Stephen Harper takes up the torch for modern conservatism

With a new role on the global stage, Canada’s former Conservative prime minister is filling a leadership gap between liberal centrists and the extreme right, argues Matthew Bondy.

By: /
April 5, 2018
Harper
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Following 9/11, US conservatives and their allies embarked upon a “freedom agenda” to impose democracy around the world.

Now they can’t even impose it on themselves.

Donald Trump’s brand of right-wingery — its nasty partisanship, intolerance, reliance on big money, and contempt for independent institutions — is attacking American democracy and threatening to bring much of the world down with it.

In its Freedom in the World 2018 report, Freedom House reports a global democratic slide and attributes much of the decay to Trump’s America. Without America sustaining democratic norms at home or abroad, strongmen are more and more likely to succumb to their darker political instincts, and act on them internationally.

Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon explained Trumpism’s impact well in Foreign Affairs. “The loss of the United States as a champion [of human rights],” she wrote, “is likely to create a leadership vacuum, and the countries that aim to fill it — such as China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela — will no doubt seek to spread their no-strings-attached approach to global affairs.”

With a rising tide of right-wing authoritarianism in Europe, Theresa May’s Conservatives embroiled in Brexit negotiations, and Trumpism threatening democracy in the United States and around the world, Western conservatism is generally speaking a hot mess, impotent to advance the vision for freedom, democracy and open markets it has so long championed.

And while many look to progressive leaders like the Trudeaus or Macrons of the world to shore up the liberal international order while America sleeps, the conservative internationalist tradition of Reagan, Thatcher and both Bushes remains silent — as though there was no alternative between liberal centrists and the extreme right — with no leading Western advocate to give it voice on the global stage.

Until now.

Canada’s 22nd prime minister, Stephen Harper — no longer under the partisan spotlight but still an engaged political influencer — was named chairman of the International Democrat Union late February.

Founded in 1983 at the height of the Cold War by Margaret Thatcher, George H.W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and others, the IDU is an international confederation of centre-right political parties that share networks and political know-how to advance freedom, democracy and open markets.

Owing to its Cold War-era genesis, the group maintains a sharp focus on foreign policy thought leadership, sending international delegations to dictatorships to shine a light on the plight of dissidents and shame bad actors, for example.

Harper’s IDU appointment makes sense. It’s on-brand and right up his ideological alley. And as the 2012 World Statesman of the Year, he’s got the pedigree.

The fascinating part: Harper could be an effective advocate for righting the conservative ship in America and throughout the West precisely because he’s a more legitimate heir to the American right’s ideological and foreign policy traditions than the current US president himself.

A once and future ‘light to the world’

In 1997, as vice-president of Canada’s National Citizens Coalition, the then-future prime minister spoke to American conservatism’s international dimensions and its value around the world.

“Your country, and your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people across the world,” Harper told a right-wing forum.

He backed the rhetoric up with action both as prime minister and, more recently, in retirement from elective office.

As prime minister he was all in on George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, deploying scores of Canadian troops into the heart of the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was one of very few leaders to stand up to Putin — that is, before some of them found their collective spine. And on domestic policy, he was more aligned with Republican orthodoxy than any prime minister in Canada’s history.

More recently, he’s been regularly engaging US audiences and decision makers on business issues, even weighing in on the ongoing negotiations to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Harper has said he wants to use his IDU mandate to “address the concerns of frustrated conservatives in many countries [to ensure] they do not drift to extreme options.”

That toothpaste won’t easily go back into the tube. But Erin O’Toole, Canada’s Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs, told OpenCanada recently he thinks Harper has the track record and relationships to keep the centre-right fires burning even amid a surge of authoritarianism around the world.

“Smart engagement — through enhanced trade, innovative aid, institution building and support for democratic values — leads to prosperity and security far more than policies of isolation and disengagement,” O'Toole said. “IDU can use Harper’s track record on those issues to support this approach for conservative political parties around the free world.” 

Indeed, even now, there are positive elements that Harper can help the West’s conservative parties build upon. Andrew Scheer’s Tories in Canada show no signs of lurching far rightward, Angela Merkel weeks ago led a moderately conservative coalition to power in Germany, and a divided UK has kept any extreme positions from taking hold. But these parties pale in political and geo-strategic influence to their American counterpart, putting Harper’s task of resuscitating centre-right conservatism and refocusing its foreign policy vision on a steep incline.

The challenge will not be unfamiliar territory for Harper, however. He made a premiership out of tackling tough, polarizing foreign policy issues head on. 

Harper’s embrace of military tradition, expenditure and expedition; his staunch support for Israel; his scepticism of multilateral talkfests; and his renowned habit of dressing down dictators are equally subjects of praise and scorn. They defined his tenure.

There are plenty of explanations given for that.

One is that foreign policy always made for good Conservative Party politics in Canada — plenty of ethnic votes in it, some said. Others claim that foreign policy is really the only ‘safe space’ left for conservatives in Canada and throughout the West. As Jordan Michael Smith wrote for World Affairs Journal: “Foreign policy is the only area in which Harper has been able to act on his ideals, mindful as he is of Canada’s profound affinity for such left-wing initiatives as universal health care, women’s reproductive rights, and gay marriage.”

There’s probably some truth to both explanations for Harper’s foreign policy stridency. 

But neither of them explain why Harper would spend his well-earned (and surely permanent) retirement advocating for centre-right political principles with no votes for sale, against global political trend lines, and in direct opposition to the influence and inspiration of the president of the United States.

That leaves only one alternative. He’s a true believer in his ideals — and he’s going to live his own legacy as long as he can.