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FOCAL Views: Building a foreign policy legacy
With a majority government in place, Canada can now move from vague strategy to focused action on the Americas.
Canadian elections are rarely about foreign policy, and this one was no exception.
The campaign was nonetheless telling in the lack of discussion on the Americas given that Stephen Harper’s government has made this region Canada’s second foreign policy priority after Afghanistan.
One reason neither the region nor the Harper government’s record in it came up during the campaign may well be because none of the opposition candidates, let alone the media or public, knew to bring it up.
A recent Foreign Affairs internal evaluation of the Americas strategy has found that, despite some success, there is confusion within the whole of government about the goals, aims, and purposes of the strategy, while outside of government there is almost complete ignorance.
So asking whether this election will have an impact on Canada’s engagement with the Americas is akin to whether a tree falling in a forest with no one around will make more or less noise.
But even though there was no awareness of the overall Americas strategy, several of the Harper government’s positions on regional issues —such as support for a Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, reaction to the 2009 Honduras coup, and the debate on Bill C-300 on corporate accountability in mining— are all red meat issues for the New Democratic Party official opposition-in-making.
So where do we go from here?
A lesson the Conservatives must have learned since coming into power is one that most new homeowners face: the remodelling issue.
New homeowners spend a large chunk of time either adapting to structures set up by past owners or changing them. With his minority government, Harper was forced to adapt to structures put in place by his predecessors. The government effected mere adjustments through decree or opportunistic funding moves, and these changes could easily be reversed. The minority government did not have the opportunity to build new, more permanent structures and institutions to make the place its own, as others had done before. Moreover, those structures it couldn’t change framed foreign policy implementation; at worst, they impeded their agenda, and at best, they did not help.
With a Conservative majority, there are now opportunities to start building. One is to take initiative in responding to Bill C-300. The NDP will likely bring the issue up again. Simply vetoing attempts to address an issue seen by a wide swath of Canadians as important while offering nothing in response is a sure way to keep this issue festering on the front pages with the Conservatives playing the villain.
The country has a vigorous infrastructure of initiatives, agencies, organizations and associations that focus on denouncing the damage done by some extractive industries. Yet, Canada is the only country in the developed world to lack any sort of infrastructure to work with progressive companies that are making positive impacts on the ground. Improving practices and development outcomes means both preventing harm and promoting good. Lessons from the U.S. and Europe point to the need to bypass entrenched bureaucracies to create new agencies within government and new partnerships outside to make the latter happen.
Another opportunity lies on the trade front. The Conservatives’ success with bilateral free trade agreements in the Americas is now stalled. While the U.S. has its Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership to place it at the centre of trade between Asia and the Americas, Canada —as other key Pacific countries of the hemisphere— is not part of it, and the U.S. has indicated a preference to keep us out. In response, last week Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico announced a new pact to band together and work on strengthening trade with Asia. Trans-Pacific trade is too big an issue to ignore. If the U.S. does not want Canada in its pact, then it’s time to find new allies.
If the Conservatives do indeed have a vision for Canada in the world, they will need to spend the next four years building the required structures to have an impact and secure a legacy.