01/24/2014 12:32 EST | Updated 03/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Harper's Flawed Approach to Foreign Policy

Critics of the Harper government's foreign policy have had nearly eight years now to develop a compelling alternative. Generally speaking, they have failed.

Our country's foreign policy dialogue has become overwhelmingly polarized between two poles, each of which has a gaping flaw in its very approach to international affairs.

The Harper foreign policy's fundamental flaw is that it isn't a foreign policy. Stephen Harper's noteworthy 2003 Civitas speech -- in which he outlines his rationale for why conservatism is needed in Canada -- focuses overwhelmingly on social and economic issues.

Accordingly, Stephen Harper's signature foreign policy moves in government have largely turned out to be attempts to secure electoral support through the use of wedge issues, such as vocal support for Israel or "lecturing and leaving" at the United Nations, as Joe Clark puts it.

But if the principal failing of Mr. Harper's approach is that his pronouncements abroad are directed largely at a domestic audience, its secondary flaw is that its approach is purely normative. His support for Israel serves the advancement of principle rather than a comprehensive regional strategy.

His criticism of the United Nations is rooted in the fact that it is filled with human-rights-hating dictators, not that multilateralism fundamentally doesn't work. Similarly, the rationale he provided in his Civitas speech for supporting the American-led invasion of Iraq was the need to remove an evil tyrant from power.

Mr. Harper's foreign policy is astrategic. The alternative being presented in Canada's commentary pages is simply nostalgic. Countless articles have been written by journalists, professors and former diplomats calling for a return to Canada's "honest broker" status on the international stage, often advocating multilateralism for multilateralism's sake.

Canadian foreign policy during the Cold War had two primary goals: maintaining good relations with the United States for security and economic purposes and fighting for the stability of the global order. Ensuring the latter would allow Canada to punch above its weight, for only in a stable world would Ottawa be able to advance international norms consistently and reliably without the need for much military power.

The primary critics of the Harper government's foreign policy came of age during this era. However, the realities of the Cold War no longer apply. The international order is in flux thanks to the geostrategic rise of new powers, transforming global unipolarity into multipolarity. Canada is unable to stop this trend. Nor is Canada able to halt climate change in the Arctic or the economic rise of Asia, which dictate that good relations with both Russia and China will become primordial in order to ensure Canadian security and strengthen Canada's position in the world of international relations.

The fact remains that Canada's Cold-War foreign policy was dictated by the country's "middle power" status. As the Canadian scholar Jennifer Welsh has noted, the term is no longer relevant in the post-Cold War era, as the rise of numerous new powers and the collapse of the Soviet Union no longer places Canada in a clear category in the middle between superpowerdom and the Third World.

Although these two philosophies -- the Harper doctrine and liberal internationalism -- are polar opposites on the political spectrum, they do however have one thing in common: they are both normative. They postulate what Canada should be on the global stage in place of discussing what Canada's vital geostrategic interests actually are.

The Harper doctrine claims that Canada's role in the world is to call a spade a spade. Liberal internationalism centres in on Canada's "middle power" status, thus generating a foreign policy that is more concerned with process (i.e. being an "honest broker") than it is with substance. Proponents of either of these ways of thinking are ideologues, not idealists.

What Canada needs is a realist approach, one that accepts the fact that an economic pivot toward Beijing and a geopolitical turn toward Moscow are vital, will require tremendous effort, and therefore will impose limitations on our ability to accomplish many other tasks we would like to complete on the world stage.

Fortuitous geography and a strong ally to the south have granted us the luxury of not having to think strategically for quite some time. But the impending creation of a Canadian border with Russia in the Arctic combined with the United States' strategic decline and retreat must alter the way we tackle constructing a comprehensive foreign policy.

International affairs aren't about the ideological left and right; rather, they deal with how states objectively achieve or maintain power and security. Canadian commentators and politicians alike should ask themselves the following question: Are we a serious country, or are we going to allow fantasy, nostalgia and incompetence to frame our country's political conversation?

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