Harper’s foreign policy review is (almost) in (probably)

Boldness hasn’t prevented the government from being blindsided again and again by the big cruel world

What an unexpected and not-entirely-pleasant surprise Canadian Press reporter Mike Blanchfield had for the bureaucrats at Fort Pearson yesterday: he wrote about their ongoing foreign-policy review, which they thought they were doing a good job of keeping secret. (This is actually not the first we’ve heard of this low-profile review; Carleton University’s Fen Hampson complained about its rumoured existence in July.) Oh well. Highlights from Blanchfield’s report:

The FPP will attempt to enlighten the Conservatives about a number of strategically important countries. Among them are two major Muslim countries — Indonesia and Turkey.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country with the largest Muslim population and is spread across a sprawling archipelago that spans the Indian and Pacific oceans. Turkey is a NATO ally that shares land borders with Syria, Iran and Iraq.

A core purpose of the FPP is to give the government a heads-up on potential flashpoints across the globe. Sources say the Tories believe Canada has been caught off guard in recent years by international events and the new plan would serve to mitigate that.

The document could be tabled in Parliament at some future point after Harper’s office gives it the green light. But some sources say the FPP is unlikely to ever see the light of day because it could box the Tories in politically at a later date.

Why the low profile? Because Paul Martin’s foreign-policy review was a bit of a joke, more for its process (long delays; endless redrafts) than for the unobjectionable result, which handily remains archived at the DFAIT website.

In the heady days after the 2006 election, the Harper legions could sometimes be heard to boast, “We don’t review foreign policy; we do it.” But it turns out that boldness and a photogenically jutting jaw don’t keep a government from being blindsided, again and again and again and again and again, by the big cruel world. When that happens to you enough times, you start to wish you could see the hits coming. Hence Blanchfield’s line about Tories who (it’s said) “believe Canada has been caught off guard in recent years by international events.”

The bad news is that no foreign policy review will keep a country from being caught off guard. The world is really good at catching you off guard. Every time something surprising happens — the Arab Spring uprisings early this year were only the latest example — a chorus of second-guessers wonders why “we” (or “Obama” or “the West”) didn’t see it coming. But you don’t have to go to Egypt to discover life is full of surprises. Closer to home, nobody foresaw the 2008 post-election Dion coalition play, or its out-of-focus denouement. Nobody, including the NDP, expected the NDP to win most of the seats in Quebec. This is stuff that has happened in a country Stephen Harper knows well. How can he expect to be more clairvoyant in Syria or Turkey or Myanmar?

No, the goal of foreign policy isn’t to avoid surprise, it’s to be a little better-positioned to handle it when it happens. Here, Harper has already made one decent move, replacing the incurious Lawrence Cannon with John Baird at Foreign Affairs. It would be hard to overstate the overdue goodwill Baird has begun to win for himself and this government simply by turning up at receptions on the Ottawa diplomatic circuit; ambassadors used to complain Cannon was unreachable. I find Baird a bit too linear in his thinking (as in, “What is the shortest distance to the next headline” — he went to Libya when Libya represented Strength of Purpose, but now that it represents Hard to Tell Which Way is Up, he won’t be troubling them further). But he is at least taking the trouble to show up at two international conferences this month, which means he is likelier to bump into an unexpected bit of information than most of his recent predecessors.

There is nothing wrong with reviewing foreign policy, especially if it turns up handy advice like “don’t forget Turkey.” And the least that can be said about Harper’s attempt to generate new ideas is that the quality of advice he’s receiving has almost certainly improved.