THE BLOG

Memo to the NDP: It's Time to Get Global

05/26/2011 08:06 EDT | Updated 07/23/2011 05:12 EDT

So far, post-election media coverage has focused on domestic politics and internal party issues as the New Democratic Party assumes its parliamentary role as Canada's Official Opposition.

Fair enough. What positions the party will take on health care and pensions, how Leader Jack Layton and Quebec Lieutenant Thomas Mulcair will work together, what strengths and weaknesses the party's new MPs, particularly those from Quebec, bring to the House of Commons -- these are all relevant questions as Parliament resumes its work.

But Stephen Harper's naming of John Baird as the government's new foreign affairs minister is a signal that the NDP's strategic lens must be widened now, and quickly. Mr. Baird is a serious player and is close to the prime minister.

Governments and their oppositions must deal with the whole world. Evaluating and responding to natural disasters, famine, war, or the actions of fragile or rogue states, as well as the many other significant events that can erupt anywhere in the world, at any moment, is a time-consuming and expensive proposition for small countries like Canada. Yet it is a necessary one.

Indeed, how the Official Opposition performs on international issues -- whether they are remote or idiosyncratic, or directly affect the daily life of Canadians -- is a continuous test of its readiness to assume government.

While the world is an unpredictable, volatile place, certain things can be expected. The political temperature of the Middle East and North Africa is likely to remain high, with complex and mutating dynamics between civil-society movements, armies and states there. Regional and global fallout will flow from the unrelenting rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China's economic and military rise will continue, and its growing influence in global capital markets and in Africa, in particular, could trigger a backlash.

North Korea's psychotic leader may cause new problems. Further reach by Mexican drug cartels, both southward and northward, will terrorize new areas and destabilize governments. And, in the midst of all of this, the US presidential election in 2012 promises to further intensify (if that is possible) America's domestic politics while at the same time shaping its foreign policy.

Is the NDP ready to do policy battle with the government on these issues? It has to get ready.

Because of its recent parliamentary work, the party is probably better prepared to raise critical questions and set out policy alternatives on more familiar issues that affect Canadians directly, including: protecting Canadian sovereignty while fine-tuning cooperation on border security and trade with an increasingly vigilant United States; managing Canada's military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the shift to training and aid there; and responding rapidly and assertively to ships carrying illegal immigrants that land on Canadian shores.

Clearly, the NDP needs to shift to a global frame as it tools up for its new role as Official Opposition. In doing so, the party should consider five factors: First, it has its own experienced and skilled internationalists. Paul Dewar's committee work on human rights, aid and defence has been superb. Other international experts include, for example, Olivia Chow on China and Hong Kong, and Peggy Nash on women and unions.

Second, the Official Opposition can forge alliances on key issues with MPs from other parties who also have substantial foreign-policy expertise, such as Bob Rae and David McGuinty of the Liberals, or the Greens' Elizabeth May.

Third, the party has access, in real time, to a powerful pool of strategic information to inform its international efforts. This knowledge is created minute-by-minute on the ground by progressive movements and networks around the world. It constitutes a comparative advantage for the NDP.

Fourth, the NDP can supplement this social-movement knowledge with analysis and policy options generated by the expanded research capacity that comes with Official Opposition status. NDP researchers can now be deployed to examine in detail the foreign-policy initiatives of centre-left governments in other OECD countries.

The fifth and most important factor is the party's own set of core values. Most Canadians support the principles of solidarity, human rights, equality, democracy and cooperation in international relations. The public expects these values to infuse all NDP efforts on international affairs.

Prime time has arrived for the NDP, and so has the world. The next four years will be quite a ride.