Joe Clark on Harper’s ‘Megaphone’ Diplomacy

Francis Santiago on the former prime minister's take on Canadian foreign policy.
By: /
June 10, 2014

As a former Prime Minister and as the Secretary of State for External Affairs in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, the Rt. Hon. Joe Clark is experienced and knowledgeable in foreign policy issues. He saw international affairs in a unique way, sometimes contrary to popular opinion. In 1984, he helped lead the Western response to the devastating famine in Ethiopia, which at the time had a Marxist government. Clark also pushed for tough economic sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid policies, despite American and British opposition. He was also instrumental in helping address other important issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the NAFTA negotiations.

Since his retirement from politics in 2004, he has continued to apply that experience in various positions in academia and other organizations by engaging in activities that include the promotion of good governance, human rights, and other international issues. From time to time, he also voices his views on the current government’s foreign policy.

Clark does not shy away from criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he refers to as a notoriously controlling leader. Though not exactly an uncommon description, Clark’s retirement from politics affords him more freedom to express his views. Indeed, Clark’s latest book, How We Lead, is critical of the government’s “megaphone” approach to foreign policy, which typically includes grandstanding or making bold statements rather than cooperating with others.

Take, for example, PM Harper’s vocal opposition to holding international summits in countries that lack respect for democracy and human rights. Clark criticizes this overly simplistic treatment of such countries, citing that democratic development requires a nuanced understanding of the complex human and political dynamics of non-Western societies as well as the interpersonal skills to match. He is unconvinced the Harper government has learned this.

Clark is similarly displeased with the handling of the stalled Keystone XL pipeline in Ottawa. He argues that the Harper government was at fault for picking fights with environmentalists over the past few years, which only served to strengthen domestic opposition to the project. Recently, he has also disapproved of the government’s refusal to allow members of the opposition parties to join a Canadian delegation to Ukraine. He describes this combative approach in the region as lacking a constructive angle that could hurt Canada’s reputation with regard to other international areas of interest.

Overall, Mr. Clark is not impressed with the government’s confrontational tone, which he believes has damaged Canada’s international reputation. Canada once operated effectively in cooperation with others and felt no need to always sit at the head of the decision table when it could lead from behind and influence international policymaking. Presently, the government in Ottawa appears more interested in dramatic gestures and declarations that do little to impact foreign policy issues. According to Clark, it would appear that Canada’s foreign policy is trapped in a “megaphone” with little of substance coming from the rhetoric of the Harper government.

To further explore the issue outlined above and many others besides, Mr. Clark will be speaking at “An Evening With Joe Clark” on June 17th, 2014 at the Sheraton Hotel in Ottawa sponsored by the Canadian International Council’s National Capital Branch. If you have any questions for the former Prime Minister, get involved by tweeting @CICOttawa and using the hashtag #CICJoeClark.