The Mulcair Doctrine

He won't bring pandas home from China, and other insights into Mulcair's foreign policy agenda.
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March 27, 2012
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“Make no mistake about the importance of what happened in Toronto this weekend,” John Ibbitson reminded us on the front page of TheGlobe. It may have happened in Toronto, but Thomas Mulcair’s ascension to the leadership of the NDP could have global effects.

Here is what we know about Mulcair’s foreign policy:


  • Mulcair is not too keen on Canada’s cozy relationship with the United States. His foreign-policy platform asserts, “For too long Canada has been sheltered in the shadow of our closest friend – the United States.” Roland Paris has noted that the chances of meeting the targets of the perimeter security agreement “depend in large part on the willingness of both the Prime Minister and the President to devote sustained attention and political capital to these objectives.” It is unlikely that Mulcair would push for the perimeter agreement like Prime Minister Stephen Harper has. In Mulcair’s words, “We’ve just got to stop being such chumps when it comes to dealing with the Americans.” On the other hand, Mulcair has come out quite publicly against the oil sands. While he is not quite as against them as many members of the NDP are, he does insist that crude should not be exported until it is refined. Ironically, this position may actually bring him nearer to the American point of view, which, at least in terms of the Keystone XL pipeline, aligns much more closely to the environmental perspective than the Canadian case did. That said, if skeptics like Gerald Butts are right, and Keystone XL passes as soon as the American election season is over, then so much for an imagined North American enviro-alliance. 
  • If not the U.S., then who? Mulcair is not one to pull a post-Keystone XL Harper move (“Au revoir, U.S.; salut, China!”). Mulcair worries about Canada’s growing dependence on a state “that still opposes ethnic minorities and political dissenters.” In rhetoric, at least, his stance on China has much in common with the principled approach that Harper took early in his term, before he returned from Beijing with two pandas. So, if not China, where? Mulcair seems much more positive about emerging democracies like India, so even though he may back down on Harper’s free-trade-deal frenzy, he’ll probably push hard to finalize the negotiations underway with India.
  • On free trade, Mulcair believes, “Without the freedom to vote, the choice to join a union and the right to freedom of speech and assembly, trade will not guarantee a better quality of life for those who most need it.” Under Harper, Canada has signed a record number of free-trade agreements with countries in the Americas: Panama, Colombia, and Peru. We’re also in negotiations with the Caribbean Community, the Central America Four, and the Dominican Republic. Mulcair is not only against signing agreements with countries that fail to uphold basic rights, but he also does not buy into the current government’s fascination with the Americas. “The Conservatives have continued [to] shift foreign policy priorities without explanation – abandoning our focus in Africa where our help was dearly needed for a concentration in the Americas that has not produced results,” Mulcair’s platform states. Right now, Canada is only negotiating a free-trade deal with one African country – Morocco. Under Mulcair, that may change. Harper has also not visited Africa since 2007. That, too, may change.
  • Unsurprisingly, Mulcair seeks to increase Canada’s Official Development Assistance to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2022. This is more than double what it currently is. One can assume that a majority of that funding increase will go toward Africa, harkening back to the Chrétien era, when Canada pushed for African priorities at G8 meetings and passed the Pledge to Africa Act.
  • Increasing Canada’s aid dollars will certainly elevate Canada’s standing in international organizations, but Mulcair wants to do this in other ways, too. In her response to this week’s Rapid Response question, Catherine McKenna described Canada’s international brand as “unilateral.” Mulcair would try to take us back to our “multilateral” heritage, and, in contrast to the current government, perhaps “go along to get along.” Part of this, unsurprisingly, means returning to the table on climate-change talks. When Canada withdrew from Kyoto last year, some optimists suggested that perhaps this would give Canada an opportunity to replace a sub-par regime with something better. If Mulcair is serious about making “Canada a world leader in the fight against climate change,” then perhaps we will soon see an end to Canada’s winning streak at the fossil awards. The thorn in Mulcair’s side, as so often seems to be the case, is Israel. Mulcair is more supportive of Israel than many of the members of his party. In 2008, speaking at an event hosted by Tribune Juive, he noted, “My in-laws are Holocaust survivors. Their history is part of my daily life. That’s why I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all instances and circumstances.” It’s difficult to imagine an NDP leader promoting the current government’s Israel-has-no-greater-friend-than-Canada line, but, still, even mild support for contested Israeli policies could compromise Canada’s popularity in international institutions.
  • The priority Mulcair places on Arctic sovereignty is also surprisingly similar to the ways of the current government. Mulcair would cancel the F-35 purchase, but, hey, the current government would, too! Mulcair places a priority on guarding against threats to Canada’s territorial sovereignty, and his advocacy for a robust Arctic policy probably flows, in part, from his close relationship with professor Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic? Byers advocates for a Canada-Russia axis against the U.S. in advancing certain Arctic claims. And Mulcair reiterates, “We must work with our friend [read: U.S.], but not be afraid to act independently when our interests diverge – most notably on issues such as international trade and Arctic sovereignty.” But how does an alliance with a Vladimir Putin-led Russia vibe with Mulcair’s promise to deal with states that “oppose ethnic minorities and political dissenters”?

The above is conditional on a very big “if.” As Ibbitson puts it, “if Mulcair ever does swap Stornaway for 24 Sussex Dr., it will be because voters expect his government to be no further to the left than the Obama administration, just as the Harper government is no further to the right than the Cameron administration in Britain.” Mulcair, like Harper, is a pragmatist. Pragmatists want to get elected. And to get elected in this country, there are some foreign-policy postures that one must simply accept.

Photo courtesy of Reuters