Canada disengaging from NATO, the UN and multilateralism? Not a chance

Harper is still an internationalist, albeit of a different kind, argues Ian Brodie
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September 25, 2014
harper at the un
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the United Nations Security Council during the 69th U.N. General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Roland Paris gives a serious appraisal of the Harper government’s international policy. Other efforts to tackle this subject sometimes descend into soft anti-semitism, or conclude Harper is a policy incrementalist. Paris avoids both these unsatisfying outcomes and argues the Harper government has embarked on a new kind of foreign policy for Canada.

When I became PMO Chief of Staff, I asked a retired ambassador to help me identify Canada’s core international interests. He responded that, in his former department’s view, Canada has no interests, except for fish and softwood lumber. Paris dresses up this approach in the high-minded garb of “liberal internationalism.” But since 1945, the core challenges of Canadian foreign policy have been simple. We do what is needed to defend North America, usually in NORAD’s binational structure. We do what we can to preserve the western alliance, from external threats (in Europe and, recently, elsewhere) and internal divisions (during the Suez Crisis and in Cyprus). And, we always defend Canadian fisheries and softwood lumber interests.

Otherwise, Canadian governments are free to pick when and where to engage internationally. These efforts are rarely essential to our national security, and thus rarely generate domestic political debate. Some governments choose wisely. Diefenbaker opted to oppose apartheid and Mulroney to move first in recognizing Ukrainian independence. Others make deplorable choices. Trudeau responded to Soviet clampdowns in Poland and Afghanistan by embarking on an ill-timed international peace mission. Prime Minister Harper has focused his efforts on improving child and maternal health in developing countries. This seems a commendable choice and might help improve humanity’s achievements to date on this score.

Paris claims Harper has undermined liberal internationalism by denigrating international institutions and energetic multilateralism. But is this true? Harper has governed during a severe global economic crisis. His government has focused on building the G20, the IMF, and other multilateral forums for economic coordination. And while it is too early to assess the results, the effort cannot be denied. Paris is right that under Harper, Canada withdrew from the Convention to Combat Desertification and boycotted a Commonwealth Summit. But overall, it is impossible conclude Canada has become “markedly less interested … in multilateral diplomacy and institutions.”

Paris also argues that the Harper government has abandoned the United Nations. But is this true? Harper has addressed the General Assembly three times. He has also devoted time to trying to improve the UN’s child and maternal health programs. While his effort did not get Canada a two-year term on the Security Council, the Security Council is at a low point in its history. A decade ago, the U.S. Secretary of State argued the case for intervening in Iraq at the Security Council before the U.S. opted for military action. In 2014, the Obama Administration began bombing northern Iraq without even a courtesy call to the Security Council. It pursues its nuclear security initiative outside the aegis of the UN. And the Security Council was not notably helpful in responding to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine. Harper is not alone in calibrating his multilateral efforts.

Canada’s contribution to UN peace operations have not increased under Harper, but no other recent Canadian government has excelled here. Harper has committed the Canadian Forces to several other multilateral military missions. Moreover, today’s UN operations are often African missions led and staffed by African nations. Canada pays its dues for these missions. Under Harper, Canada has stepped up its funding for OAS and other efforts to build resilient, effective security institutions in Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. These efforts might prevent future conflict and state failure.

Paris’ most unfair criticism is hinting that Harper has pulled back from NATO. Harper expanded and extended Canada’s massive commitment to NATO operations in Afghanistan, rushed Canadian air, land and naval forces to respond to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and dispatched Canadian staff officers to NATO headquarters. Canada is now at the forefront of NATO operations.

Since 2006, Canada has cooled on the Arms Trade Treaty, and has refused to make climate commitments that the world’s largest emitters will not make themselves. The Harper government also demanded changes to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Under Harper, these positions are now considered core Canadian interests and pursued with the same vigour as fisheries and softwood lumber. But does this mark a retreat from energetic multilateral engagement? No.

Paris is right that the Harper government has departed from the post-1965 tradition in describing Canada’s history. But this is not the first government to try to shape our understanding of Canadian history. The practice of giving newly naturalized Canadians a copy of the Charter of Rights downplayed the importance of the 1960 Bill of Rights. Trudeau’s citizenship policy of 1960s and 1970s tried to shift the narrative of Canadian history and change Canadian political culture. Although Canadians have never been militarists, we were once more willing to take up arms in defence of our allies than the U.S. was. In drawing new attention to some aspects of Canadian history, Harper isn’t drawing on “vague notions of a noble war-fighting past” but paying his respects to the volunteer effort and sacrifice of earlier generations. Boosting attention to the Canadian Crown, past military valour, and the War of 1812 rebalances previous efforts to downplay these aspects of our history. And rightly so.

Paris is also right that Harper rejects on moral grounds the idea Canada should be an “honest broker.” There is nothing morally praiseworthy in trying to reconcile with evil intentions. Trudeau’s peace initiative did nothing to vindicate the rights of central and eastern Europeans. Past Canadian governments have softened their advocacy for human rights to improve commercial and other relations with authoritarian regimes. Harper’s early comments about China were assailed for impeding bilateral trade and investment. Harper has refused to abandon his support for Israel and act as the “honest broker” in the Middle East. He stridently opposes terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. This irks some observers. But it is possible the world would be closer to an Israeli-Palestinian entente if others had opposed Hamas and Hezbollah instead of pretending to be honest brokers over the last few years.

Harper’s new approach to Canada’s international engagement has nearly united Canada’s political leaders. On Iran, Russia, Lebanon, Gaza, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Harper’s political opponents either back his position or lodge minor disagreements. Harper twice mustered opposition support for extending Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan. On trade, where everyone is frustrated at failure of global multilateral talks since the Doha meeting, Harper successfully negotiated Canada’s entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership talks, and has landed trade deals with the EU, South Korea, Colombia, Peru and many others. His trade initiatives have gained the support of federal Liberals and been opposed only by the NDP, a party that rejects many tenets of multilateral trade policy in any case.

What kind of internationalist is Harper? Appropriate in his multilateralism, given the challenges at hand. Consistent with some Canadian traditions on maternal health. Showing no reluctance to deploy military forces overseas. Ready to stand for democratic allies and oppose terrorist organizations. And reluctant to embrace the honest broker role when vital principles are at stake. Roland Paris is right - this adds up to an important new role for Canada in the world. And a better one.