The Need for a Renewed Canadian Diplomacy

The Harper government's current foreign policy rhetoric is more alienating than helpful, says Benoit Maraval.
By: /
June 13, 2014
Ottawa Correspondent for

“Freedom – Democracy – Justice.” A triptych that echoes like a motto everywhere Stephen Harper sets foot: at Juno Beach a few days ago, in Brussels last week, in Warsaw a week ago, in Toronto in late May, in Ottawa earlier that same month.

There was a time when those three words were actually translated into sound and consistent actions through Canada’s diplomatic assets. It would appear that time has come and gone.

To be sure, Canada’s actions as part of the NATO’s reassurance measures in Eastern Europe are commendable. But let’s not fool ourselves. All in all, the decision to deploy military assets across the ocean was the minimum requirement considering Ottawa’s strong—and somewhat violent—public statements these past months with regard to the crisis in Ukraine.

While a recent online survey suggests the Prime Minister’s “hawkish” tone on the crisis in Ukraine has gained political support among past Conservatives voters (with a 70 percent approval rating), this crisis will be a long one and Harper’s rhetoric might not serve the country’s interest if Canada wishes to get involved in negotiations toward a long-term political solution.

Where we should hear Canadian authorities call for mediation, diversity, respect and proactive engagement through diplomacy, PM Harper—apparently satisfied with Russia’s suspension from the Group of Eight—described the G-7 as “a group of like-minded allies, aligned on issues of global importance, capable of coordinated and sustained action.” Aside from the fact that this description of the G-7 is, at best, questionable if not inaccurate, Harper appears to be offering a personal definition of what diplomacy should be. Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice—and dull to be sure—to simply brush aside those with diverging opinions and enjoy the company of “allies” exchanging identical views on matters of common interest?

The only problem is: diplomacy is exactly the opposite. Diplomacy means accepting another party may not share our point of view initially while trying to persuade them through constructive dialogue to eventually agree upon a decision or action that is in the common interest of the parties involved. This is, of course, well understood by many.

But at a time when a potential new round of negotiations between the Ukrainian government and the eastern opposition groups—with the United States, the EU and Russia also involved—is being discussed, where is Canada?

At a time when the G-20—not the G-7—is of growing importance in addressing the world’s most pressing economic challenges; when a reform is underway at the UN for an enlarged, modern and more representative Security Council; when regional forums and organizations such as the African Union, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and ASEAN are increasingly called upon to provide collective security agreements for regional partners and where an interconnected world of threats and challenges drives a need for more dialogue and cooperation rather than less, where is Canada?

A similar pattern holds for other issues pertaining to foreign policy and international security. Indeed, despite there being 48 percent of Canadians who would rather see Ottawa take a neutral stance on Middle Eastern foreign policy—not to mention an additional 27 percent of Canadians who are “unsure”—PM Harper refused to publicly voice Canada’s official and long standing position on Israeli settlements during his visit in the region in January.

Moreover, Stephen Harper’s diplomatic positions are firm but disproportionate and do not appear to follow a definite strategy. In other instances, Canada’s voice is simply not heard.

As Roland Paris, Associate Professor and University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa, recently pointed out, “You can only lecture people so many times before they reach for the mute button” with reference to the Harper government’s aggressive approach to international issues with Canada’s closest partners.

Ottawa must make sure that our foreign policy does not become inaudible and perhaps Joe Clark’s remarks on June 17 can serve as the wake-up call for the government to reconsider its foreign policy rhetoric. Clark, a former Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs for seven years, has been a vocal critic of Harper’s foreign policy. A strong supporter of Canada’s external relations through multilateralism, Joe Clark has previously noted that Ottawa must “invest in diplomacy” rather than relying upon a personal brand of foreign policy.

Certainly Canada is not hopeless. Canada’s reputation abroad is largely positive, fuelled by its long tradition of diversity and multiculturalism. Furthermore, Canada has been a crucial bridge between developed and developing countries in the past and it is well-known for its capacity to work with NGOs and civil society. In this regard, Canada’s leading role in the adoption of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty—also known as the Ottawa Convention—is a strong case in point.

Canada can and should leverage those assets to take a more proactive and assertive role in trying to bring everyone to the table.

On the crisis in Ukraine, PM Harper would be well advised to use the full array of diplomatic assets to demonstrate that Canada can not only make vibrant and strong statements but also offer a tangible way forward. The underutilized OSCE, the only regional organization that brings together Canada, the United States and Russia, could offer the framework and the opportunity for the Harper government to introduce new diplomatic initiatives. Considered by many a remnant of the Cold War era and therefore obsolete, the current crisis proves there is room for more multilateralism on both side of the Atlantic.

Because, as Joe Clark puts it, “this is a world of diversity and of mediation rather than of domination.”

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.