Former Canadian diplomat Bob Fowler is getting a lot of media attention around his new book on his kidnapping in Niger. Fowler and his colleague, Louis Guay, demonstrated remarkable endurance during their harrowing ordeal. While Mr. Fowler does credit the Canadian government with valiant efforts in negotiating his safe release, in a recent editorial board meeting with the Ottawa Citizen he reportedly lamented that his former department of foreign affairs and international trade (DFAIT) kept his wife in the dark through most of the ordeal and never sat down with him for a de-briefing once he was released.
Fowler remarked that he was disappointed with his “once proud” department and suggested that he no longer “feels” the direction of the foreign policy of the current government.
Fowler is not the first to be confused by the current government’s foreign policy. There are plenty of officials in DFAIT that share his concerns and have had trouble adjusting to the government’s approach. Both the opposition and political commentators have been disappointed in what they have called a decline in Canada’s international stature.
I don’t share these concerns. For years success in Canadian foreign policy was measured by our efforts to keep diplomats talking. It was okay for a respected middle power like Canada to aspire to be a “helpful broker”. Our foreign relations success was measured by process not principle.
Well, those times are over. Today, Harper’s foreign policy is characterized by three broad themes: 1. principle over process; 2. putting your money where your mouth is, and; 3. prioritizing trade.
The best example of “principle over process” has to be the government’s voting record on Israel. Harper deeply believes in defending Israel, the only democratically elected government in the Middle East, even though it is unpopular at the UN. His support for Israel probably cost Canada its seat on the UN Security Council, but Harper’s attitude was that compromising this position was not worth “pleasing every dictator with a vote at the UN.”
The government is also demonstrating its commitment to Western security by finally putting its money where its mouth is. Defense spending rose from $17 billion in 2006 to $24 billion in 2010. It is now at its highest point since World War II (in real dollars). Similarly, the government has delivered on Canada’s 2002 pledge to double international aid efforts. In last year’s budget, foreign aid increased by 8 per cent bringing our total for the 2010/11 fiscal year to $5 billion. This is double that of government in 2002 when the commitment was first made.
But it is in the area of trade where the government has moved most decisively. Since 2006, it has concluded five trade agreements with nine countries and has entered into discussions with four more. The negotiated deals include a focus on an emerging priority, Latin America, with Columbia, Peru, Panama and Honduras. Also, Jordan and the European Free Trade Association of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Canada has initiated major talks with the US on border security and regulatory co-operation and Canada EU free trade.
Just last week the government signalled its intention to enter into negotiations with major Asian Pacific economies through the “Trans Pacific Partnership”, even though it represents a possible challenge to Canada’s supply management system. The Dairy farmers of course remain a mighty effective political force to be reckoned with.
The government’s decision to enter these discussions is a tangible demonstration of the belief that Canada’s prosperity is inextricably linked to trade. Canada won’t back away from any deal that is in Canada’s overall interest, even if it means a battle at the negotiating table. This is what a strong trade policy looks like.
So it is not surprising that some people don’t recognize Canadian foreign policy today. It has changed. But, it is consistent – clear and policy-driven as opposed to process orientated. Bob Fowler has given much for his country. Harper will be demanding much more as we move from the role of honest broker to a real player in international affairs.