Canada’s next Conservative leader will need to renew the party — and its foreign policy

With a changing approach to interventionism and moderate conservatism in shambles globally, the next leader of the opposition will have some work to do, writes Matthew Bondy.

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March 31, 2016
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Stephen Harper's political body is scarcely cooled, and yet the federal Conservative leadership contest to replace him is already running hot.

Earlier this month, party influencers and insiders gathered at the Conservative Futures conference in Barrie, Ontario, to kick the tires on some potential bidders and launch the race to select a new leader of Canada’s official opposition.

From red Tories like Ontario's Michael Chong to libertarians like Quebec's Maxime Bernier, the full spectrum of the conservative movement's parliamentary elite was represented. 

The leadership contest will be good theatre over the next year, but it should also be a time for big think and serious renewal, especially on global affairs.

The Harper years brought serious change to Canadian foreign policy. Nowhere is his legacy more divisive. 

To his advisors, Harper was no revolutionary, just a tougher-than-usual multilateralist, as his former chief of staff Ian Brodie once wrote on this site. To his opponents, he was a national embarrassment, summed up tidily in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's favourite refrain, "Canada's back." To his admirershe was the leader of the West.

But that's the past. The future beckons.

To be considered a credible conservative on foreign affairs, every leadership contender needs to be put to the test.

First, does the candidate know the issues?

It's not about 'gotchas' — few care if you don’t know the name of Chechnya's leader — but the key is to understand the major currents in global affairs that pose opportunities and threats to Canada.

For conservatives, the most obvious answer will be global terrorism. Not only is it the dominant security focus around the world, but it also offers an opportunity to sharply contrast with Prime Minister Trudeau's government for its less forceful approach.

But the inquisition shouldn't end there.

The federal state's ability to influence political and economic outcomes is on the decline, domestically and internationally. That’s not a Canadian issue but reflective of a change in global power structures at large. As Taylor Owen (founding editor of this site) argues in Disruptive Power, the modern state is at a crisis point — its legitimacy and power challenged as never before by technology and the diffusion of political agency in the global commons. Potential Conservative leaders should be pressed to articulate a clear vision for the role of the state in shaping global outcomes in this new environment, in which power is "harder to use" than at any point since Westphalia.

"The Western world has no major conservative leader to advocate for traditional, Anglo-American foreign policy principles."

Second, what does a conservative foreign policy look like in the post, post-911 (and now post-Harper) era?

Harper and his post 9-11 class of Anglosphere interventionists tried to tackle terror by changing the culture, and sometimes leadership, in foreign lands. They embarked upon a project to transform the Middle East and advance democratic capitalism in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Those efforts have been met with partial success, at best.

And, in fact, within that grand project is the fundamental paradox at the heart of a conservative's foreign policy.

Conservatives believe in promoting democracy because doing so makes societies better and the international community safer. But equally, liberal imperialism antagonizes the conservative mind in other ways: it requires industrial scale social engineering. 

Where do the candidates stand on whether and how to advance freedom in today's global context, now that the post 9-11 project to spur liberty's advance has screeched to a halt?

What adds a layer of drama to the Tory selection process is that, for the foreseeable future, the Western world has no major conservative leader to advocate for traditional Anglo-American foreign policy principles and objectives

Conservatism in the United States is in shambles, the Republican presidential field being led by a crypto-fascist (Trump) and a despised partisan hack (Cruz). Meanwhile, Britain's conservative administration remains mired in existential national soul-searching about the country's unity and European integration, and right-wing authoritarianism is undermining enlightened conservatism across the European continent, where immigration is fuelling angry nationalisms from Paris to Prague.

America and Europe could well be so embroiled in domestic political conflict come 2019 that the West's focus on maintaining international order is further lost. Perhaps temporarily so or perhaps, to the likes of rising and revanchist powers like China and Russia, for good.

Being a comparative island of stability and a privileged member of the international community — with access to the G7, G20, NATO, the Commonwealth and La Francophonie — Canada could be thrust into the spotlight as never before in the years to come.

And that puts the nation's card-carrying Conservatives in a powerful position. They may not be just choosing an opposition leader. By conservative standards at least, they could be choosing the next moral leader of the free world.