War and Peace: a Munk debate primer

Michael Petrou on the big questions for tonight's debate on foreign policy


Canadian elections rarely turn on foreign policy. We’re geographically isolated from most of the trouble in the world, and have enjoyed a functional relationship with our only neighbour for more than a century. Even when Canada-U.S. ties are strained, as they are now, there’s no chance of conflict. Canadians can, or think they can, afford to look inward when considering for whom to vote.

The exception, says Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian and international history at the University of Toronto, is when a trade deal is at stake—such as during the 1988 election, which centred on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement—or when Canada is at war.

In theory, both factors are at play during this campaign. Canada’s Conservative government is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal with Pacific Rim counties, and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union. Canada is also part of a military coalition that is fighting the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq.

That conflict pales in comparison to past Canadian wars, and voters, therefore, pay it less attention. As for the two free trade agreements currently under negotiation, Bothwell says these may have an enormous impact on Canadians, but the political parties are not divided over them the way the Liberals under John Turner and the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney were in 1988.

“Neither [Liberal Leader] Justin [Trudeau] nor [NDP Leader Tom] Mulcair will say what John Turner said. Turner said he’d rip the thing up, and everybody understood that. All I hear from the NDP and the Liberals is mumble, mumble,” says Bothwell.

Yet the outside world has entered this campaign in unexpected ways. Photographs of the drowned body of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler who perished with his brother and mother as his family tried to cross the sea separating Turkey and Greece, focused attention on the millions of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war.

The Conservatives made a mid-campaign pledge to accept an additional 10,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria over the next four years—on top of the 10,000 Syrians they had pledged to accept in January. They then promised to speed up the settlement of those 10,000. Although the Liberals and NDP have said they will take in more, the gap between the three major parties is nowhere near as wide as it was only two months ago. The issue will, nevertheless, certainly feature heavily in the foreign policy debate on Monday night.

What won’t likely occur this evening is a meaningful discussion about what’s causing the exodus of people out of Syria. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will draw attention to the barbarous depredations of Islamic State, and to Canada’s combat role in the coalition against it. Trudeau supports Canada’s military training efforts in Iraq, but says a Liberal government will end Canada’s participation in the air war against Islamic State. The NDP will pull Canada out of the war completely.

But the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria come at the hands of forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad, and it is his regime from which most refugees are fleeing. What do the party leaders think about the establishment of protected safe zones within Syria? What about a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force? The civil war has been raging for more than four years. Assad is still in power. What, if anything, do the leaders think might change this?

For that matter, the military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, as U.S. President Barack Obama defined it, has now been going on for more than a year, and Islamic State is, at best, contained. The Conservatives are the strongest backers of the military mission, but haven’t had much to say about why it’s faltering. Does the allied strategy need to change? If so, how?

Debates in the American Congress have been robust. “We don’t have anything like the same discussion here in Canada,” says Bothwell. The leaders’ debate on Monday night would be a good place to start.

    Much of the discussion may focus on Canada’s reputation in the world, rather than substantive policy disagreements. This is in part because, with the exception of the war in Syria and Iraq, there are not many foreign policy issues on which the parties sharply differ.

    “In some ways, they’re trying to struggle to draw lines in the sand between their positions,” says Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University. Parties may disagree on how foreign aid and defence spending should be directed, but no one is proposing doubling Canada’s defence budget, he says.

    Thomas Juneau, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, describes foreign policy differences between the parties as “more cosmetic than substantial.” The Conservatives’ rhetorical support for Ukraine in its conflict against Russia, for example, has been “over-the-top,” but actual support to Kyiv has been “modest.” Such rhetorical posturing doesn’t cost much financially, but Juneau says the Conservatives believe it pays off in targeted domestic political support.

    Similarly, on the topic of Israel, there isn’t a whole lot of daylight between the parties. They are all broadly supportive. But none trumpets that support quite so loudly as the Conservatives. Harper says this is a moral issue for his party, not a political one, but that hasn’t stopped Conservative candidates from trying to benefit politically from it.

    The NDP and, especially, the Liberals—with Lester Pearson’s 60-year-old Nobel Peace Prize to dust off and wave over their heads—are likely to talk tonight about restoring Canada’s international reputation. Mulcair and former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien have both pointed to Canada’s failure to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council as proof of Canada’s diminished world standing. (Harper has suggested that snub resulted from Canada’s unflinching support of Israel.)

    But, according to Juneau, who previously worked in the Department of National Defence, the image many Canadians have of their country as an honest broker that commands international respect because of its moral leadership is based on a past golden age that no longer exists. “Even then, there’s a lot of myth,” he says. “The idea that Canada is neutral or a mediator, that’s not true. Canada has always been extremely close to the United States. Canada has always been an active member of NATO.”

    But Rob McRae, director of the Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton, says tone does matter in foreign affairs. “One needs to be careful that one does not appear on the international scene, especially when you’re not one of the big powers, as a kind of gunslinger in the O.K. Corral,” says McRae, a former Canadian diplomat who served in the Privy Council Office from 2011 to 2014.

    “We’ve all got principles around human rights and democracy and so on, and these principles should never be sacrificed. But often, you need to talk. And often, the people you need to talk to are not your friends. The real work of diplomacy is often talking with people with whom you disagree and with whom you have fundamental differences.”

    For this reason, says McRae, many Canadian diplomats “paused” over the Conservatives’ decision to close Canada’s embassy in Tehran. Trudeau says he would like to reopen it—an issue that may feature in tonight’s debate.

    Even if Canada is unlikely to recapture the influence it had in the world following the Second World War—when much of Europe lay in ruins—we could be doing more, says Jean Daudelin, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton.

    One step would be to empower diplomats, something the current Conservative government has not done, he says. “We’ve just used them as pawns. There’s a dismissive attitude [from the government] toward what diplomacy can do and what diplomats can do,” he says. “They will tell you how they are being treated by young members of the minister’s office and the [Prime Minister’s Office] as if they were nothing but paper-pushers—which they are becoming, but which they don’t have to be.”

    Daudelin points to the peace process in Colombia, where Norway, a small Scandinavian country, is playing a crucial role. Canada is not, but could be, he says. Are there votes to be had by advocating for a more active role in ending a decades-long South American war? It’s doubtful. Don’t expect to hear about it during Monday’s debate.