Coyne v. Wells: Canada’s place in the world

Is the Harper government’s recent foreign policy record a sign that it has lost its way?
Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne
Our place in the world
Photograph by Brian Howell

Last week, Maclean’s hosted a round-table discussion titled “Canada’s Conservative Government: Radical Change or Drift?” at Vancouver’s Norman Rothstein Theatre. The panel included Keith Martin, a Liberal MP, Deborah Grey, the Reform party’s first elected member of Parliament, Monte Solberg, a former Conservative party cabinet minister, and Michael Byers, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia. The debate, which focused on the Harper government’s record on the economy, social policy and foreign affairs, was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and included Maclean’s Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. What follows is an excerpt of that evening’s discussion.

Andrew Coyne: I’m not frankly weeping in my beer that we didn’t get a seat on the Security Council, but it does suggest there’s not exactly a very strong, clear foreign policy agenda with this country, with this government. They do seem to be kind of all over the map on this, so the fact that they went for this Security Council seat, even though everyone knows Harper’s not particularly fond of the UN, seems to me to suggest a certain incoherence. I guess they thought they could pick it up easily, but they wind up with this complete egg all over their face.

And on Afghanistan, in the early years of this government, they were very firm in saying, “We’re not going to cut and run, we’re not going to have artificial agendas, we’re going to stay and finish the job.” And in the middle of the 2008 election, at a breakfast for reporters, I think it was, [Harper] completely turns over the policy and adopts the policy of the Bloc Québécois.

Paul Wells: Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have both complained bitterly about how much rougher the Afghanistan war got after they sent the troops, Chrétien to Kabul and then Martin to Kandahar. My hunch is that by the middle of 2007, they would have been finding a way to pull them back from Kandahar. Harper has left them there this long, at substantial cost. He essentially shrunk Canadian foreign policy, which had grown a little too dispersed and a little too overgrown like weeds. He shrunk it down to essentially two alliances. One with the anglosphere, Australia, Tony Blair and the White House, and two, with Israel. And he has essentially evacuated any complexity from these debates. Any criticism of a decision or policy made by the Likud government of Israel is seen as illegitimate by this government. Any corner of the world that was not of interest, particularly to John Howard or George Bush, is not particularly of interest to Stephen Harper.

I’ve been to Afghanistan a few times. We are highly respected for the heavy lifting we’re doing in Afghanistan, and there’s no one interested in our ideas for what goes on in the theatre because Canada has no expertise on Iran, no expertise on Pakistan. Actually, it’s got plenty of expertise in our missions abroad, but those folks are like Maytag repairmen: no one from the government ever calls them and asks them. And we’ve paid the price for that at the Security Council. I don’t think it’s a great tragedy that we’re not on the Security Council. I remember in ’99 and 2000 when Canada was on the Security Council it didn’t get a lot done. But it got snubbed because it’s been doing a lot of snubbing.

Andrew Coyne: But it sounds to me like you’re saying they’re adrift, then.

Paul Wells: No, I think that they are purposefully retreating from the real complexities of the real world. I’m not here to advertise for the Harper government, I’m just here to notice that they’re making a difference.

Michael Byers: I want to start by disagreeing with Andrew in the importance of the Security Council. We’re not talking about the General Assembly with 192 countries. We’re talking about the central table, 15 countries, five permanent members. If you want to authorize military action in another country you go to the Security Council. If you want to impose economic sanctions on Iran you go to the Security Council. If you want to deal with money laundering by terrorists internationally, you go to the Security Council. This is where international security is done, and Canada has always been there on a regular basis, and this Prime Minister decided, roughly six months ago, that he wanted us to be there again. He invested a lot of political and diplomatic capital, he gave two speeches at the United Nations, and he didn’t actually get the votes. Now, one has to ask why. It’s not because Michael Ignatieff made some comment before the vote. I mean, how many of you know the opposition leader in Portugal? That wasn’t what mattered.

Paul Wells: Coelho! I looked it up.

Michael Byers: There’s always a smart aleck in every class. The point is that countries were looking not just at the last six months but they were looking at the record over the last five years, and they didn’t like what they saw. Now, you can think that maybe we shouldn’t be a leader in dealing with climate change, but other countries want Canada to be. Maybe you don’t think that we should be an even-handed player in the Middle East trying to broker between Israel and Palestine, but other countries think that we should be. Other countries want Canada to uphold its tradition of human rights and they look at us and say, “Well, what is Omar Khadr still doing in Guantánamo Bay?” I mean, the record goes on and on and on.

Deborah Grey: I think those are all factors in it, certainly, but I still think they could make representation to the UN Security Council if they’re not on it. I’m not sure how many Canadians would say, “Oh, this was a really bad day.” What I appreciate about Harper is at least he’s not willing to just flip it all over. I’d probably sooner have a prime minister that did that than say, “Well, to heck with it, I’m going to just leave all that behind just so I can get on the Security Council.” He’s consistent.

Peter Van Dusen: How much of a role do you think Michael Ignatieff played in Canada not getting the seat?

Monte Solberg: I don’t think very much. I do think it’s interesting, though, that Canada has taken the lead when it comes to that UN-sanctioned mission in Afghanistan and has paid as high a price as any country, and we’ve been economically strong, yet Portugal—which really couldn’t be described as an economic leader—somehow makes its way forward. To me, this is ridiculous.

Keith Martin: Well, to put it into context, this is the first time since the UN was birthed that Canada failed to get a seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. And it is, as Michael said, it is where the action is, it’s where we can have real difference and a real effect. Mr. Harper’s foreign policy is driving through areas, Washington, Kabul, and Tel Aviv, and he has, as correctly spoken about—Andrew mentioned it—his foreign policy has contracted down. And that, I think, is underestimating the ability we have to be able to work with other countries to deal with some of the more intractable problems where our friends south of the border can’t do this but we can, whether it’s on climate change or conflict prevention, whether it’s dealing with the Muslim/non-Muslim rift that’s occurred in the world, whether it’s utilizing our diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which unfortunately has been eviscerated under Mr. Harper’s tenure. I would compliment, certainly, Mr. Harper for continuing the investments that have started in the beginning of this decade in our military, and he’s done a great job of that, and we’re all proud of our Canadian Forces members, but foreign policy now requires a combination of trade, diplomacy, development, and defence, and unfortunately Mr. Harper has failed to articulate any coherent strategy to deal with that.

Andrew Coyne: Monte, does it speak well of the priority that this government gives to foreign policy, and the degree of direction it has, that we’ve had a succession of lacklustre, unimpressive foreign ministers?
Monte Solberg: The Prime Minister said an interesting thing not long ago. He talked about how surprised he was at the importance of foreign policy, or how much time it occupies. And, let’s face it, he is more than anyone else the person that leads the way on foreign affairs and . . .

Andrew Coyne: On everything!

Monte Solberg: Well, no, that’s actually not true. I don’t want to bore you with personal stories about my relationship with him, but when I was minister of human resources, minister of immigration, we would meet once every six months at the most, and he let me . . . we had our mandate letter, we went and did our thing. This idea that he controls everything is really partly, at least, a myth. I can tell you we did what we wanted to do within the confines of that mandate letter.

Paul Wells: And yet public servants talk about a situation that comes into their life where they get what they call the Full Langevin, which is where they have been let alone until suddenly their file becomes a hot file, and suddenly the armies descend and they get worked through.

Peter Van Dusen: And for those of you who may not know, the Langevin Block in Ottawa houses the Prime Minister’s offices off Parliament Hill.

Deborah Grey: And I daresay any bureaucrat that served under any government and any cabinet minister has had the Full Langevin as well, and I bet you it’s ugly.

Andrew Coyne: Yeah, that’s true.

Michael Byers: I just want to say that on foreign policy, probably Stephen Harper’s greatest failure is that he’s diminished the strength of our relationship with the United States, and let me give you a couple of examples. On maternal health, he annoyed Hillary Clinton to the point where she publicly criticized us for not including birth control and abortion as part of that policy for the G8. At the G20 he blocked Barack Obama on his efforts to bring in international banking regulation, including a bank tax. He blocked that. And you wonder why we didn’t get the UN Security Council seat? Well, part of the reason was the United States wasn’t lobbying on our behalf as they would have on every previous occasion, and this matters to Canadians in terms of the economy because the United States is our most important trading partner, it’s our neighbour, it’s our friend, and we are compromising that relationship with our inattention to foreign policy.

Andrew Coyne: You’ve provoked me into saying something nice about this government. I thought the general consensus from a lot of people observing the G8 and G20 was that in fact we’d had a lot of influence on the final outcome of the agenda, and particularly on the bank tax, which frankly I was quite pleased to see get killed. And on climate change. The Copenhagen Conference, you may certainly view it as being a disaster and they didn’t do anything, but when you look at where the international community is now on climate change, whether you like it or not it’s awfully close to the Conservative policy on this.

Monte Solberg: Exactly, exactly.

Michael Byers: My point is that that actually annoys people like Obama, and we pay for it at moments like the election in the UN.

Monte Solberg: Are we supposed to kowtow to the Americans now? Is that the idea?
Michael Byers: No. All I’m saying is: on economic policy you want to have rational policies, you don’t want to annoy our allies unnecessarily, and on these issues the Stephen Harper government has. In terms of foreign policy we are punching way below our weight, and we were condemned by the international community for that.

Monte Solberg: I think it’s a little bit odd to hear my friend from the left talking about the need to suck up to the Americans. Never heard that before!
Deborah Grey: That’s a new one!

Paul Wells: If I may, during the run-up to the Iraq War, Stephen Harper’s line that he took in the pages of the Wall Street Journal was that we must never let our biggest ally down. So a bit of where you stand depends on where you sit—when there’s a Republican in the White House then we’d better kowtow to them, when there’s a Democrat then we’d better not. I’m not saying that Mr. Byers’s mirror-image on that dichotomy . . .

Andrew Coyne: I think you are.

Paul Wells: . . . is very different. I remember, because I was at the National Post during the run-up to the Iraq War, I remember the monolithic line that you had better not zig when the Americans zag because that’s not what Canadians do in a pinch. I think in every case we get to make our own decisions, that’s all.

Deborah Grey: George Bush was down there while Harper was Prime Minister. I don’t recall him sucking up big-time to him. I don’t think he was kowtowing to the Americans then. I think he was pretty much his own guy.