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  • Roland Paris

Minority Governments Are Hobbling Canadian Foreign Policy

Globe and Mail Former diplomat Robert Fowler was right to upbraid both the Conservatives and Liberals on Sunday for their small-minded approach to foreign policy. Bigger thinking and a measure of bipartisan co-operation will be needed to restore Canada's international role at a moment of profound global change. How should a trade-dependent country such as Canada, which is closely connected to a declining yet still potent superpower, reposition itself to prosper in a newly configured global economy? Canadian governments have long recognized that our national interests and values are best served by an open, rules-based international order. How can we update the existing system of multilateral institutions to accommodate new actors and issues? How can Canada move from laggard to leader on climate change and in multilateral trade negotiations? How should we re-engage with the United Nations now that we're seeking a Security Council seat? And what strategies might Canada use to mobilize a growing array of international governmental and non-governmental actors - from expert networks to activist groups and the private sector - in support of Canadian goals?

These and other looming questions are arguably just as important as any domestic policy issue. What happens outside our borders increasingly has an impact on our prosperity, security and health. Yet, most of these questions barely register in our national debates, and there is scant consideration of Canada's broader international strategy.

Incongruously, the federal parties tout themselves as foreign policy leaders. The Harper government portrays the two-day gathering of G8 foreign ministers that began yesterday in Gatineau as evidence of Canada's global leadership. And the Liberals have just concluded a policy conference in Montreal where they "grappled with the big issues facing the country," including international affairs.

But playing host to a meeting - even a G8 meeting - does not equal leadership, and policy conferences can be fascinating but inconsequential. What really matters is whether our political leaders articulate coherent visions for Canada's foreign policy and pursue these visions consistently and energetically.

Without such a vision, specific foreign policy initiatives are difficult to sustain. Governments and publics need clear understandings of why certain goals are worth pursuing. Otherwise, priorities tend to lose their purchase; attention and effort drifts elsewhere.

Stephen Harper has used foreign policy as a tool for building support in communities of actual or potential Conservative voters. The result has been a fragmented approach to international affairs, defined less by official priorities than by a few pet issues, such as Canada's unusually hard-line support of Israel.

His predecessor, Paul Martin, set out a more comprehensive vision in his 2005 International Policy Statement, but he was too preoccupied with the survival of his own minority government to deliver major international initiatives.

A similar dynamic may be at work on the opposition benches. Michael Ignatieff is a sophisticated observer of international affairs, but he has said surprisingly little about Canada's role in a changing world.

The paradox is that both the Conservatives and Liberals could probably agree on several elements of a more far-sighted and ambitious international policy, even as they continue to differ on other issues, such as Canada's approach to climate change.

A bipartisan foreign policy could include:

Recommitting resources to United Nations peace operations, which Canada has neglected for years;

Continuing not only our development efforts in Afghanistan beyond 2011 but also a substantial Canadian military training and mentoring mission;

Leading international efforts to address the security, development and governance problems of "fragile states";

Getting out front in the campaign for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament;

Exploring possibilities for a post-NAFTA agenda with the U.S., including options for eliminating differences in tariff rates on imports from third countries;

Reconsidering our own agricultural supply management policies so Canada can play a leading role in multilateral trade negotiations;

Pressing for the formalization of the G20 group of countries as the principal international leaders' forum, including a small secretariat.

There is a recent precedent for bipartisan agreement: the 2008 pact to extend the Afghan mission until 2011, which elevated the decision above the heightened partisanship and short-termism of a minority Parliament.

Even limited co-operation may be a tall order in the current political climate, but Canada's foreign policy has withered under a succession of minority governments - at the very moment when strategic, longer-term thinking and action are urgently needed.

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