Electoral foreign policy promises

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are concentrating on domestic policy, but each has made some foreign policy promises.  (Photo: PMO/ Green party of Canada/ © Jmweb7 | Dreamstime.com/ © Robseguin | Dreamstime.com)

Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are concentrating on domestic policy, but each has made some foreign policy promises. (Photo: PMO/ Green party of Canada/ © Jmweb7 | Dreamstime.com/ © Robseguin | Dreamstime.com)

In most democratic countries, foreign policy concerns are further down the list of voter priorities than domestic issues. In Canada, things are no different.
Of the six scheduled TV debates between the leaders, only one was scheduled to focus on foreign policy. Domestic concerns may pique the public’s interest, but foreign policy can also have a heavy influence on what happens at home. Look at the effect of the oil price shock on the economy of Alberta and Canada as a whole. In our globally connected world, events that happen on the other side of the world can profoundly affect Canadians.
We know Diplomat readers have a keen interest in how Canada conducts itself on the global stage. The past decade of Conservative power has seen myriad changes to Canada’s foreign policy and to our reputation around the world.
To be fair, Canada is still one of the most highly regarded countries in the world, placing No. 1 among 55 ranked in the 2015 Study on the World’s Most Reputable Countries by the New York-based Reputation Institute. Canada was awarded top spot for the fourth time in six years. That said, we cannot ride on our reputation from decades past. Within diplomatic circles, the story is very different. Many high-profile commentators have decried Canada’s recent record on important issues such as the environment, Israel-Palestine relations and dedication to multilateral engagement.
With the election looming, how will the results impact Canada’s foreign policy? We look at the four major parties’ positions on key issues for international engagement. They tend to agree on many of the major issues. However, there are some key points on which they differ.

Conservative Party of Canada
The Conservative Party, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, has the most to lose in this election. We also have the best idea of what Conservative foreign policy would look like, given that the Tories have enacted their vision for the better part of the last decade. Generally, the Conservatives have placed a great deal of importance on trade relationships and the signing of new free-trade agreements, along with a focus on international security challenges, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea and its territorial expansionism in Ukraine, and the spread of ISIS. Participation in multilateral institutions, international aid and development and overall foreign policy engagement with allied countries have all taken a backseat compared to past Canadian policy.
That said, there are some areas in which the Conservatives are unique compared to the other parties. In their 2015 election platform, the party has focused on protection of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East generally, and in ISIS-controlled territory specifically. The Conservatives have promised to work with organizations that defend such minorities as well as to accept 10,000 more Syrian refugees who are under threat of religious persecution. In addition, the party will work with the global community to protect places of worship and other holy sites.
Another major tenet of the Conservative foreign-policy platform is the buildup and expansion of the Canadian Armed Forces reserves. Harper is perceived as strong on security issues and his focus on the military (albeit on sometimes trivial aspects such as the reintroduction of the prefix “royal”) continues to give the Conservatives an edge on who is best poised to deal with security challenges, according to public opinion.
The shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a soldier who stood sentry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by a Canadian-born Islamist in October 2014 and the killing of Patrice Vincent by another Canadian-born convert to Islam further entrenched the notion that terrorism is a real and immediate threat to Canadians, giving the “tough-on-crime” Conservatives an edge in the public’s perception. By highlighting the government’s commitment to further fund the Forces’ reserves, Harper underlines this perception.
Generally speaking, the Conservatives probably will not make any major changes to the foreign policy approach they have taken over the past 10 years. The main goals of the prime minister revolve around domestic issues and bolstering his base. Indeed, certain policies, such as the focus on protection for minorities abroad, play well to diaspora populations who are important voters in urban ridings, which the Tories often struggle to hold.

Liberal Party of Canada
The Liberal Party governed Canada for the better part of several key decades, as the country was building up its reputation as a middle power that punched above its weight on the international stage. Canada emerged as a global leader during the Second World War and, as the least powerful member of the G7, Canada holds a special role in the complex world of international affairs. Liberal values, such as peacekeeping, the responsibility to protect and the elimination of cluster munitions and landmines, represent the best of what a middle power can offer to the global community. Liberal leaders have always stood for more progressive values,  such as mainstreaming gender equality, protecting the environment and welcoming refugees. When the Conservatives first came to power, many of these ideas were seen to be too “soft” and too associated with previous administrations.
With the election of a Liberal government under Justin Trudeau’s leadership, one would expect a return to policies that reflect some of these more “small l” liberal values. At the same time, the party has put forward a platform that focuses heavily on the restoration of the Canada-U.S. relationship, which many commentators and analysts have decried as being the worst in decades. Ideological differences, as well as practical matters such as  the stalling of the Keystone XL Pipeline, have created rifts in the current bilateral relationship.
Trudeau has stated that “Canada’s relationship with the United States transcends partisanship,” noting that Harper’s approach to diplomacy has been to attempt to strong-arm initiatives, such as the Keystone Pipeline, into existence. The Liberal platform promises to work with the United States and Mexico on developing a North American strategy to combat climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. To do so, the party envisions a new trilateral summit. Moreover, Trudeau highlights the importance of reducing impediments to trade and commerce among all three North American nations. He argues that a green, clean energy strategy will only be successful in partnership with our closest ally and geographical neighbour.
Moving along from the environmental aspect of the relationship, the Liberals also propose to have greater cabinet oversight of the Canada-U.S. relationship by holding regular meetings with the ambassador to Washington. This would be achieved by creating a cabinet committee. Given these two major foreign-policy areas, perhaps the party has read the writing on the wall and knows it cannot compete with the public perception of Harper being strong on security issues, and is choosing to differentiate itself through issues Canadians care about closer to home. Time will tell if this is a winning strategy.

New Democratic Party
The NDP is a bit more of a challenge in terms of discerning what types of foreign-policy changes it would make if it forms a government. Without a proven track record and (at press time) not a single mention of a foreign policy issue in its online platform, one can only surmise that the NDP is much more focused on domestic issues. To be sure, NDP votes will be won on social justice issues that will mainly resonate in Canada. Being seen as the party that fights for low-income families and immigrants is the NDP’s strength. Nevertheless, key moments in the first leaders’ debate as well as the strategy undertaken as the official opposition provide some clues as to what changes may be expected if the NDP becomes the ruling party.
Firstly, the NDP put up a strong argument against the Canadian mission to fight ISIS. NDPers argued that without a UN mandate, it is irresponsible to send in troops or air support for a mission that is not clearly defined and lacks a set exit strategy. The Conservatives, of course, had a majority and pushed forward with the mission with limited debate. The anti-ISIS mission is an American effort as opposed to a NATO or UN-led mission. So an NDP government could take steps to pull Canadian support.
Secondly, in the same vein as the Liberals, the NDP has presented itself as a party that cares about climate change and the environment. Leader Thomas Mulcair has said Canada is now “unrecognizable” in the global community due to its “bellicose” and “hectoring” diplomacy and climate policy. He noted that Canada needs to be a world leader on climate policy and has also emphasized the need for Canada to re-engage in our multilateral commitments.
Even without a concrete foreign policy platform, from analysis and observation of the NDP’s actions and rhetoric, we can see there would be major shifts in policy if the NDP comes to power.

Green Party of Canada
Canada’s Green Party, led by the formidable Elizabeth May, has been — perhaps not surprisingly — attempting to shift the public perception that it is a one-issue party. The party has highlighted its stance on the situation in Iraq and Syria, stating that the Greens support ending the combat mission against ISIS in those countries. The Greens have also taken a strong stance on the Israel-Palestine issue, noting that Canada should act under the principle of “engaged neutrality” when it comes to this thorny issue. At the same time, the party has said it would endorse the Palestinian bid for statehood and that it supports a two-state solution in the region.
The other major pillar of the Green Party’s foreign policy is the promise to realign defence spending towards improving Canadian capacity to respond to humanitarian crises, such as natural disasters and forced migration. They promise to more heavily fund UN peacekeeping forces and missions and decrease NATO contributions. Finally, a Green government would reduce spending on defence consultants and private contractors and bolster aid to veterans, especially post-traumatic stress  sufferers.
May strongly opposes Bill C-51, asserting that it provides little to no oversight of  our security agencies. It’s interesting the Greens are focused on a shift in defense and security approaches in their foreign policy platform. Regardless of the motivations behind it, these policy positions certainly serve to challenge the Conservative narrative and provide a critical counterweight to some of the positions held by the other parties.

Joe Landry is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar and PhD candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He is currently managing editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

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Category: Dispatches

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Joe Landry is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada graduate scholar at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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