What the Harper era tells us about how parliament and politics play into foreign policy

A new collection of essays looks at how Stephen Harper conducted foreign policy under both minority and majority governments. Catherine Tsalikis speaks to one of its editors to find out what they learned.

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January 30, 2017
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 24, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Implicit in Justin Trudeau’s much-touted “Canada is back” proclamation, made shortly after his election win, was the accusation that, under his predecessor, Canada had veered off course. With Stephen Harper at the helm, goes the lore according to many, Canadian foreign policy broke with tradition, as the former prime minister snubbed the United Nations, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, supported Israel unconditionally and talked tough to Vladimir Putin, in flagrant violation of Canada’s history as a globally engaged helpful fixer.

But a new collection of essays, edited by Canadian academics Adam Chapnick and Christopher Kukucha, presents a more nuanced reality: that while there was an impulse on Harper’s part to deviate from the norm, external and systemic factors, like the Canadian economy, American policy and the dynamics of the international community, ensured that Canada’s foreign policy under Harper wasn’t as much of an aberration as some might think.

The Harper Era in Canadian Foreign Policy: Parliament, Politics, and Canada’s Global Posture (UBC Press) looks back at almost a decade of Conservative rule, with the particular goal of assessing how foreign policy files like defence, aid, trade and energy differed under Harper’s minority governments (2006-2008 and 2008-2011) and majority government (2011-2015) — as well as from other prime ministers’ approaches.

 As Chapnick told OpenCanada ahead of the book’s launch on Jan. 18 at the Munk School for Global Affairs, the Harper government provides a unique opportunity to examine how minorities and majorities in the House of Commons constrain or free a prime minister in terms of his dealings abroad.

We spoke with Chapnick about the book’s findings — many of which will be surprising to readers —and why this discussion of minorities and majorities is an important one, in light of the Trudeau government’s promise to overhaul the way Canadians vote ahead of the next federal election.

How did this book come about?

Around 2013, I was at a conference about Canadian foreign policy and realized that the next election, 2015, would mean that Stephen Harper had been prime minister with minority governments for about five years, and a majority government for about four years. The panel at this conference was made up of all political scientists talking about how you measure things, and it seemed like an interesting opportunity to try to measure, or at least compare, how foreign policy was done under the minority parliaments versus how it was done under the majority.

Historically, we’ve never had that kind of opportunity in Canada before, unless you go back to Mackenzie King in 1921. We haven’t had a prime minister who has had the equivalent of a full term of minority rule, if you put the two Harper terms together, and then a full term of majority on top of that. So given that it had been about a decade of Harper foreign policy, it was probably time to look back at that period anyway, and given how it was divided it seemed to make sense to look at it through this lens. Add to that the fact that in 2013 everyone was talking about how the next government would be a minority, it made even more sense to ask, if we go back to minorities, will that change anything, or how much will it change anything? 

What did you find — how much was Harper’s foreign policy affected by the status of his government?

What we found was surprising. Christopher Kukucha [and I] thought we would find massive shifts based on the traditional thinking that in a minority you have to be very careful and take fewer risks because you don’t want to accidentally bring down your government, and in a majority you should be free to do whatever you want, in any way you want.

[Canadian academic and former politician] John English saw some shifts in his chapter [on how minorities and majorities affected the governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau], but most of the people who wrote our case studies [on the Harper years] didn’t see those shifts at all. They saw much more consistency than we expected, for two reasons, I think. One of the reasons is that there are real limits to the extent that any Canadian government can change the trajectory of our foreign policy, and the second reason is that for most of its nine-plus years, the Harper government governed as if it had a majority anyway. They very rarely adjusted the foreign policy trajectory to make sure they could win a vote in the House.

Regardless of majority or minority, then, what was behind the way Harper conducted his foreign affairs?

On certain issues Harper had some very strong views — Israel being one of them — but for most of the issues that we covered in the collection, external factors determined a lot more than Harper’s personal thinking. On the environment, the extent that the United States pursued environmental reform (which was until very recently not very aggressive) made Harper’s decision not to pursue much on environmental reform quite easy. Had the U.S. been more aggressive things would’ve been different. On energy, the relationship with the U.S. again was absolutely critical, and in many ways shaped the way Harper responded as opposed to him being able to shape the environment that he was working in. On trade, because Canada is working within a global system, there were systemic factors that changed things. The Trans-Pacific Partnership wasn’t a Canadian idea, we had become involved because it was there, not because Harper had initiated that sort of negotiation. Although [the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement] itself was very much pushed by the Conservative government, a previous iteration of it had been tried by the Chrétien Liberals, so that wasn’t really new, either. 

Many consider Canada’s foreign policy during the Harper years to be a deviation from the norm — was that the case?

I think there was a desire to deviate from the norm, and that in areas where it was possible — in terms of diplomatic posture, in terms of how Canada presented itself on the world stage, in terms of the words that its diplomats and foreign ministers used — there were some significant differences. But when you drill down into the policy, in terms of what Canada can actually do on the world stage, there isn’t nearly as much freedom, and as a result the actual shifts were much smaller than the rhetoric would have suggested they were.

It’s not all that different from the state of Canadian politics, in that we have a New Democratic Party that’s supposed to be on the left, the Liberal Party in the centre and the Conservative Party on the right, and if we put those three parties in another country, all the politicians would be in the same party. There are real limits — we’re a fairly small ‘c’ conservative country, constrained in terms of our options.

Trudeau’s government has been in power now for more than a year — how does his foreign policy compare to his predecessor’s, so far?

I think the diplomatic posture has changed. That was deliberate and is not surprising; it’s much more consistent with previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. The diplomatic corps is more open, diplomats are speaking more freely, at least rhetorically there’s a new commitment to multilateralism and multilateral organizations (although the Harper government really didn’t reject multilateralism, it just practiced selective multilateralism).

So that’s a change, but how that works out in terms of policy…I don’t think that the changes will necessarily be profound. There’s an opportunity to make a fairly significant shift on development assistance, but we haven’t seen the report and what the minister is going to do yet, so we can’t be certain of what’s going to happen there. Since there isn’t a lot of money, there are some limitations to how big a shift you could make. On trade policy, the Trudeau government has been fairly consistent with the Harper government. On Israel, it’s really about nuance, more than anything else. On defence, it’s a money issue as much as it was with the majority Harper years, so I don’t see massive shifts. On the environment, there has been a much more aggressive change, and that’ll certainly show domestically. On the world stage, Canada’s contribution to global environmentalism in economic terms is relatively limited; by example we’ll be different, but by impact we’ll still be quite limited.

There may be some soft power benefits to the shift in tone. We’ll never as a public be able to see that until 20 years after the fact, but it’s quite possible that a more cooperative Canadian posture worldwide will help us in all sorts of negotiations. [Right now] we can’t really measure that, and we can’t be certain.

What do you hope Canadians will take from this study?

Chris and I were fortunate to bring in an amazing group of experts — even though we may not get it exactly right because we don’t have access to secret discussions, I think there’s a real value to being able to look back now at what has happened. 

If we are going to have a conversation in Canada about electoral reform, it should go deeper than just “what will the new system look like?” It should also include questions about how this might affect the way policy is made. I think it’s worthwhile to have a conversation about, if we shifted to a system that was more proportional representation, would that change foreign policy? We should be asking these questions.

To make it even more real — [former trade minister, now foreign minister] Chrystia Freeland is credited with having personally improved the chances for CETA when she went over [to Brussels] when the negotiations were bogged down. If you’re in a minority situation where you only have a one or two vote plurality, maybe you can’t send her, and that changes everything in a negotiation. So there could be tangible impacts if we switched systems, and I think that’s important to talk about. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.