Federal NDP. Instead look at Micheal Byers and his half-assed performance in this debate.

          • I agree with you on your take of Mr. Byers, almost cough out my food hearing him suggest we roll over for US and to make pleasing everybody as our foreign policy.

  9. But I also question the 'days of old' UN led peace-keeping missions that are bandied about by the Liberals and NDP. Are there situations today where we march in with our blue-helmets and oversee pre-arranged ceasefires? Has the idea of soft power changed post 9/11?

  10. Does anyone know if Harper really wanted a UN seat,? If he did then he failed, if he didn't then there's an opportunity cost to the time, money and diplomatic capital blown on a half-hearted bid.

  11. The PM mistakes contempt and rudeness for knowledge and competence. If Alberta has any more gifts to give the world, please hold them at home, we can't afford them. Pathetic that this man represents us abroad.

    • More anti western bigotry? Sad to say all too common. IMO a bigger threat to national unity than Quebec separatism.

  12. I just finished watching the entire debate.

    The most interesting exchange was when Michael Byers stated he suspected that Stephen Harper was a right wing "evangelical christian" social conservative who would make radical social policy changes if given the majority. Deborah Grey became very angry, said she was an evengelical christian and proud of it and she resented Byers using this phrase.

    So here is Deborah Grey, a very public figure, proud of being an evangelical christian conservative, but at the same time resentful that anyone would ask a public figure to defend social policy positions promoted by evangelical conservative christian organizations to which they belong and support.

    Isn't this exactly the hidden agenda many people are afraid of? Deborah Grey doesn't want her, Stephen Harper or any of the social conservatives who happen to belong to his caucus to be questioned about firmly held religious beliefs that clearly will determine their social policy decisions. I guess she thinks that people who don't agree with her social polciy opinions just have to STFU, because asking someone to defend thier religious beliefs is offensive.

    • So we can impute the policies of leaders from the religious organizations they are members of? That must be why Paul Martin, Jean Chretien, Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau all worked so hard to ban abortion and combat gay marriage – in accordance to the wishes of the Catholic church.

      • No of course not. Thank you for the opportunity to make it clear. We can impute the policies of leaders from the way they respond to questions about their religious beliefs and how these would inform their social policy decisions. In Deb Grey's case she was angered by the question and refused to answer. In the cases of Martin, Chretien, Mulroney, Clark and Trudeau, they all made it extremely clear in public that their personal position and the position they promoted for public policy, disagreed with the Roman Catholic church position. They also made it clear to the leaders of the Roman Catholic church that the church's position was not appropriate for modern social policy. Stephen Harper, Deb Grey and the evangelical Christian contingent in the Harper Conservative caucus not only refuse to make clear how their religious beliefs will determine social policy, they go out of their way to hide their beliefs or any discussion surrounding it. It is pretty clear that they know the vast majority of Canadians would be appalled if they knew their real intentions, which won't be obvious until AFTER the party they control obtain a majority, if ever.

  13. Great discussion Maclean's, let's have more please. Best line award goes to AC [IMHO}. "A real libertarian would have scrapped the long form census, not kept it and made it useless"...and...release an intrusive, useless, beaucratic mandatory boating license requirement on the same day [ as a boater i hate the bloody thing...and you can go on line and be coached through it even though you aren't fit to be out in a rubber dingy.] …completely incoherent.
    AC's won me back over to his 'be what you are mantra'…over to you PWs.

  14. I had recorded the program, and watched it this afternoon. I really enjoyed the discussion, especially Wells. We need more of this type of political programming. I

  15. This discussion talks about Stephen Harper's foreign policy positions as if they are foreign policy decisions. However, it should be reasonably clear that for Harper, foreign policy is merely an extension of domestic policy. The pro-Israel tone taken on Lebanon was a sop to Jewish-Canadian voters. The 2011 pullout from Afghanistan was announced during an election, when Harper was in contention in a number of seats in Quebec. Harper's primary lobbying effort in the G-7/8 (against a global bank tax) was about preserving Canada's banking system, not about global economic stability.

    However, in that sense, Harper is little different from his predecessors. Chretien stayed out of Iraq because of the 2003 Quebec provincial election. His and Axworthy's "soft power" agenda was a front to mask the gutting of Canada's military. And those cuts were not replaced by a bigger push elsewhere – Canada failed to meet its millennium goals, has engaged in less and less peacekeeping, and failed spectacularly to meet its Kyoto commitments. An ineffective treaty on landmines signed by neither the US nor the main users of landmines hardly makes up for that.

    The obsession with domestic politics is, ultimately, a problem. Canada will continue to be irrelevant so long as our leaders are unwilling to take a hit domestically, in order to expand Canada's influence globally. At present no party is offering Canadians a grand strategy on how to move forward. Our choice as voters is essentially which group of ethnic lobbies or single-issue voters we would like to have appeased. It is a question, fundamentally, about how to divide the small pie that is Canada's global influence, and not one on how to "bake a bigger economic pie" (to quote Belinda Stronach).

    • Why would Chretien have needed to pander to domestic politics on the scale you claim – given he always held a majority? On Harper i would largely agree with you, since everthing seems to revolve around supplanting the libs as the NGP.

      • Firstly, while Chretien had a majority, it was at times a very thin majority. In 1997 Chretien only won 155 seats (out of 301). Much of that was artificial as well – rooted in winning over a hundred seats in Ontario with half the vote or less.
        Secondly, even if Chretien held onto power federally, there is the Quebec issue. The 1995 referendum was dangerously close, and a second referendum might have been enough to defeat the federalist option. Given that Quebec has different foreign policy preferences than the rest of Canada, this was a big concern, as it has been for most Canadian governments.

        That said, Quebec opposition has not always been prohibitive of Canada playing a role in the world. King, for instance, brought Canada into the Second World War and imposed conscription while retaining the lion's share of seats in Quebec. Earlier on, Laurier was able to find an acceptable compromise on the nature of Canada's navy. Today, in contrast, we don't see compromises or carefully constructed coalitions – rather, we see pandering.

        • I don't really buy your thesis; mainly because people or political parties are more complicated then we often assume, and are more then capable of having more than one reason/motive for doing anything. Thus i'm inclined to believe Chretien's decision to stay out of Iraq was more complicated and turned on more then a provincial election in Quebec.
          Still I don't totally disagree and wonder if that's a consequence of becoming too decentralized? If what you say is a fact i don't see any change in the near future, unless of course Quebec were to leave…personally i hope that doesn't happen. We will become a much less interesting country if the were to leave, even if a considerably easier one to govern.

  16. I wouldn't say that Canada not getting a seat on the UN Security Council is a huge setback for Canada, but I think it shows how the world thinks of us. When my daughter went to Amsterdam with her boyfriend and told an elderly Dutch woman that she was from Canada, the woman gave her a big hug. The Dutch haven't forgotten that we liberated their country from the Nazis at the end of World War II 65 years ago. Likewise, I don't think the world has forgotten how Canada decided to pull out of Afghanistan in 2008, a year after Prime Minister Harper told the Afghans that we weren't going to cut and run. Nor has the world forgotten how Canadian troops bungled their peacekeeping mission in Rwanda by allowing 8 Belgian troops to be killed by Hutu tribesmen. I'm sure Belgium hasn't forgotten.

    One could be cynical and say that Mr. Harper has his head buried in the oil sands, because he was no fan of the Kyoto Agreement, but as long as Canada is greener than the US, that makes Canada a champion of environmentalism, right? However, who would want Canada (or the US, for that matter) sitting on the UN Security Council if global warming became a security issue for the United Nations?

    The truth, I think, is that Mr. Harper is too provincial in his outlook to be an international leader. Despite the fact that another Canadian prime minister, Lester Pearson, organized the UN Peacekeeping Force and played a huge role in the formation of NATO, the world thinks that Canada isn't ready for prime time.

    All this suits Stephen Harper very well because he has smaller fish to fry.

    • I agree that Harper's outlook is too provincial, but I think it is a deeper problem than just him. After all, you had to go back to Lester Pearson (whose accomplishments – and Sean Maloney makes a strong case that Pearson wasn't as important as has been suggested – took place as minister of external affairs, not PM) in order to find a time when Canada mattered.

      Canada has rested on its laurels, content in waxing nostalgic in myths of its past accomplishments and making empty rhetorical gestures in the present. We signed Kyoto, but did nothing to implement it. We talk about Canadians being peacekeepers, but send fewer and fewer peacekeepers abroad. We consider ourselves to be a generous and giving nation, but have been failing to meet less and less ambitious aid targets for decades.

  17. I think that our not getting on the security council is a sign that we've FOUND our way in the world not the other way around. The world may be a complex place, our understanding of it can be deep and nuanced. So what.

    Talk is pretty much useless. IMO the main instruments of foreign policy are money and the military. Both are by their nature very blunt instruments and as such foreign policy is not something that can be wielded with a great deal of consideration for the complexities and intricacies of the world.

  18. What was the discussion about?

    I tried to follow what the topic is but it is all over the place. They were jumping from one meme to another like a frog in heat.

  19. Solberg and Deborah Grey were right to give Michael Byers the gears about the kowtowing-to-the-US thing.

    Sometimes people like Byers seem to think that the sole objective of a nation's foreign policy should be to never upset anybody, ever. I boldly submit that that's not the case.

  20. Finally, in regard to the military (and one of the Conservatives favorite talking points – My MP anyways),

    My Grandfather served from 1914-1919 for the British Army in WW1. He told his son (my father) that it was the most dreadful,useless, disgusting, utterly horrible, waste of human lives imaginable brought upon by the failure and arrogance of political leaders – there were no victories in WW1, (I realize it was different time). – but it reasonates down the the line

    My other Grandfather died in WW2. His widow raised a family when not having a bread-winner guaranteed poverty. My mother saw her father's grave for the 1st time when she was 66 – that reasonates down the line

    I worry when the Conservatives rah-rah-rah about the military they have been talking to way too many old (or more likely, not so old) men (who never saw anything), but watched a ton of good war movies.

    • WWI was not pointless. It was a war fought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. Defeat would have meant German domination of Europe and global hegemony – a direct threat to the sovereignty of every other nation. As nasty as the British could be, look up the Herero genocide for an instance of what German imperialism looked like.

      In the wake of WWI, Poland, Czecholslovakia, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland became free nations. Other former German colonies became League of Nations mandates, ruled by empires, but on their way towards becoming free states. The bargain struck in order to fight the war between governments and civil society pushed the extension of franchise to the working classes and to women. The contributions of Canada, and the other commonwealths were rewarded, in turn, with greater autonomy.

      Was this worth the terrible price of the war – it is hard to say. Did poor leadership exacerbate the costs of the war? Undoubtedly. Did the world squander a hard-fought peace? Absolutely. Yet it is wrong to say that the First World War was fought in vain, nor is the counterfactual of German hegemony an obviously preferable outcome.

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