How does one imagine Canadian foreign policy? Often the historical image depicts Canadians as being a peace-loving, socially conscious “people of the world” with great concerns about the environmental decay of our planet and the ongoing humanitarian crises featured in the worlds most desolate regions. The image of Canadian peacekeepers serving missions in the Sinai after the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, or more recently, in the stabilization force after the 2004 coup d’etat in Haiti gave Canada the reputation of utilizing “soft power” when compared to our more cumbersome southern cousins. This utilization of “soft power” in the 1990s, in the wake of the bipolar Cold War and our historic ties to British diplomacy, gained Canadians much respect in the world as somewhat neutral arbiters towards most heavily nuanced or “grey” conflicts. Canada’s willingness to toe separate lines with our U.S ally on Vietnam, China, Cuba and Iraq, while maintaining strong support for multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN contributed to this portrayal of Canadian foreign affairs as pragmatic, yet value based at heart.
Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper gained majority in the Parliament after the May 2011 elections, Canadian foreign policy has shifted in some areas, and not so much in others. The decision to close the Iranian embassy in Ottawa marks a rare display of diplomatic strength by the Harper government, but also reflects a calculated move based on security following the storming of the British Embassy last November. In the same vein, the Harper government’s embassy closure risks limiting Canada’s ability to gain vital intelligence in Tehran, and more importantly, on the status of Canadians citizens still sitting in Iranians prisons. Continuing on this note, the Harper government’ polices on Iranian nuclear proliferation, and growing ties with Israel reflects a shift in Canadian interests towards pragmatism, but also a lack of tact best exemplified in statements referring to the Iranian regime as “evil”. Not to doubt the threats permeating from the Iranian regime, the Harper’s government use of simplified terminology serves few any good in the realm of diplomatic negotiation, as do such grandiose statements reflect Canadian values.
Another source of discontentment can be seen in the disintegration of Canada’s once-proactive strive for binding international treaties on our shared environment. Despite the impact of the oil sands in helping Canada weather the economic storm under a strong currency, the recurring image of the tar covered feathers of Ducks struggling for air is symbolic of the Harper government’s efforts in combating climate change. The reneging of the Kyoto protocol, the binding international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses, often serves as the best example of pragmatism without the reflection of Canadian values, which can be noted through the recent EU proposal on labelling Alberta’s oil as more harmful than conventional oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. Interestingly, the government’s response has been the undermining of the growing European position on the oil sands, which has taken the form of lobbying under the guise of “Ethical Oil” (more ethical than OPEC) and has included Ottawa or Alberta-sponsored trips to the pits for European parliamentarians. Compounding this media blitz of pro-sands ads is the Harper government’s continuous threat to our U.S partners of selling Albertan oil to China- an ironic consideration when promoting our oil as “ethical” in the wake of Beijing’s poor human rights records. The overall effects of this pragmatism without values will inevitably be the loss of respect in the international community, and amongst our allies.
Similar to the Ottawa’s changing bilateralism with other states is the new trends of Canada’s withdrawal from international institutions. In particular, the Harper government’s sudden departure from the G8 pan for abortion funding in Africa in 2010 is a clear example of this shrewd pragmatism unassociated with Canadian norms. Besides the consensus made on abortion 25 years ago, the Harper government’s contradiction of Canadian values can be noted in the price paid months later, in which Canada lost its coveted United Nations Security Council seat- a first-time failure in our bidding efforts. In retrospect, the lack of Canadian military prowess when compared to the U.S is often a noted fact of history, but Canada’s diminishing role in these vital multilateral institutions will also hurt Canada’s historic soft power, because of which Canadians can truly have a greater influence.
– Cody Levine