Just how seriously is Canada's voice taken now?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a much weaker record on foreign policy than he would have Canadians believe

Shaun Best/Reuters

Shaun Best/Reuters

It was a moment made-to-order for Stephen Harper’s dark way of talking about the world. Going back to the 2011 election, the Prime Minister has often portrayed Canada as an island of safety in a global sea of dangers. Sometimes that imagery comes off as alarmist, but the rhetoric works when the topic at hand is the rise of Islamic State extremism in Syria and Iraq. So, when Harper rose in the House of Commons last week to make his case for joining U.S. President Barack Obama’s air campaign against the terrorists, he sounded very much himself in framing the disturbing new threat. He also said that deploying CF-18 fighter jets was necessary to maintain Canada’s international standing. “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world—and we should, since so many of our challenges are global—being a free rider means you are not taken seriously,” Harper said.

Perhaps inadvertently, though, Harper suggested a question: Just how seriously is Canada’s voice taken now? Conservatives’ claims about having restored Canada’s clout on the world stage have always rested heavily on their reinvestment in the military. But Harper’s early defence-spending hikes turned to cuts after the 2009 recession, while he staged a tactical retreat from his high-profile pledge to buy F-35 jets to replace the aging CF-18s—eroding his image as an unwavering builder of the Canadian Forces’ might. After more than eight years of his rule, does Canada’s military reputation really rank noticeably higher? As Obama assembled his coalition to bomb Islamic State (also know as ISIS), the U.S. signed up a raft of other allies days, or even weeks, before Canada, including bigger military powers such as France and Britain, but also the likes of Australia, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.


Of course, standing on defence isn’t the only measure of Harper’s strength or weakness in the world. Back before his 2006 election win, he set Canada-U.S. relations as the litmus test. As Opposition leader in 2002, Harper delivered a tough attack in the House on then-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s “consistent and complete inability” to bolster Canadian economic interests in the U.S. As PM, however, Harper hasn’t fared better. American border restrictions remain a serious Canadian government frustration. The low point came in early 2012, when Obama told Harper there would be no quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to siphon Alberta crude to U.S. refineries. A wounded Harper sent out Joe Oliver, then his natural resources minister, to tell reporters the “decision by the Obama administration underlines the importance of diversifying and expanding our markets, including the growing Asian market.”

For those who remember Harper’s opposition days, that message delivered by Oliver, now Harper’s finance minister, had an ironic ring to it. Back in his 2002 assault on Liberal foreign policy, Harper had derided Chrétien’s attempts at diversifying Canada’s trade beyond the U.S. as an unrealistic echo of the so-called “third option” pursued by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, “which did not work then and is not working now.” Harper learned the hard way that there was something to the old Liberal position that Washington’s intransigence leaves Canada no choice but to cultivate trade options overseas. Still, Conservative fans of his no-nonsense style can at least take solace in the way Harper has ditched the old soft-power Liberal brand of multilateralism—the ethos behind former preoccupations such as creating the International Criminal Court, or a treaty to ban land mines—for much sterner stuff.

Or has he? In the days leading up to a key Harper speech at the United Nations late last month, advance stories were full of confident predictions about which world issues he would tackle. After snubbing the General Assembly for three years—ever since his government’s embarrassing failure to win a UN vote for a temporary seat on its Security Council in 2010—the PM had to be returning to blast Russia for incursions into Ukraine and to denounce Islamic State outrages in Iraq. Or so it was assumed. As it turned out, he spoke almost entirely about an aid initiative to improve the health of mothers and newborns. Alluding only vaguely to border tensions in Eastern Europe and bloodshed in the Middle East, he urged UN members to look past violent conflicts to “the long-term opportunities and efforts that can truly transform our world.”

It was a classically Canadian internationalist plea, issued in the New York temple to multilateralism held sacred by Harper’s most bitter critics. Was this really the same Harper who had so often scoffed at Canada’s historic approach to the UN as a matter of  “going along to get along”? Even more scornfully, he once summed up his foreign-policy philosophy this way: “It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations.” But, with the maternal and child health initiative, a growing preoccupation of Harper’s for several years now, he is clearly trying to put his stamp on what looks like the sort of UN-focused project his Conservatives used to mock Liberals for championing.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be an absurd stretch to suggest that the Harper who championed the Forces, was suspicious of the UN, and assigned enormous importance to Canada-U.S. economic relations, has disappeared. But he has found those pillars too unsteady to bear the full weight of his foreign policy. It’s been a steep learning curve. Before he won power in 2006, he had barely travelled outside Canada and had focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, mostly economic and constitutional. “Since coming to office,” he told Maclean’s in a 2011 interview, “the thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectations—I don’t even know what my expectations were—is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but, in fact, that it’s become almost everything.”

Harper inherited the most challenging overseas file in a generation: Afghanistan. Five weeks after being sworn in as Prime Minister on Feb. 6, 2006, he was on a Kandahar airfield telling the assembled troops, “You can’t lead from the bleachers; I want Canada to be a leader.” His Conservatives backed that up by boosting annual defence spending from about $15 billion the year before they took power to closer to $20 billion. Impressive as that top-line figure is, though, it hardly tells the whole story.

David Perry, a senior analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa, offers perhaps the most fine-grained analysis of Canada’s military budget available, outside of classified documents. Perry says defence spending, adjusted for inflation, is actually lower today than it was in 2007. He points to four consecutive years of shrinking outlays on new military hardware, a trend he now calls “seemingly irreversible.”

Perry even argues that there never was any sharp divide on defence between Liberal and Conservative times. The real watershed came in 2005, he contends, when the Liberals, flush with surpluses after slaying the deficit, reinvested heavily in the Department of National Defence. Taking over the following year, Harper built on that new spending policy, to be sure, but only until the 2009 recession. Since then, according to Perry’s analysis, spending restraint has again been the order of the day, with defence absorbing fully a quarter of all federal spending cuts in last spring’s budget.


Translating budget numbers into a real understanding of military readiness is notoriously difficult. Senior officers are reticent to speak out. Back in 2012, however, Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, then commander of the army, surprised a Senate committee by disclosing that his land force’s operating budget had been slashed by 22 per cent. Devlin retired last year to become president of Fanshawe College in London, Ont. In a recent interview, he said cuts shrunk battalions, which are supposed to be made up of about 800 troops, to 500, and those diminished infantry units are getting “dramatically less” training in the field. “That’s what affects operational readiness,” Devlin said.

If Harper wants to keep making overseas commitments, Perry adds, spending will have to be increased again. He pointed to stepped-up NATO activity in Europe, reacting to Russia’s menacing posture along Ukraine’s border, and the six-month Iraq deployment, which could be prolonged. Successive years of belt-tightening have reduced the Forces’ flexibility to take on such new missions. “Relative to three years ago,” Perry says, “there’s much less ability to absorb incremental costs having to do with operational activity.”

More obvious than operational strains are problems in wrapping up major procurements. The lifespans of the CF-18s—on average nearly three decades old—are being extended at great cost, as a result of long-running indecision over their replacement. After announcing their intention to acquire 65 of the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in 2010, the Conservatives were pummelled for hiding the true cost, likely $45 billion, and for failing to make the case for the cutting-edge F-35s over jets already in production. As well, two Aurora surveillance planes that will be accompanying the CF-18s to Iraq are also about 30 years old, part of a fleet slated for replacement by the Tories early on, until that plan was abandoned as too costly. One can only imagine the ridicule Conservatives, in their opposition days, would have heaped on the Liberals for such handling of major Air Force procurements.

So the military rebirth touted by Tories as Canada’s new calling card abroad is under strain. The Ottawa-Washington relationship—flagged by Harper, before he got the job, as any PM’s top foreign-policy priority—is stressed. Harper’s rapport with other world leaders hardly makes up for these gaps. He’s chummiest with like-minded conservatives—such as Australia’s Tony Abbott and, more controversial, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—from countries that don’t rank as top trading partners or first-tier powers. That leaves pursuing trade deals, such as those hammered out with South Korea and the European Union, as the acknowledged strongest element of Harper’s international efforts. “This government has, from the very beginning, emphasized the substance of a trade agenda,” says Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, otherwise a forceful Harper critic.

But trade alone isn’t typically enough to cement a leader’s reputation as an accomplished global player. If Harper’s recent UN speech was any indication, he’s staking a different sort of claim. Spotlighting his leadership on the UN Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, which he co-chairs with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, takes Harper far outside the bounds of familiar Conservative emphasis on “interests” (typically trade and investment) or “convictions” (notably, backing embattled countries such as Israel and Ukraine). It takes him to the UN.

It’s the same UN that runs the climate-change negotiations where Harper’s delegations—defending Canada’s oil sector—are widely regarded as obstructionists. It’s the UN that John Baird, Harper’s foreign minister, once accused of indulging a “preoccupation with procedure and process” so stultifying, he swore off any future Canadian involvement in “how the UN arranges its affairs.” And it’s the UN where criticisms of Israel frequently arise, which the Harper government unfailing decries—as it did last summer when then-UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for a ceasefire after Israel’s bombing of Gaza caused many civilian casualties, prompting Baird to scold Pillay for being neither “helpful nor reflective of the reality of this crisis.”

What a strange turn it will be if Harper’s signature foreign-policy achievement ends up being a UN-based project. Perhaps the maternal and child health initiative represents a sort of reconciliation, on his own terms, with the multilateralism long associated with the loathed Liberals. And, on other fronts, fresh chances for him to buff up his international credentials may be emerging. This fall’s economic update is expected to herald a return to balanced federal books, perhaps allowing Defence an injection of new money, or, at least, relief from further restraint. In responding to the Islamic State crisis, Harper has been unstintingly outspoken in crediting Obama’s leadership, along with sending the CF-18s, which can’t hurt bilateral relations.


Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Not surprisingly, Harper’s sharpest critics doubt his capacity to convert opportunities into a new sophistication. Roland Paris detects no sign of Harper “paying attention to the context of foreign affairs.” Even some of the Prime Minister’s avowed admirers see plenty of room for improvement. Derek Burney, a top architect of Brian Mulroney’s Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, now a senior adviser at the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, often leaps to Harper’s defence. Yet he regards this PM’s top priorities, such as his rock-ribbed support for Israel, as too often detached from any strategic framing of Canadian interests. “What we’ve had is rather spasmodic foreign policy based on conviction or principle—very stout,” Burney says. “I like the conviction, but I’d like to see more strategy on places like China.”

Among foreign-policy experts, geopolitical strategy is much in the air again. Once overshadowed by investment and trade, during the optimistic end-of-history era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, deep thinking about intractable problems has returned, especially in the wake of troubling developments in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and, lately, Hong Kong. All serve as reminders that convictions are no substitute, in an often bewildering world, for elite expertise. To obtain that rarefied commodity, argues Colin Robertson, a veteran former diplomat, whose postings included Washington and the UN, “you need hard-core, classic diplomatic skills.” After eight years of skeptical Conservative oversight, however, he doubts a demoralized foreign service is working seamlessly with Harper and his senior political aides. “If you beat a dog all the time, then the dog isn’t going to do what you like,” says Robertson, now vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

But Burney counters that Harper’s detractors are delusional if they imagine Canadian foreign policy should return to some bygone Liberal brand of diplomat-driven multilateralism. “Let’s not luxuriate in the myth of how wonderful it used to be,” he says. In fact, there was a good, strong whiff of that sort of nostalgia in the air on Parliament Hill during the debate over the Iraq air-strikes deployment. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau played to the notion of a special Canadian vocation for peaceful contributions such as medical aid or refugee airlifts. “We can be resourceful, and there are significant, substantial, non-combat roles that Canada can play,” Trudeau said, “and some we can play better than many, or perhaps any, of our allies.” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said, “Canada’s first contribution should be to use every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource at our disposal.”


The stark contrast exposed by the partisan clash over the air strikes might play to Harper’s advantage. Last month, the Ottawa polling firm Abacus Data asked Canadians about sending fighter jets against Islamic State in Iraq, and 57 per cent supported the plan, against just 34 per cent who opposed it, with 14 per cent who were not sure. That suggests Harper can expect far stronger approval of this decision than he enjoys overall on foreign policy; the same Abacus poll said 28 per cent favour his foreign-policy approach over Trudeau’s, not much better than the 23 per cent who think they’d prefer Trudeau’s if he became prime minister, over Harper’s. (Twenty-six per cent had no preference.)
Harper’s record on repositioning Canada in the world is uneven. But the urgent question of this moment isn’t about how well he works with the White House on economic matters, or if he has equipped and funded the military quite so generously as he lets on, or even if his approach to UN-based multilateralism is consistent. The immediate concern is about Canada’s contribution to a global coalition to stop Islamic State terrorism from spreading. Policy debate is abstract. Military action is tangible.

The test, at least in the coming weeks, will likely have less to do with the Prime Minister’s foreign-policy acumen than with the accuracy of CF-18 strikes somewhere in Iraq, or perhaps Syria. Sorting out how this changes the wider view of foreign affairs under Harper will have to wait until sometime after the smoke clears.