Finally Canada has a Foreign Policy

DG Stringer

Aside from the allegations of “unprofessionalism” by members of President Obama’s secret service detail (maybe “How Much for Anal” might have been a good read), the primary focus of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Columbia this weekend has been about the war on drugs. With US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper being the only two hemispheric leaders not particularly interested in discussing the topic, therefore Mr. Harper was understandably more interested in promoting Canada as a place of investment and the importance of resource extraction and development for national prosperity.

Mr. Harper’s speech to the summit was average, both in terms of what it inspired and what it had to offer to its audience. However, despite its brevity and general lack of substance, the position taken by Mr. Harper may turn out to be of profound interest and importance. Over the past number of months, particularly since the Obama administration’s delay on its decision of the Keystone XL pipeline which would transport crude from the oil sands in the province of Alberta to the Gulf coast for refining, Mr. Harper has been focusing on diversification of trade from the United States and greater development and use of Canada’s natural resources.

What the Summit may provide is not the loud, obvious foreign policy direction shift, but rather that one drop which causes the bucket to overflow and give clarity to what is going on. As a result the question that must be asked is if we are finally seeing the start of a coordination of foreign policy under Canada’s Federal government?

Six Years and Five Ministers of Foreign Affairs? 

For the six years that Mr. Harper’s government has been in power, it has been criticized for having an unfocused foreign policy. Apart from its strong support for the State of Israel and not pursuing the directions that previous governments had set out, there had been very little to indicate any kind of coordination or substantial direction on the part of Mr. Harper’s government in the way of foreign policy. A shinning example of this lack of direction, and partial cause, is the fact that in the six years since Mr. Harper became Prime Minister, he has appointed five different Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

So why was the speech at Cartagena potentially eye opening? Two reasons, the importance of natural resources for the prosperity of a state and the importance of trade and investment, particularly in the natural resources sector. Mr. Harper has been pushing the idea of Canada is an energy superpower both domestically and internationally for some time now, this based on Canada’s extensive crude oil and natural gas reserves as well as its coal and hydro-electric potential. What exactly being an energy superpower really means or what value the tittle has at this point is anybody’s guess, however it seems to be becoming clearer through Mr. Harper’s efforts.

What poses a particular challenge to Canada is that natural resources are not directly within the jurisdiction of the federal government but rather that of the provincial governments. Such a reality therefore renders it very complex to develop a comprehensive national strategy to deal with the benefits that natural resources can bring, in terms of national wealth and foreign policy.

However in the federal budget that was unveiled at the end of March, the Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty dealt with the question of natural resources, saying “We will implement responsible resource development and smart regulation for major economic projects, respecting provincial jurisdiction and maintaining the highest standards of environmental protection. […] We will ensure that Canada has the infrastructure we need to move our exports to new markets.”

The Strength of Trade 

The other topic that Mr. Harper touched on in his speech was that of trade. The Canadian economy is highly dependent on trade and therefore it is certainly not a surprise that at a conference of leaders from all over the Americas that the Canadian Prime Minister would bring up the subject. Though the trade agenda has not been as lacking as that of foreign policy, its scope is becoming clearer and clearer, and it is ambitious. Canada and the European Union are in the final rounds of free trade talks which should result in an agreement by the end of the year, as well as ongoing talks with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Mr. Harper has also recently stated his desire to enter into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade zone which includes a number of Latin American and Pacific states as well as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Government is also looking at bilateral agreements with countries such as India and Turkey, and there have even been whispers of the possibility of opening negotiations with China further down the road. Considering that when Mr. Harper took office Canada had to that point free trade agreements with five states, including NAFTA, trade is of obvious significant importance to the Prime Minister.

When the trade agenda is couple with the emphasis that has been put on natural resources and energy, the creation of a succinct foreign policy can begin to be seen to take shape. It is not surprising that a Conservative government would go after free trade, however Mr. Harper’s foreign policy seems to be based on the specific idea of the energy superpower. Though at this point that tittle may be ambiguous a best, Mr. Harper is free to define that as he wishes.

If this is indeed the new foreign policy direction that Mr. Harper wishes to take Canada in, the debate can now begin as to whether it is a good direction for Canada to pursue or not. Regardless of the answer at this point, at least there is now an actual foreign policy to debate.