Remember last fall’s version of Stephen Harper? In campaign mode, his preferred setting was the backyard of an average-looking family. When it came to talking policy, he was all about cutting the tax on diesel, or giving parents a tax break for their kids’ music lessons. But that down-home guy hasn’t been seen lately. In his place, a retooled, internationally oriented Prime Minister has been repeatedly sighted. His favoured backdrop is the CNN set of Fareed Zakaria GPS, required viewing, not for most Canadians, but for foreign affairs buffs everywhere. His policy preoccupations tend toward international financial regulation and the future of NATO.
Harper’s image makeover may be as much a matter of necessity as choice. Last year’s financial meltdown, and the global recession it sparked, radically altered the political game. Suddenly, his playbook—easy-to-grasp tax cuts, always an eye to suburban family concerns—looked mostly irrelevant. So when President Barack Obama came calling in February, Harper was eager to reposition himself. Sharing the spotlight with the politician who personifies a new sort of globalism, he more than held his own. Soon he was in New York City, fielding Zakaria’s earnest questions and projecting a trenchant world view through the Wall Street Journal.
And that was all just a warm-up for this spring’s season of high-stakes summitry. The action begins in London on April 2, with a crucial gathering of the G20, the club of nations that’s supposed to be taming the economic crisis. Then it’s off to a two-day NATO summit, to be held jointly in Strasbourg, France, and across the border in the German cities of Baden-Baden and Kehl. Later in April comes the Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago. Beyond all the conference tables, watch for Harper to selectively use international media to assert his relevance. “It’s about directly engaging opinion leaders and policy makers,” said a senior government official.
It’s also, of course, about finding ways to present Harper as a big-league statesman, at a time when his Conservative party is in trouble in the polls and facing, in Michael Ignatieff, a Liberal rival who’s easy to imagine fitting in comfortably on the international leaders’ circuit. There’s no doubt Harper often fares better with foreign journalists than with the Ottawa media mob. The Wall Street Journal headlined its opinion piece on him “A resolute ally in the war on terror,” calling him “refreshing” when he was candid, but crediting him with “skilfully sidestepping” questions when he was evasive. Zakaria introduced Harper to CNN’s audience by marvelling that Canada hasn’t had to bail out banks, asking, “What are they doing that we’re not?” The message: this guy’s here to teach us something.
Harper’s homegrown critics are far less deferential. To them, his international stance is still defined by his relationship from 2006 through 2008 with George W. Bush. Harper aligned himself closely with the previous U.S. president, and with former Australian prime minister John Howard, forming a sort of Anglosphere conservative club. Their rhetoric drew stark distinctions between friends of democracy and enemies, rather than courting broader coalitions. “If he’s going to recast himself,” says Jeremy Kinsman, a former top diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to the European Union when he retired in 2007, “he’s got to stop being a black-and-white, declarative, rhetorical observer of international affairs, and actually get involved in international affairs.”
Kinsman doesn’t hear anything so far, however, that persuades him Harper means it when he takes a multilateralist line now. To the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Harper defended Colombian President Álvaro Uribe—who was widely seen as Bush’s closest South American ally—by contrasting his government with an “increasing number of real serious enemies and opponents” in the region. Kinsman called that remark, an apparent reference to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, “bizarre,” and a potential insult to moderately left-leaning South American governments.
There’s no doubt Harper’s often brusque way of talking about international relationships tends to grate on the ears of career diplomats. In fact, one of the paradoxes of his attempt to recast himself as a world player is that his Tories have not shown the foreign service much love. Canadian embassies, high commissions, and other missions abroad, are slated to see their funding cut to $579 million next year, from $650 million when the Conservatives first won power in 2006.
David Emerson, who served as Harper’s foreign minister before quitting politics last year, is among those calling for him to “expand and renew” the Foreign Affairs Department. But he says the Conservative party’s base tends to harbour deep-seated suspicions about the foreign service. “It’s wrapped up in a perception,” Emerson told Maclean’s, “that the diplomatic corps are a canapés-and-wine crowd who aren’t getting much done on the ground for Canada. It’s wrong.”
Harper’s advisers aren’t apologizing for squeezing the foreign service. “The amount of money you spend on bureaucracy is not what determines your international relevancy,” said an official in the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO clearly sees Harper well-positioned to make an impact, and views Canada’s newly acquired reputation as a bastion of sensible financial regulation as giving him credibility at the G20. At NATO, Canadian boots on the ground, and deaths in combat, lend weight to his voice on military and security questions. Neither credential rests on the skills of traditional diplomacy.
Standing out in the G20 pack, though, will still be a challenge. Obama is bound to play a starring role in London. The host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has staked his political future on displaying a mastery of economic files, based on his long experience as Tony Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer. To claim a bit of world media attention, Harper will need to further leverage his now familiar boast that Canada hasn’t had to bail out its banks, unlike the U.S. and Britain. John Kirton, a University of Toronto political science professor and expert on summit politics, says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty positioned Harper nicely in advance meetings, by finding ground between the U.S. argument for more stimulus spending and the European focus on tougher financial regulation. Flaherty stressed another point—getting toxic assets off banks’ books—which has indeed emerged as an accepted priority heading into the London leaders’ meeting. “Flaherty’s message, it’s fair to say, did serve as a poll of consensus,” Kirton said.
That sort of subtle influence on the course of debate might interest academics, but is unlikely to be reported at all, let alone translate into a clear bounce in the polls. In fact, it’s not at all obvious that being noticed abroad resonates much with voters at home. Harper’s first big international foray as Prime Minister, a week-long Latin America trip in the summer of 2007, seemed to go well, but his approval rating slipped soon after. February’s exhaustively covered Obama visit to Ottawa, and Harper’s apparently successful Manhattan jaunt the following week, appeared to give him only a brief, modest payoff in English Canada, which wasn’t enough to offset a serious decline in Quebec.
Pollster Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, says foreign trips tend to “incrementally add to the image of a sitting prime minister, assuming there are no major gaffes.” But Nanos sees no evidence even an upbeat turn on the world stage actually moves party support numbers. Indeed, as Harper enjoyed a spate of respectful international attention, his Conservatives only managed to tread water at 33 per cent in a March Nanos poll, barely changed from 34 per cent in February, while Liberal support rose to 36 per cent, from 33 per cent in February. It’s possible, though, that without the favourable attention, and the Obama afterglow, Harper’s Tories might have been dragged down farther by all the troubling economic news.
Not all foreign policy, though, swirls around those daunting economic problems. At the NATO summit, Harper will have to try to emphasize Canada’s ongoing sacrifice in Afghanistan, rather than the upcoming 2011 end to Canada’s military mission. At the April 17-19 Americas summit in Trinidad and Tobago, Harper will have to somehow show that there’s still life in his early push to emphasize the western hemisphere. Andrew Cooper, associate director of the University of Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, says he faces a basic choice in all this: emphasize a few files as Prime Minister, or renew the Canadian government’s permanent capacity to engage on a wide range of issues. “A prime-ministerial foreign policy can be effective,” Cooper says. “But you’re probably not going to play in all sorts of different areas, you’re just going to be able to focus on a few.”
Of those two alternative paths, sticking to a few priorities that can be managed closely by the Prime Minister’s Office sounds more like Harper’s way of working. The foreign service, after all, keeps shrinking. This spring’s summit offensive looks like it will be about a politician striving to make himself matter on the world stage, not a government aspiring to build on Canada’s capacity to make a difference in international affairs.