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Canada: Harper’s retreating foreign policy

In October 2010, the United Nations started the voting procedures for the non-permanent seats of the Security Council. Canada, who had until this point been on the council six times before hoped that this time would be no different, having been campaigning for a seat since the previous term ended in 2000.

However, the two non-permanent seats went to Germany and Portugal, with Canada’s bid not coming close in the balloting.  While a middle power of the world, the country once had a global vision and by most means acted upon that through aid and security, yet it seems this vision has changed, bringing about foreign policy failure. What had happened to Canada’s reputation in the last decade, and how could it fall so far?

The election of Stephen Harper’s government in 2006 ushered in a major directional shift of foreign policy foreign policy. Previous governments had engaged the world globally through multilateralism, most notably in the 1990s as signatory nation on the Kyoto Accord, pushed for the UN treaty on banning land mines and sent troops into Kosovo. However, upon Harper’s ascension to the Premiership, he decried that Canada’s traditional multilateralism was a “weak-nation strategy”.

The new government naively declared that their foreign policy was to be principled and based on the respect of human rights. The government’s foreign policy decisions have hurt their international standing.

In 2010, the UN voted on nations to take a non-permanent seat at the Security Council. Since 1945, Canada has been successful in obtaining this seat six times, roughly once every decade, and most recently in 2000. Almost immediately after the end of this most recent tenure, diplomats and the government set its eyes on the 2010 election and immediately began lobbying over the next decade.

In 2003 Bono declared that the ‘world needs more Canada’, but in 2010 the world decided it did not.

The current government’s foreign policy shift, has been naive and isolationist. A variety of factors turned the global community away from rewarding Canada with a spot at the Security Council. During the minority years of Parliament, Harper centralized power and, due to his distrust of the civil service, required even diplomats clear their most banal actions with the government, thus undermining their obligations to curry favour with other nations.

Another major factor that has harmed Canada’s international reputation and relations has been the increasingly lopsided support for Israeli. Since Stephen Harper’s term, Canada has been more vocally supportive of Israel, and increasingly coming out in stronger support for the country. This slow abandonment of the “neutral arbiter role” has soured relations with Arab and Muslim nations, who in large numbers voted against the bid for Security Council seat.

Increasingly the current Conservative government has withdrawn from the global community. The snub it received at the UN has only further embittered the government toward that international body. In 2011, the government withdrew from the Kyoto Accord, after it had previously said it would not. And most recently, Canada has become the only country to withdraw from the UN anti-drought treaty. Such a move only highlights the government’s increasingly isolationist approach to foreign affairs.

As part of the deficit-fighting measures, the government has slowed further funding for the foreign service and made interesting approaches in cutting spending by the department. In 2012, the government announced it would, in some countries across the globe, shut the doors to the Canadian consulates and instead shack up with the British in their building.

This action illustrates how little the government cares about foreign policy, and more than becoming a cost cutting measure, it limits Canadian diplomacy in these countries. Instead, their presence is relegated to little more than a floor within the British embassies.

The Conservatives, who made the military a partisan issue, have done what they scolded their predecessors for doing, that being cutting spending for the armed forces. They have increasingly cut back on funding for new equipment and, partly because of the convoluted procurement policy, the government has failed to replace the vital vehicles needed for combat operations. Thus this lack of expenditure on the most basic needs of the Canadian Forces calls into question the future military capabilities of the army.

Since losing the Security Council bid, Prime Minister Harper has failed to address the UN general assembly. While earlier in his term he address the UN, specifically twice during the lead up to the bid, he has failed to appear at the UN since. This is not simply due to timing. Last year he was in New York to receive ironically an international statesman award, but chose to snub the UN yet again.

From Canada’s former respected position on the world scale, the current Conservative government has retreated from nearly all aspects of foreign policy save for trade. Canada once had significant clout with the global community and actively engaged these nations. Since 2006, there has been a major policy shift. Canadian foreign policy has ceased to be respected or even global. Canadian foreign interests barely venture outside free trade treaties and the obvious contempt for the UN continues to hurt our standing with the world.

Kyle Reaburn


Kyle is a graduate from the University of Guelph where he obtained a BA honours degree in both Political Science and Criminal Justice and Public Policy. Currently working as a freelance journalist, he holds a particular interest in Canadian politics and foreign affairs.

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