Brian Stewart: The new 'Harper doctrine' in foreign relations

Brian Stewart on Canada's more muscular new foreign policy.

Is the world ready for a more muscular Canada?

In the space of a very few days this month Canada's foreign policy took on an unexpectedly muscular air.

The first sign was the searing blast at NATO's abject weakness, delivered by retiring U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates. In it, he magnified the dressing down by lauding Canada as a glowing exception due to its "major contribution" to the bombing of Libya.

You could easily imagine Canadian officials grinning in agreement as many share the same dim view of the European-based alliance.

Then just two days later, a triumphant Stephen Harper gave a rousing speech at the Conservative's post-election convention in which he seemed to promise a more intense role for Canada abroad.

Our new foreign policy would be strictly focused on what matters to us and to a few key allies, the prime minister pledged, outlining something approaching a Harper doctrine: "We know where our interests lie and who our friends are and we take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not."

Then, on Tuesday, Parliament took just one day to debate the bombing of Libya — an aerial campaign commanded by a Canadian general, no less — before voting an overwhelming 294-1 to extend the attacks for three more months.

More red meat

The extension was an extraordinary triumph for Harper. It's doubtful any legislative body in the Western world would give its government such near unanimity in a vote involving war. Certainly not in the U.S. Congress or Britain's Parliament.

A weapons systems technician arms a CF-18 jet in Sicily prior to a bombing run over Libya. (Cpl. Marc-Andre Gaudreault/CF Combat Camera/Reuters)

The NDP, as the new Official opposition, pushed for caveats and conditions, but in the end voted as solidly as the most red-meat Conservatives opposite to continue hammering Libya.

Even the normally critical Toronto Star remarked, rather limply, "With Canadian pilots flying scores of missions over Libya and a Canadian general leading the NATO operations, it would have been hard to say No."

Think about that for a moment. This view suggests that when Ottawa needs to ensure support for intervention abroad all it needs to do is act swiftly to dispatch combat forces before any debate ensues and try to get a Canadian in a position of command. Then Parliament will find it "hard to say No."

One other bizarre aspect of this vote was that the sole opponent of continued bombing, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, was the one expressing the views that were probably closest to many in Canada's military.

May complained that this extended bombing "gives a blank cheque to a mission that doesn't have an exit strategy" — the very same comment I have heard in senior military circles.

In fact, the former chief of the defence staff, retired general Rick Hillier has publicly warned that there is very little clarity regarding the mission in Libya and that "history has proved that air missions have never worked."

Another retired general, Lewis MacKenzie, who oversaw the protection of Sarajevo during the Balkan War in the 1990s, said much the same thing.

'Big Canada'

None of this takes away from the fact that Harper is displaying a new enthusiasm to act as a big player abroad — bombing Libya, adding a large training mission in Afghanistan, buying the latest fighter jets — which should delight the Big Canada enthusiasts out there.

With this in mind, it is remarkable to think back just a few years and recall how little regard Canada used to have at the White House.

In the most telling moment — the president's speech to Congress immediately following 9/11 — George W. Bush lauded scores of allies dear to the U.S. at the time, yet took pains not to even mention Canada.

It was a stinging and unfair dismissal. But now, as more and more European countries scramble to downsize their defence forces and sell off military equipment, Canada's small but highly competent military appears to be gaining more favourable notice in the capital that matters.

The timing may work in our favour, too.  For Canada's apparent willingness to hasten ships, planes and even limited numbers of troops alongside its biggest ally also coincides with a period in which the U.S. is less likely to seek out any more grand foreign adventures.

Harper may figure we'll get kudos for availability, while not having to answer any real emergency calls, at least for the time being.

The problem at Foreign Affairs

If there is a new Harper Doctrine — and I'm not convinced there is — the weak spot is not military, but diplomatic. Here, we are on the skids.

Stephen Harper speaks at the Conservative convention in Ottawa in June 2011. A new Harper doctrine on foreign affairs? (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

The Conservative's uncritical support of Israel, for example, may ensure Harper strategic votes at home. But it is far less clear what influence this Canada-Israel bond will garner us around the world.

The Israeli government, free to trust Canada to remain uncritical, may well pay us little heed. At the same time, other nations in the area — or in the peace-seeking quartet of big powers — will regard our views as irrelevant.

Perhaps being relegated to the sidelines is precisely what Harper is hoping for here. Fewer problems from that vantage point.

Still, I cannot remember a time when our once vaunted diplomatic corps, once one of the world's best, has appeared more timid and more underappreciated by cabinet, not to mention under-strength and demoralized.

Any real attempt to promote Canada as a purposeful new force in the world will require a full-scale rebuilding of Foreign Affairs to get it back to the point where its views are listened to and its skills are deployed to the fullest.

A handful of CF-18 fighters and a frigate won't suffice.

That's why taking the measure of Harper's new foreign policy, if that's what it is, will have to await a better sense of the new foreign affairs minister, John Baird.

Harper's appointment of the dynamic, rough and tumble Baird to a position occupied of late by more tranquil figures of little clout seems heavy with meaning.

But what meaning exactly? Is Baird set to stand up loudly to revive Canadian diplomacy; or to bully it even further into the ground?