8 Years Later: A Canadian Foreign Policy At Last

DG Stringer

A Canadian Foreign Policy At Last

For most of us, turning eight years old was not, in and of itself, a significant life milestone. Naturally, being one year older was important, but we could still be forgiven if we hadn’t yet made our mark on the world. It is said that time goes slower in politics, therefore it would be reasonably expected that the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, soon to turn eight years old, would have made more of a impact on the foreign policy front than it has.

It can be argued (almost too easily) that the government’s direction on foreign policy has been a lackluster combination of an absence of ambition, a scarcity of creativity and a venture that has been practically entirely run from the Prime Minister’s office. Then again, having gone through five Ministers of Foreign Affairs in seven and a half years, such a track record isn’t surprising.

Stability on the Horizon

The malaise of uninspiring and unremarkable Canadian foreign policy may be coming to an end, just maybe. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, is one of Stephen Harper’s most competent ministers and has been in the position for over two years. Having not changed portfolios in the Prime Minister’s mid-mandate cabinet shuffle earlier this summer, he will likely stay in the position until the next election, which is expected in 2015.

With stability finally coming from the minster’s chair, Baird has been given the opportunity to begin creating a concerted foreign policy agenda. After two years on the job, we can begin to see this agenda formulating itself, though it is still very much in its infancy (embryonic, really).

The first glimpse of this agenda appeared last year when Baird gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. In his address, Baird made reference to three important goals for the UN and by extension, for Canada; these being prosperity, security and human dignity. Prosperity and security are staples of Canadian foreign policy, but human dignity, that is new rhetoric.

Baird’s address went on to say:

The world’s security is closely linked to the third goal that should animate this organization: protecting the dignity and worth of every person by upholding and protecting fundamental freedoms. […] Protecting human rights and human dignity is an obligation that each state owes its citizens, and a mutual obligation of all members of the international community. History teaches that the open society – tolerant, pluralistic and free – is the best guarantor of human rights and dignity. Often, a threat to the security of humankind is coupled with the crushing of human rights. Yet human rights abuses that don’t threaten security still concern us.

This foreign policy agenda, which is strongly based on the idea of dignity, (let’s call it the dignity agenda) is about extending the idea of human security and human rights beyond the conflict zone to act as an agent of prosperity and security. It’s target is to underline and defend the worth of every individual, the right of each to pursue living the life they choose to live. It also underlines the idea that one is allowed to live with dignity and without fear of repression or recrimination irrespective of what they worship, their political beliefs, who they may love or simply because of their gender.

The Dignity Agenda

What makes the dignity agenda different from existing foreign policy positions which the government has taken is that its push seems to be coming from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and not from the Prime Minister’s office. Until now, all of Canada’s major foreign policy positions have tended to come from the top office, be it the Middle Eastern policy, the idea of being an energy superpower or the enthusiastic pursuing of free trade agreements. As minister, Baird naturally subscribes to these points; however, rather than being a minister that simply tows the foreign policy line, Baird is going above and beyond in providing the first prospect of an authentic Canadian foreign policy agenda in almost a decade.

As the dignity agenda has not fully been formed, it is still unclear how it will develop, and more importantly, how it will hold up to the inevitable strain which world events place on doctrines and methods of operation. In the short term, two high profile situations are developing that will test the government’s commitment to the nascent policy: the Sochi Olympics and Syria.

The Inevitable Strain of World Events

The recently adopted law in Russia, which bans the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and the government’s crackdown on, well, basically everything homosexual, flies in the face of the ideas of the dignity agenda. How the Canadian government handles the situation can give an indication of the life expectancy of Canada’s new foreign policy approach.

In Syria, the dignity agenda comes in when the conversation moves to the protection of religious minorities. The situation in Syria is made more complicated, for this policy anyway, by the fact that Syrian Christians, as well as other religious minorities, have over the years been protected by the Assad government.

The removal of Assad will undoubtedly create the kind of power vacuum in which the delicate balancing of Syria’s religious groups would not be able to withstand. Canada’s recently created Office of Religious Freedoms, headquartered in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ building and very much in line with the dignity agenda’s objectives, has as an area of focus to speak on the treatment and protection of Christian minorities abroad. While the Syrian conflict itself is not a test of the government’s resolve to stand behind the dignity agenda, how Canada decides to respond to the potentially ugly events down the line, will very much be.