Hugh Segal's Conservative Foreign Policy

By: /
September 15, 2011

What troubled many Conservatives, non-partisan Canadians, and most of our international allies about the Trudeau-Chrétien periods of foreign policy was the extent to which it misrepresented and overstated the Pearsonian approach, and the fact that it did so as a way of running from core values. Lester B. Pearson was a competent and thoughtful cold warrior who accepted nuclear weapons on our shores. His Suez intervention was an inspired effort to reduce tensions between NATO allies while reducing the prospect of a client state driven Soviet - American thermonuclear exchange over Suez at the height of the cold war. When Pierre Trudeau visited throughout the Middle East but pointedly did not visit Israel; when Jean Chrétien oversaw the wind down of any meaningful military capability; and when both sought ways to sustain domestic partisan interest by tweaking relations with the United States, they underlined Ted Heath's great line about Canadian support of NATO under Trudeau – "all aid short of help!"

Liberal internationalism was devoid of core values or principles. We avoided taking sides. Yes, we were part of NATO, but we had minimal deployable capacity; yes, we advanced the “responsibility to protect" (R2P) without accepting that that premise, without the capacity to deploy, was both cynical and hollow. We set aid goals we did not meet, we made few serious humanitarian differences, and we spent our time structuring and restructuring foreign affairs and international trade; and, all the while, Canada's footprint and real impact was diminishing.

Mulroney's nine-year administration at least struck positive blows on free trade, support for democracy in the Middle East, stabilization forces in Bosnia, genuine engagement on Haiti, and principled support of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid insurgency in South Africa, despite Margaret Thatcher's and Ronald Reagan's reservations.

Chrétien’s engagement with Afghanistan, while meritorious in its own right, was viewed by most as a dodge from the Iraqi second Gulf War issue. The first Gulf War saw Canadian air and sea forces engage fully in the liberation of Kuwait, just as our naval and air forces engaged with other allies in defending Libyan civilians from their own air force, armoured corps, and army with our other NATO and Arab League allies.

Tory internationalism differs from the Liberal version in meaningful ways. We invest in the "capacity to deploy," so whether we respond to humanitarian, stabilization, peacekeeping, or even alliance combat exigency, we have the ability to engage with well-equipped and well-trained troops with the right kit and materiel.

About three years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Canadian Forces at a dangerous forward operating base in the Panjway district of Kandahar, he was the first Canadian PM in a quarter of a century to be able to do so on Canadian helicopters and planes, under Canadian command, and with an airborne armed escort, without getting a lift from American or other allies in the region.

Our internationalism is also about values. We do not attend Durban conferences that are not about human rights but about vicious anti-Semitism; we bring in annual resolutions at UN councils attacking the Islamic Republic of Iran for its oppressive and violent suppression of minorities; we stand by our allies and do not look the other way when they require support; we back up hemispheric internationalism with real trade treaties that will make a real difference to employment, stability, democracy and economic prospects in the Americas. The Liberals advanced R2P under Chrétien and Lloyd Axworthy, for which they both deserve credit. Harper and Peter McKay deployed warplanes, pilots and naval assets and sailors to make that concept real in Libya.

Prime ministerial statements before and after our most recent election underline that values, democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights will expand our geopolitical footprint upon the foundations of sovereignty – as well as humanitarian and traditional Canadian geopolitical interests –and that we will maintain the capacity to deploy diplomatic, development, military and intelligence capacity abroad, as required in concert with our allies. The Tories have never questioned support for the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction.

On a global and historic continuum, conservative foreign and development policy is about reality on the ground and how to deal with it, not some contrived liberal aspirational view of how reality "ought to be." Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with political and social-service wings, as is Hamas, which does not make them appropriate interlocutors with other sovereign states in the Middle East. Castro was never a democrat in any way. We care about freedom of religion worldwide, and organizations like the Commonwealth matter if the multilateral framework for development and democracy are to mean anything.

Prime Minister Harper is a moderate, a pragmatist and a strong believer in a Canadian foreign policy that is reflective of who we are, what underlines our civil and economic interests and priorities (note the opening to India), and the core values of democracy, human rights, rule of law and gender equality. He also enunciated the clear view that international engagement without the ability or will to engage is no real engagement at all. That will to engage involved procurement of a large transport air wing, new mobile armoured capacities and helicopter and unmanned air reach for intelligence and troop support requirements. It now requires a re-investment in vital sea-based capacity, especially as both Russia and China cut steel to expand their flight with declared goals of greater dominance in international waters.

This stand, which integrates foreign policy coherence and defence capacity, puts Harper to the modest right of the traditional soft centre of Canadian foreign policy under the Liberals, and centre-left of the Conservative foreign policy spectrum across western nations a good place for a Canadian Conservative prime minister to be.