Canadian Foreign Policy: Drifting Towards Irrelevance

On September 27, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, was honoured for his commitment to “democracy, freedom and human rights” at a private ceremony in New York City. The Appeal to Conscience Foundation, the American organization that organized the event, presented Mr. Harper with the grandiloquently named World Statesman of the Year Award, a distinction that has recently been bestowed upon the likes of Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Harper stressed the importance of promoting his country’s values abroad and refusing to compromise on its lofty ideals. What this seems to mean for Mr. Harper, however, represents a significant departure from the country’s recent history, threatening its international standing to a profound and deeply troubling degree.

Image Courtesy of Ken Banks, © 2012 some rights reserved

Since coming to power in 2006, the Conservative Party, with Mr. Harper at its head, has sought to dramatically redefine Canada’s political landscape in its own radically ideological mould. Foreign policy has been no exception to this rightward shift, as the government has turned its back on many of the traditions—including multilateralism, dialogue, tolerance, generosity, and peacekeeping—that have long played a central role in the country’s international affairs. In doing so, it has effectively relinquished the soft power that has historically allowed it to transcend the limitations dictated by its size and the influence of its southern neighbour.

This change comes at an important time, as the potential for Canada to exercise its influence internationally is, in many ways, at a historical highpoint. Importantly, it came through the 2007-2008 financial crisis relatively unscathed, and has thus far managed to avoid much of the malaise that has affected many of the world’s wealthiest states. Last year, its economic growth rate of 2.2% was the third highest in the G8, behind only Russia (4.3%) and Germany (2.7%) and ahead of the United States (1.7%), France (1.7%), the United Kingdom (1.1%), Italy (0.6%) and Japan (-0.5%). In the same period, its public debt stood at approximately 85% of its GDP, far more than Russia (9.6%) but on par with the United Kingdom (82.5%), France (86.3%) and Germany (81.5%) and considerably less than the United States (103%), Italy (120.1%) and Japan (229.8%). Outside of the G8, China, India, and Brazil have all recently surpassed Canada in terms of nominal GDP, but despite high levels of growth (respectively 9.5%, 7.8% and 2.8%) and comparatively low debt levels (respectively 25.8%, 68.1% and 66.2% of GDP), each is relatively underdeveloped in per capita terms. With Russia facing similar challenges, the United States struggling with a weak recovery and the Eurozone paralyzed by its sovereign debt crisis, Canada is in a unique position to rise above its perennial middle power status and make a lasting mark on the international stage.

This opportunity, however, is being wasted. Canada’s foreign aid, a central pillar of its international image and influence, is ineffectual at best and worsening. Official Development Assistance currently stands at 0.3% of Gross National Income, less than half of what is requested by the United Nations and far behind world-leaders Sweden (1.12%), Norway (1.06%), Luxembourg (1.04%), Denmark (0.88%), and the Netherlands (0.82%). In absolute terms, foreign aid has been frozen for the past two years, and cuts totaling $389 million, or 7.5% of gross aid expenditures, are set to begin this year. The geographical focus of Canada’s aid has also changed significantly, with funding to many of the world’s poorest states redirected towards countries considered more strategically valuable. Of the twenty primary recipients of bilateral aid—totaling 80% of the Canadian International Development Agency’s budget—only one, Mozambique, ranks amongst the world’s ten poorest, while almost half—Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, Senegal, Sudan and Vietnam—are classified as middle income by the World Bank.

Peacekeeping has similarly suffered. There were 99,016 peacekeepers serving in UN missions at the end of 2011; only 190 of these, or less than 0.2%, were Canadian, placing Canada 54th in the world for total personnel contributions to UN peace missions. This represents a significant drop from just twenty years before, when 971 Canadian peacekeepers were deployed in post-conflict states around the world, the third largest contingent in the UN.

The Conservative government has instead invested heavily in modernizing the Canadian armed forces, with military expenditures now at their highest levels since the Second World War. Its involvement in the War in Afghanistan, the longest in its history, is unpopular both domestically and internationally, with many wondering if the $18.5 billion CAD spent in the first ten years of the conflict could not have been put to better use. It has also adopted a much harder line in many of its other relations, bringing its stance on a number of international issues in line with policies long supported in the United States. Staunch support for Israel has become a key feature of Canadian foreign policy in recent years, as has increasing hostility towards Iran. For a country that has long promoted peace and compromise in the international arena, such ostentatious short-sightedness is rather worrying.

Not all Canadians support this dramatic new direction. Indeed, national support for the Conservative Party rarely climbs far above one third of the electorate, with the other two major parties, the Liberals and the NDP, not far behind. The country’s electoral system, however, has allowed it to form a majority government despite claiming less than 40% of the vote in the 2011 election. As a result, Canadians will not be able to express their dissatisfaction at the polls until 2015. What their country will look like by then remains anybody’s guess.