Principles and Prejudice

Values have been at the core of Canadian foreign policy under both Conservative and Liberal governments. Where Harper's policy goes wrong is in its lack of clarity, consistency, and effectiveness, argues Gerd Schönwälder.
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June 26, 2014
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This essay was originally published by the Centre for International Policy Studies.

Few would dispute that the foreign policy of the Harper government constitutes a decisive break with that of its Liberal predecessors. Gone is the Canadian penchant for dialogue, negotiation and compromise, which were formerly expressed in decades-long support for multilateralism, the search for fair and equitable solutions to the world’s problems, and such Canadian-inspired institutions as international peacekeeping. Instead, the Harper government sees the world as divided between friends and foes, enthusiastically embracing the former but refusing to “go along” just to “get along” with the latter. Billed as more “principled” than before, Canadian foreign policy has acquired a much sharper edge, taking sides (as in the Israel-Palestine conflict), putting more emphasis on the use of force (as in Afghanistan), and sometimes obstructing (as opposed to facilitating) key international negotiation processes, particularly around climate change.

Yet despite these differences, the past and present perspectives have important things in common. Both political camps have stood up for what they considered to be core Canadian interests abroad, but more importantly, interest calculations have never been the sole driver behind their respective strategies. Rather, both Conservative and Liberal foreign policy makers have been influenced—often quite strongly—by their underlying values, ideologies, and belief systems. As such, both variants are examples of a value-based foreign policy, which can be distinguished from purely interest-driven, so-called ‘realist’ versions. Values, albeit sharply diverging ones, are critical drivers behind both Conservative and Liberal foreign policy making.

Since values are rooted in personal and political preferences, it is no surprise that critics have disagreed with the Harper government’s foreign policy U-turn, with some calling the resulting policies “bitter” and “small-minded”. But aside from such disagreements over what values exactly should guide Canadian foreign policy making, there are other pitfalls in value-based foreign policies.[1] For example, they can become overly zealous, as sometimes seen in U.S. foreign policy (most recently its ill-fated campaign to forcibly install democracy in Iraq). Such campaigns are rarely successful and often—Iraq being a case in point—lead to huge additional costs and other entanglements. Countries lacking the overwhelming military force of the U.S., including Canada, can fall into a similar trap by adopting an overly rigid moral attitude towards their adversaries. Such an attitude can quickly degenerate into empty grandstanding and a net loss of influence on the international stage if remaining avenues for dialogue and negotiation are cut or drastically reduced.

A further problem arises when the principles and standards that inform value-based foreign policies are applied selectively, creating the impression that individual countries are measured against different yardsticks. At best, this will undermine the credibility and persuasiveness of those holding and promoting the respective values—be it democracy, human rights, the rule of law or religious freedom—opening them up to accusations of playing favourites and not being fully committed to these values themselves. At worst, it will provide support to those that see any normatively-based foreign policy merely as a sham and a cover for other more self-interested foreign policy goals, especially the promotion of economic and strategic interests. Such accusations have been levelled at the U.S. for a long time but others, including Europe and Canada, are not immune. Consistency and even-handedness are therefore essential ingredients to any value-based foreign policy.

To avoid these and other pitfalls, and to successfully promote normative positions in the international arena, governments need to ensure that their foreign policies pass three critical tests:


  • First, the values that these policies are based on need to be clearly stated; better even, they should be spelled out formally, such as in a foreign policy statement or a government white paper. Such clarity is both indispensable to ensure government accountability and necessary  in order for citizens in democratic societies to give informed consent to their government’s external conduct.

  • Second, there must be effective means for advancing these values in the international arena. These have to be made explicit, including by identifying (or creating) specific policy instruments, by setting aside the necessary budgetary resources and by securing buy-in from key constituencies. Failing that, a value-based foreign policy is quickly reduced to empty statements of principle.

  • Third, the standards and principles underlying a value-based foreign policy need to be applied transparently and impartially, including when establishing compromises and trade-offs between value-based positions and other vital foreign policy interests. Such balancing of competing goals is inevitable in any country’s external affairs, but it doesn’t have to contradict or nullify the commitment to normative foreign policy goals.


To date, the Harper government’s foreign policy has come up short on all three of these basic tests.

Clearly stated values

The Harper Government has never explained in sufficient detail what its shift to a more “principled” foreign policy actually means, and and how its own values differ from those advanced by previous governments. Instead of an updated foreign policy statement that would have spelled this out—the previous one by Paul Martin’s Liberal government dates back to 2005—the Conservatives have relied on successive public speeches and media interviews, chiefly by Foreign Minister John Baird but also by Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.

For example, in September 2011, just a few months after the Conservatives had won their first majority, Baird told the UN General Assembly that Canada would cease to “go along” in order to “get along.” The Prime Minister, in his January 2012 television interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, spelled this out further, expressing fear and distrust of Iran’s theocratic regime and reaffirming his government’s unyielding support for Israel. In a further address to the UN General Assembly in September 2013, Baird insisted on the same two themes while also renewing his earlier pledge to support the rights of religious and other minorities. Then, in his historic speech before the Knesset in January 2014, Harper took Canada’s unquestioning support for Israel to a new level, effectively likening all criticism of Israel to anti-semitism.

If nothing else, these pronouncements aren’t short on determination: “double standards”, “moral ambiguity” and “moral uncertainty” are all forcefully rejected. Much time is spent outlining what Canada would not, or no longer, do (coddle dictators, appease aggressors, participate in UN committees headed by unsavoury regimes) and how it would punish transgressors (through boycotts, sanctions, even military action if undertaken in concert with its allies).

But curiously, both Baird and Harper are at pains to stress their support for a whole range of traditional Canadian values—freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, justice, to name a few—which are held across the political spectrum. Presumably, this implies that previous Liberal governments aren’t or weren’t equally committed to these same values and principles. That’s worth arguing over perhaps, but it is highly doubtful that “principle,” taking a stance, and refusing to budge when pushed alone can account for such stark foreign policy differences as on the Palestine problem, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, climate change, development assistance, the role and purpose of evidence-based research and a host of others. At the very least, these differences suggest fundamentally diverging interpretations of commonly held values, if not different values altogether. The Conservatives owe it to the Canadian voting public, including their own constituents, to make these distinctions clear.

Some might say that in an age of shortened attention spans and 140-character tweets, the kind of political shorthand employed by the Conservative government is all that can be expected. After all, why would governments spend precious resources elaborating detailed policy platforms that no one ever reads, when it’s easier and more efficient to reach citizens through media interviews, public statements and social media?

They would be wrong: In democratic societies, citizens have a right to know in detail what their governments stand for. Not only that: they need to know how different values are related, whether certain values count more than others, and what thresholds need to be crossed before normative preferences turn into foreign policy action. Only when equipped with this level of detail are citizens in a position to take informed decisions, including giving or withholding consent from their government regarding its foreign policy conduct. Left in the dark, citizens will make these choices based on emotional appeal or their own preconceived notions, which invites knee-jerk reactions to very complex questions. They may also disengage from the political process altogether if they judge it to be biased and impenetrable, which might appeal to populists and dictators but shouldn’t appeal to democrats.

Effective means for advancing values

The second test—concerning the means and mechanisms by which foreign policy values are advanced in the international arena—is best broken down into two parts, focusing on the defence and the promotion of such values. To date, the Conservative government has clearly leaned towards the former, stressing numerous times that its approach to Canada’s external relations was “principled” and that it wasn’t prepared to let those who violated these principles go unpunished.

Indeed, the punitive element in the Conservative government’s foreign policy—the stick, so to speak—has been much more apparent than the carrot. For example, Canada boycotted the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament when North Korea took over the rotating presidency in June 2001, and again when Iran did so in May 2013. More recently, Canada took a similar line with Sri Lanka when Prime Minister Harper protested its human rights record by refusing to attend the 2013 annual meeting of Commonwealth heads of state and government in Colombo. Aside from boycotts, Canada has used economic sanctions against the regimes of North Korea, Myanmar and, of course, Iran, where its unbending attitude towards the multilateral negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program put it in a different camp than all its traditional allies except Israel. And while Canada stopped short of openly endorsing the use of military force against Iran (although signaling it would understand if others went ahead to defend themselves), it did participate in the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011, helping to remove Colonel Gaddafi’s regime from power.

To be fair, the Canadian government sometimes had little choice but to take these tough positions. Few would argue, for example, that the sanctions against North Korea were unjustified, given the scale of the violations of international norms committed by the regime. And military action to defend Libyan civilians against indiscriminate attacks was defensible at least initially, although the mission quickly went beyond its mandate and was justly criticized as a result.

Still, there are legitimate doubts regarding the effectiveness of Canada’s hard-hitting approach. While it may sometimes be necessary to isolate and indeed punish regimes that violate human rights norms, a stance so uncompromising as to cut off all avenues for dialogue and negotiation is generally not useful, especially when one’s means for enforcement are rather limited. Specifically, it is debatable whether Canada’s foreign policy over the last few years has resulted in greater respect for the values purportedly driving it, and whether Canada’s role in defending these values has given it greater clout in world affairs.

On both counts, the answer seems to be no. More often than not, Canada’s approach did not produce the intended results, be it greater respect for international human rights norms among the members of the UN Human Rights Council, a more considerate attitude by Sri Lanka’s government towards its vanquished Tamil minority, or a greater willingness by Iran to restrict its nuclear ambitions. Rather, the Canadian government’s rejectionism, combined with an evident lack of hard power resources to enforce its point of view, put it firmly on the sidelines and excluded it from key international processes. (This is most obvious in the case of Iran, where international negotiations led by some of Canada’s closest allies have been proceeding without meaningful Canadian participation.) Painting such issues as a choice between “standing up against evil” in the world versus “appeasing dictators” may play well with domestic constituencies, but is misleading to say the least, and in the end amounts to empty rhetorical thunder.

The picture doesn’t look much brighter when it comes to actively promoting a Canadian values agenda via dedicated foreign policy instruments. This is largely because such instruments have either not been created or have ceased to exist. The Harper government notably failed to implement the recommendations contained in a 2007 report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (SCFAID)—and those of a subsequent four-person advisory panel it had itself established in 2009—to set up a new Canadian agency dedicated to supporting democratization processes abroad.[2] It also allowed the Democracy Council, a loose-knit forum of government departments and public agencies that could have served as a building block for a new agency, to fade away. The government moved aggressively against the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (also known as “Rights and Democracy”), a Canadian public agency founded by an act of Parliament in 1988, closing it down after provoking a rift within its board of governors.

The one exception to this general trend is the Office of Religious Freedom, which was newly established on the remnants of Rights and Democracy within the foreign affairs department. However, almost three years after it was first announced, the new Office is barely operational and still has to issue its first call for proposals from its limited $5 million budget.

In the absence of dedicated policy instruments, values can of course be advanced by embedding them in other foreign policy objectives. The Conservative government has done so, for example, by listing the promotion of democracy and human rights together with contributing to effective global governance and international security under Canada’s foreign policy priorities. There is nothing wrong with this practice as long as it understood that such linkages aren’t automatic; in fact there are often strong tensions between normative and other foreign policy goals. For instance, the quest for security and stability can work against the democratic aspirations and legitimate rights of populations demanding a greater say. The pursuit of economic and commercial interests—such as in mining, a core sector for the Canadian economy—can run up against local communities’ concerns for their health and environmental wellbeing.

Conversely, normative goals can become diluted to the point that they are almost meaningless. A quick glance at DFATD’s International Development Project Browser reveals a bewildering assortment of titles under the sector heading “democratic governance”, including “Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility” or “Energy Sector Capacity Building.”[3] Such diversity makes it difficult to impossible to distill relevant results. Embedding values in other foreign policy objectives therefore requires a deliberate and well-thought-out strategy to ensure that they remain relevant and aren’t pushed aside. No such strategy currently exists in Ottawa.

Transparent and impartial application

The third and final test, which relates to the standards and principles that underpin values-based foreign policies, should not be misunderstood as a call for absolute neutrality. That would be impossible because any normatively-based foreign policy revolves around a specific set of values it aims to defend and promote.

But at the same time, it is critical that these standards and principles are applied transparently and impartially, for at least two reasons. One is that a failure to do so risks undermining the values—which might come to be seen as empty rhetoric or a cover for other less benign foreign policy interests. (For example, democracy promotion policies by the U.S. and Europe are sometimes attacked as self-serving and insincere. If true, this would lend credence to claims by authoritarian states—such as Russia in the current Ukraine crisis—that they are merely defending their interests, just like the West.)

Second, a lack of transparency and impartiality in application of values undermines the credibility and influence of those professing to hold them. This might not be a concern for bigger, more powerful nations with ample hard power resources (whose application can lead to a host of other problems, but that’s beside the point here). However, it cannot be in the interest of smaller, less powerful countries (including Canada) that are more reliant on a rules- and norm-based environment.

Again, Canada’s foreign policy comes up short. One obvious cause for concern is Canada’s posture towards the Middle East, which is a far cry being impartial. Provoking repeated accusations of double standards, Canada’s unconditional support for Israel and its indifference to the rights of the Palestinians has severely damaged the country’s moral stature in the region, robbing it of its hard-won capacity to serve as a go-between in the Palestine conflict. Canada’s stance has also restricted its influence in broader areas, such as the building of more democratic societies following the Arab Spring (without gaining any increased leverage on Israel proper, it should be added).

Another more complex issue exists too: that of balancing normative against other foreign policy objectives. No country can be expected to sacrifice all of its interests in favour of the values it espouses; sometimes compromises or trade-offs are necessary. For example, the costs of intervening militarily to stop human rights abuses elsewhere (e.g. Syria) can be prohibitive, or the benefits of trading with autocratic countries (e.g. China) too large to pass up.

But this doesn’t mean that normative considerations are simply thrown overboard when they become inconvenient. Rather, what is needed, in addition to red lines that simply cannot be crossed, are clear rules of engagement for less clear-cut situations where continued engagement may be preferable. Such rules are essential for managing relations with big authoritarian powers like Russia or China, but also with recently-democratized states whose human rights practices are still patchy, or for situations where autocratic rulers subvert and undermine existing democratic frameworks without violating the constitutional order outright. Enabling engagement while exerting influence or offering assistance, such rules need to be grounded in a firm commitment to contribute to positive change whenever possible and—crucially—to do no harm oneself.

In Canada’s present foreign policy, there is little evidence for the existence of such a rules-based framework. Rather, full-throated declarations of principle sit side-by-side with foreign policy initiatives that say little or nothing about normative goals. In such circumstances, the latter often get shoved aside (and indeed, there is some evidence that despite its rhetoric, Canada is soft-pedalling its human rights critique of China or Russia).

There is also a huge potential for tensions between Canada’s stated principles on the one hand, and its recent drive to help Canadian businesses compete better in the international marketplace (which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing). For example, Canada’s latest external trade promotion strategy, released in late November 2013 and dubbed the Global Markets Action Plan, promises to harness “all Government of Canada diplomatic assets to … support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors”. However, the strategy is silent on the social, environmental and indeed political implications this might have in partner countries. Canada’s “Economic Growth Strategy,” as set out by then-Minister for International Development, Julian Fantino, in his November 2012 speech to the Economic Club of Canada, likewise highlights the “opportunities for Canadian businesses working in foreign markets,” vowing to “help … make countries and people, trade and investment ready.” Fantino did mention the “Canadian values of compassion and generosity” in his speech,[4] although, presumably, such considerations have little place in business decisions regarding investments, profit levels, and shareholder revenues. Unsurprisingly, his announcement that CIDA would provide support for Canadian mining companies to enter into mutually beneficial partnerships with local counterparts has been attacked by a range of observers as self-serving and wholly in the interests of Canadian industry.

In conclusion: three tests failed

To sum up, values-based foreign policies aren’t just about the underlying standards and principles and whether these are right or wrong. (That is of course a critical aspect, and it would be interesting to examine what impact the social conservatism of its core clientele has had on the foreign-policy outlook of Canada’s current government.) To be credible as well as effective, such policies need to lay out clearly and in detail the values they are based on, the means by which these values are being protected and promoted, and how compromises and trade-offs between these values and other foreign-policy objectives are negotiated. Short of passing these three tests, values-based foreign policies run the risk of becoming irrelevant or being seen as a cover for other foreign policy goals that have little or nothing to do with moral standards or principles.

Canada’s current foreign policy has fallen into this twin trap. Frequent invocations of Canada’s principles, accompanied by solemn pledges not to cave in to pressures from those that do not share them, have yielded little by way of concrete results. A tendency by Canadian policymakers to paint the country as a moral leader—most recently in the Ukraine crisis—when actual resources committed barely keep pace and often lag behind those of its key partners, has not been lost on the latter. It is no surprise then that in most domains that matter on the world stage, Canada has actually lost influence: it is now punching below, and no longer above, its weight.[5]

Moreover, Canada’s full-throated defence of moral standards at times appears one-sided, and is often curiously detached from its increasingly aggressive economic posture. Putting the pursuit of economic and commercial opportunities squarely at the centre of Canada’s foreign policy, sometimes without even attempting to address potential socioeconomic, environmental, or other implications, raises uncomfortable questions regarding the depth of the country’s commitment to normative standards and principles.

Rather than advancing it, these trends have eroded Canada’s status as a moral leader on the world stage.

1. For more detail, see, Alan Johnson, “A Values Based Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World: An Interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter,” Democratiya, no. 10 (autumn 2007), pp. 130-158, or Jack Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” Foreign Policy, no. 145 (November-December 2004), pp. 52-62.

2. For more detail, see, Gerald J. Schmitz: Canada and International Democracy Assistance: What Direction for the Harper Government’s Foreign Policy?, Occasional Paper Series No. 67, Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON (August 2013).

3. The relevant OECD statistics, under the broad heading “Government & Civil Society,” show a precipitous decline in bilateral Canadian ODA funding over the last few years. While not corresponding directly with the categories used to describe Conservative government’s foreign policy priorities, this at least suggests a broader decline in funding precisely for those values that the government says it is advocating.

4. There is no agreement on just what “Canadian values” are. Other than the versions offered by Ministers Fantino and Baird—referenced above—the Overseas Development Assistance Accountability Act (ODAAA) mentions “[the] values of global citizenship, equity and environmental sustainability”. The left-leaning Broadbent Centre recently released a major study claiming that Canadian values are progressive values, notably pointing to “equality, sustainability and justice.” While “centrist” might be a more appropriate label, most Canadians do seem to hold values decidedly to the left of those espoused by the current Conservative government.

4. This is true notwithstanding exceptions such as child and maternal health in developing nations. Outside of such specific sectors, Canada’s role in shaping broader trends in international development has shrunk, in line with falling Official Development Assistance (ODA) contributions.