Canada’s foreign policy, in black and white and orange

There’s a ’Harper Doctrine’ now? Really?

Further proof of the Americanization of our politics: the journalistic elevation of the drunkard’s walk known as Stephen Harper’s foreign policy to the level of a “doctrine.” We spent the post-Gulf War nineties hearing about “the Powell doctrine”, and in 2001, Charles Krauthammer gave George W. Bush a doctrine of his own as a post 9/11 present. Today, the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson gifts our prime minister with his very own “Harper Doctrine,” spelled out as follows:

 “We know where our interests lie and who our friends are,” he declared, “and we take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not.”

I’m no foreign policy guy, and John Ibbitson has taught me more about how Canada works over the years than I like to admit. But apart from supporting Israel “four-square, without reservation” — which Harper does seem keen on — I don’t see the evidence for the rest of it. “No foreign aid funding for abortion” doesn’t seem like much of a doctrine to me. As for “aggressively asserting our sovereignty in the North” … how so?

My lay understanding of a foreign policy “doctrine” is that it is a general set of rules or principles that a nation sets out, both to frame its own internal decision-making, but also – most crucially – to enable other countries to anticipate its behaviour. Take that most famous of foreign policy doctrines, the Monroe Doctrine, which told the European powers in no uncertain terms to forget about any more colonies in the Americas, and that any attempt to do so would be considered an act of aggression against the USA. Hard to misinterpret that.

The point is, it doesn’t help to say “we know what our interests lie, and who our friends are,” if no one can predict, in advance, what interests you will advance, and who you will choose as your friends. Do Canadian interests lie in killing Ghadafi? Because that’s what we’re up to over there. Was that an avowed principle of Harper’s five months ago?  Do we have stronger interests in Libya than in, say, Yemen? Or Haiti? As for “knowing who our friends are,” ask any of our friends in Britain and the US how they feel about Canada peeling rubber out of Kandahar in the middle of the fighting season.

In fact, if you are looking for a serious foreign policy doctrine out of Harper — that is, one that specifies a general principle that can be used by our friends and our enemies to predict Canada’s future behaviour — Afghanistan provides a great example. At the end of May, Stephen Harper took a quick tour through Kandahar, during which he was quoted by the Globe and Mail as saying  “Canada has been in Afghanistan now longer than we fought in the two World Wars combined.” Harper’s office claims that what the prime minister actually said was that we’d been in Afghanistan “almost as along.”

It doesn’t really matter which formulation is correct. The rhetorical point he seems to be reaching for appears to be something like: Commitment is a function of measure of threat multiplied by effort multiplied by time multiplied by achievement — the German threat was enormous, and we handled that in two wars of about five years each through almost complete national mobilization. In comparison, the Afghan threat is fairly mild, and we’ve spent almost a decade on it, but engaged only in what colleague Wells has described as a particularly violent police action.

I think that this rhetorical point is pretty stupid myself (and note, Harper has been using it for a couple of years) but it does provide some sort of guide to how the Harper government will behave in the future. We will gladly help our friends and defend our interests, until such point as it takes too long or the effort becomes too much, relative to what it is worth.

Fair enough. But what is most interesting about this that it is exactly the same rhetorical gambit the NDP has also been using for a number years. Here’s a quote from the NDP website from just last January, from a Jack Layton speech demanding that Canada retreat militarily from Afghanistan:

“Canada’s been in this war for nine years now. Six of those in a major combat role. Longer than the second world war.”

Longer than the second world war. So Canada does have a foreign policy after all. Call it the Layton Doctrine.