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A Player Again

John Kirton

Published in the Globe and Mail Web Exclusive on October 5, 2006

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, just returned from a meeting of la Francophonie, has scored another foreign policy success.

Skillfully using Canada's position as a ranking power of this global body, Mr. Harper had France and the other member nations follow his lead to condemn the harm done to all civilians, including Israelis, in the recent conflict in Lebanon. Mr. Harper and la Francophonie also moved to protect the French language and culture from the onslaught of U.S.-led globalization. And Canada was selected to play host to the next summit - the third time since the 55-member body was founded by Brian Mulroney, Pierre-Marc Johnson and Fran¨ois Mitterrand in 1986.

Such a record will surprise those critics who had predicted that Mr. Harper's foreign policy would be marked by incompetence or a single-minded quest for a close relationship with the U.S. alone. But, as he approaches his first nine months in office, Mr. Harper is steadily delivering foreign policy successes on many fronts.

First, there are the disasters avoided.

The last time Canada was led by a young Albertan from a conservative party atop a minority government - with no involvement or interest in international affairs, no experience in cabinet, and a rookie front bench - the country also confronted crises involving the Middle East, refugees and nuclear proliferation, not to mention soaring energy prices. But, unlike 1979, Mr. Harper has not created any of these controversies, and thus will remain Prime Minister for longer than Joe Clark did.

At the same time, Mr. Harper has remained true to Mr. Clark's finest foreign policy traditions. Mr. Harper's recent rescue of Canadian citizens from Lebanon matches Mr. Clark's rescue of soon-to-become Canadians from Indochina, in the "boat people" drama of that time.

As someone raised in Toronto, Mr. Harper understands the richness of the modern multicultural Canada, as seen in his apology for the Chinese head tax and his desire to bring new professionals into Canada. As someone living in Alberta, he knows the global energy industry, and understands the links between oil, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons in Iran and Iraq. His expertise was put to good use in July at his first Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, where energy security took centre stage and where Canada largely drafted the statement on the Middle East.

Disasters dodged have been joined by dogs that did not bite.

Many critics had thought Mr. Harper's not-so-secret foreign policy agenda would be to give U.S. President George Bush the benefit of the doubt and put Canadian troops in Iraq; participate in America's missile defence program; cut back on our foreign aid; and walk away from the Kyoto Protocol. None of these nightmares have come to pass in the real world. Rather, on the home continent, Mr. Harper has got Mr. Bush to give him the benefit of the doubt, by delivering a long-awaited softwood lumber deal and delaying the imposition of new barriers to Canadians and Americans wanting to work, shop and visit friends and family on either side of the border.

While the United States always requires attention, Mr. Harper has been focused on producing his own made-in-Canada foreign policy on a global scale. Laid out in the Conservative Party platform, campaign announcements and Mr. Harper's victory night address, this approach portrays the U.S. as Canada's leading adversary, not ally. Once elected, Mr. Harper immediately faced the novelty of the U.S. ambassador's calling on Canada to spend less on defence - in this case for new equipment to ensure that Canada's Arctic remained its own. Mr. Harper swiftly said "no" to the U.S. and "yes" to Canada's Arctic sovereignty. In fact, Mr. Harper is moving proactively before the Americans send their ships through Canada's Arctic domain.

Mr. Harper has also promised to play host to a summit next year in Canada, not just with an American president crooning about "Irish eyes," but also with the new Mexican president in a burgeoning North American community. He has further promised full free-trade agreements with the global powerhouses of India and Japan.

Mr. Harper's emphasis has been on converting past government rhetoric into real results. On Arctic sovereignty, climate-change control and Afghanistan, he is starting to make progress on what are among the toughest challenges the global community faces. On another great challenge - putting into practice the Canadian-created doctrine of an international responsibility to protect innocent civilians - at the United Nations last month, Mr. Harper reinforced this crowning achievement of Paul Martin's foreign policy by calling for action in distant Darfur.

To be sure, by Mr. Harper's own high standards, his foreign policy will be a striking success only when national unity is secure, climate change has been controlled, the war in Afghanistan has been won, and the Americans have accepted Canada's Arctic claim.

But, in the real world of Canadian foreign policy, as benchmarked by the performance of his predecessors, he is off to a strong start.

John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, is a contributor to Andrew Cooper and Dane Rowlands, eds., "Canada Among Nations 2006: Minorities and Priorities."

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