Canada Has Lost Its Way on Foreign Policy

It was far more than a simple gaffe, although by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s unperturbed reaction, one would be hard pressed to tell.

On April 9, Canada’s foreign minister decided to cross the Green Line into Arab East Jerusalem to have coffee with his Israeli interlocutor Tzipi Livni. It was a breach of diplomatic protocol and a violation of longstanding Canadian policy — but Mr. Baird tranquilly characterized such “semantic argument(s)” as “irrelevant.”

Only a government so doggedly committed to one side of a dispute, living in its own Manichean creation, could have the gall to meet with officials of an occupying state in the land of an occupied people in search of “peace.” Since 1967, the consensus among Western states has been not to meet with Israeli officials on illegally occupied territory because doing so would be a de facto legitimation of Israel’s claims to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, illegal under international law.

Nabil Shaath, former foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, called Baird’s incendiary coffee run a “slap in the face to the Palestinian people” at a time when the U.S. Secretary of State was shuttling between both camps to restart negotiations.

This latest diplomatic blunder, however, falls squarely within a pattern of repeated failures on the part of Canada to live up to its diplomatic reputation. Stephen Harper’s foreign policy doctrine — encapsulated in his mantra that Canada will no longer “go along just to get along” — has seen a diminution of the country’s soft power abroad and a derogation of established foreign policy principles.

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, Canada adopted a policy towards Israel reminiscent of Republican neoconservatism, ruptured relations with Iran at a time when diplomatic engagement is sorely needed, ignored all of Asia — including China — until only a few years ago, froze aid to Haiti and, perhaps most appallingly of all, tied development assistance to mining interests.

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The Conservatives have virtually no environmental policy and their near-obsessive disparagement of the United Nations and international institutions makes it obvious why Canada lost its bid for a U.N. Security Council seat in 2010, a first in Canadian history. At times, the prime minister has gone out of his way to snub the United Nations — as happened last fall when he accepted an international statesmanship award in New York just as the UN General Assembly was meeting but refused to address the community of nations, something that would befit a recently-commended statesman. The irony was ripe.

Of course, the prime minister sees the revolution in Canada’s foreign policy as a principled stand in an unstable world, a break from the ‘Boy Scout’ days of Liberal party foreign policy that the Conservatives relish in caricaturing. There is some merit to their critique of the 1990s, when most Canadian foreign policy was outsourced to UN Headquarters — what Allan Gotlieb termed the Chretien Doctrine — and the military’s budget was slashed precipitously. After 9/11, Canada was ill-prepared in terms of sheer hard power to respond, but Canadian soldiers still valiantly took on dangerous roles in Afghanistan from which our European counterparts respectfully shied away.

For Harper’s Conservatives, however, unilateralism and assertiveness have become ends in themselves, rather than means to be employed selectively to achieve strategic ends. “We know where our interests lie and who are friends are,” Harper thundered after his 2011 majority victory. “And we take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not.”

What are these “principled positions”? Unflinching support for Israel, tacit support for Bahrain — a rabid human rights violator — unilateral withdrawal from the UN anti-drought convention, hectoring and lecturing other countries abroad as the Canadian government goes in search for lucrative trade deals, cutting development programs and the Department of Foreign Affairs’ budget. This is not leadership. It is naiveté coupled with hubris, a dangerous combination for the country’s future.

After seven years in office, it has become abundantly clear that the Conservative party dislikes diplomacy more than it dislikes the Liberals. On issues after issue, Canada now seems callous, rhetorically belligerent and hopelessly inconsistent. Roland Paris, University Research Chair of International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa, recently compared this new Canada to a drunk, “sometimes shouting and haranguing, and sometimes whispering conspiratorially.”

“No one knows what to expect from Canada anymore,” Paris concluded. Even to dignify the Conservatives’ approach to the world by calling it a foreign policy — in the true sense of the term — would be a mistake, as the country now meanders from region to region mouthing platitudes.

Eventually, this government will be replaced and Harper’s successors will have their work cut out for them to restore the country’s global standing. In which direction should Canadian foreign policy head? Some common-sense steps Canada should take include: a return to substantive support for a two-state solution; a resumption of diplomatic engagement with Middle Eastern states coupled with nudges towards democratic reform; a restoration of the United Nations’ proper place within Canadian diplomacy; a lead on international climate change negotiations; a refrain from incessant references to Canada’s colonial heritage; a priority on civil societies across the developing world; and, in tandem with greater prioritization of the Asia-Pacific region, a ‘pivot to Africa’ strategy that will make Canada an equal partner with that vital continent moving forward.

Both progressives and conservatives tired of this government’s moralistic bombast could unite around a revitalized foreign policy. As an established democracy with a legacy of international support and respect, Canada has much to offer the world. It’s time we got back to it.

A version of this article originally appeared in iPolitics on April 21, 2013.