Greg Weston: Harper's foreign policy is pragmatism over principle

The confidential draft of the Harper government's new "foreign policy plan" recently obtained by CBC News offers a disturbing view of Canada's growing economic challenges abroad and diminishing political influence in a world looking to Asia.

The confidential draft of the Harper government's new "foreign policy plan" recently obtained by CBC News offers a disturbing view of Canada's growing economic challenges abroad and diminishing political influence in a world looking to Asia.

By extension, it also raises some serious questions about how well — or poorly — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has managed Canada's trade policy, clearly one of his government's most important files.

The draft foreign policy plan written by senior government officials for cabinet carries some uncharacteristically blunt language.

"We need to be frank with ourselves — our influence and credibility with some of these new and emerging powers is not as strong as it needs to be and could be.

"Canada's record over past decades has been to arrive late in some key emerging markets."

Stephen Harper was four years late to the party in both Asia and Africa. Instead, Canada embarked on a hemispheric foreign policy focused on the U.S., and on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Six years later, it hasn't worked out exactly as planned.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, shown on a visit to China earlier this year, has yet to secure a free-trade agreement in the Asia Pacific region. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As the new foreign policy plan points out, the world's economic and political centre of gravity is shifting to Asia which, by 2030, is expected to have a middle class of 3.2 billion people and almost half the world's largest cities.

It's not that the economies of emerging South American countries aren't booming. Last year, Brazil surpassed Britain as the world's sixth largest economy.

The problem was the Harper's government's initial 2007 foreign policy plan to get on the bandwagon in Latin America and the Caribbean — the so-called Americas Strategy — apparently turned out to be more photo op than action.

An internal performance audit of the Foreign Affairs strategy, released earlier this year, was scathing.

"The biggest challenge facing the implementation of the strategy is the lack of clarity on the strategy's goals. Only a few people within government, partner countries or organizations have a clear sense of what the priorities of the strategy and its intended results are."

The Harper government has tried to court South America with a steady parade of ministerial visits. But those have been too often followed by what one analyst has called prolonged political siestas.

While the Harper government boasts that it has cut a large number of free-trade agreements and other deals in Latin American and the Caribbean, the auditors note that much larger competitors such as the U.S., Europe and China have all made similar arrangements.

On its website, Foreign Affairs also makes the impressive claim that overall trade between Canada and the region has increased by 32.9 per cent since the Harper government first made the Americas a "foreign policy priority" in 2007.

But according to Statistics Canada, all the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean together accounted for barely 3 per cent of Canada's global trade in 2011, and less than 2 per cent of this country's world-wide exports.

The internal audit concludes that after five years of the Harper government's much-touted America's Strategy, "there is evidence to suggest that Canada's credibility in the region could decline."

EU, U.S. and Africa relationships all have issues

The Harper government claims it is close to a free-trade deal with the European Union.

But critics question what that would do for trade any time soon when the European economy is in the tank and teetering on the brink of collapse.

Even Canada's practically indestructible relationship with the U.S. has been showing stress cracks over the past four years under Harper and Barack Obama.

The prime minister was apparently caught off-guard by the Obama administration's protectionist "Buy America" policy, and outraged by the White House decision to delay construction of the Keystone pipeline from Alberta to Texas.

The draft of Harper's new foreign policy plan also blames the U.S. for delaying Canada's entry into negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a powerful trading bloc seen as the gateway to Asian markets.

Even the highly publicized Beyond the Border plan to help ease congestion at Canada-U.S. border crossings all but fell off Washington's agenda, and had to be rescued with pressure from Ottawa.

Going ahead, the new Harper foreign policy plan cautions "it can be expected that Canadian interests will continue to be affected by internal U.S. politics or narrow interests."

Then there's Africa, a continent to which Harper has given at best passing attention.

As the draft foreign policy puts it: "…over time, African countries have the potential to challenge the likes of Brazil and China as major investment destinations."

Gaga for Asia

All of which helps to explain why Harper and his government have gone gaga for Asia, particularly China, a country with an annual output of goods and services expected to surpass that of the U.S. within the next five years.

Alas, the PM's initially taking a slow boat to China means Canada is on no pleasure cruise now.

The foreign policy paper states: "The situation is stark: Canada's trade and investment relations with new economies, leading with Asia, must deepen, and as a country we must become more relevant to our new partners."

Despite the Harper government's best efforts, "Canada does not yet have an FTA (free trade agreement) in the Asia Pacific region, and our existing initiatives with Singapore and South Korea have been stalled for years."

Canada's trade with China has been steadily increasing despite icy relations between the two countries after the Conservatives first came to power.

Part of the problem back then was Harper's willingness to talk about China's abysmal human rights record, its brutal suppression of political dissent, not to mention Chinese cyber-spies hacking Canadian companies and stealing their technologies.

As the prime minister put it not long after taking office, Canadians don't want to sell out their values to the almighty dollar.

It's a different story now.

As the Harper government scrambles to make up for lost time, its new foreign policy plan puts pragmatism over principle.

"To succeed, we will need to pursue relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align."