Stephen Harper's foreign policy missing 'soft power' opportunities, academics say

Young Polish academics watching Canada's foreign policy suggest Prime Minister Stephen Harper's hard line approach is mostly just domestic policy sent abroad, played out for an audience at home.

Canada's priorities and posture abroad have changed dramatically under the Conservatives

Does Canada matter on the world stage?

7 years ago
Duration 13:55
In this rough, tough, dangerous landscape of geopolitics, does Canada matter?

Of all the Canadiana on display near his desk, few stir in Prof. Tomasz Soroka the same kind of animated pride that the Governor General's medallion does.

Last year, Gov. Gen. David Johnston, on an official visit to Krakow, presented the medallion himself to the Polish Association of Canadian Studies (in which Soroka is secretary and a very active member), for its "outstanding contribution to the Canada-Poland bilateral relationship."

It was a welcome gesture for Soroka and the head of the association, Marcin Gabrys, who received the medal on its behalf. It was odd, though, given it came not long after the government of Canada cut off vital funding for their association, putting its work in jeopardy.

Prof. Tomasz Soroka welcomed a Canadian medallion from Gov. Gen. David Johnston, even as Canadian assistance to his organization in Poland was cut. (CBC)

For Soroka, a Canadian studies professor and avid student of all things Canadian, it was a fitting illustration of the inconsistencies in Canadian foreign policy.

"In the long-term perspective, this might turn out [to be] a policy that will have negative repercussions for Canada," he said in an interview at the Canadian studies office of the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora in Krakow.

"What I think that Canada … misses in its foreign policy is this soft power, promotion of its soft power. And Canada has so much to promote."

Soroka isn't the only critic of the government's 2012 decision to axe the so-called "Understanding Canada" program. At the time, Canadian writers and intellectuals — including celebrated author Margaret Atwood — signed a public letter asking for its reinstatement.

Ukrainian servicemen try on new Canadian supplied helmets outside Kyiv in August. Canada is providing Ukraine with non-lethal equipment such as helmets, protective vests and tents to help secure the country's unstable eastern region, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. (REUTERS)

Today, many Canadianists around the world still lament its loss: at conferences, and even in academic papers, many of them noting it is just one of a growing number of symptoms of a dramatic change they observe in Canada's priorities — and posture — abroad.

Ask the young professors in Krakow.

Soroka and Gabrys, along with another colleague, Wojciech Michnik are working on a book about Canada's shifting foreign policy. And while they're far from any final conclusions, they see clear trends.

Academically interesting

Canada's foreign policy under Stephen Harper's Conservatives is more "hard line" says Soroka — clearer, but more "biased."

It's a development these young political scientists find academically interesting, but they go to great pains to say they don't judge it as good or bad.

Their detached, yet uncannily intimate, knowledge and analysis of Canada's more combative, more hawkish foreign policy is a refreshing reflection on a debate that's far more thorny at home.

They watch every development in Canada — even tweeting it in real time, as Gabrys did during the recent Alberta election — and they note Harper's every move, not least his intense interest in their part of the world.

Last week, Harper became the latest in a slew of Canadian officials, including the Governor General, to drop in for a visit — more of them in the past year, notes Gabrys, than in the past decade.

Blunter, louder

The professors are not beyond pointing out that much of what Canada says — often loudly now — on the international stage is more bluster than substance. They're also not averse to saying that even the rhetoric has upsides, as well as negative consequences.

A blunter, louder approach to foreign policy has become a defining hallmark of Harper's years as prime minister, a policy that has been in the spotlight this year as Canada prepares for an election.

In several conversations with Canadianists in different corners of the world, academics described that policy using words like "determined" and "trusted." But also "forceful," belligerent," and "louder." Not words usually associated with Canada's tone on the world stage.

In fact, beyond promoting trade, Canada's foreign policy, currently, seems to revolve mostly around two conflicts: the fight in the Middle East against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Russia's incursions into Ukraine.

Caustic attack

Witness Harper's decision to visit both regions this year — surprise appearances in Iraq in February, and earlier this month, back to Ukraine (after being the first Western leader to visit Kyiv post revolution).

Included in last week's tour was also that stop in Poland, and 20 hours on a Canadian frigate in the Baltic Sea, where Russian warships observed from a distance. And while mostly Canadian cameras rolled.

A lot of people say that actually foreign policy is mostly domestic policy, just, you know, sent abroad.—  Marcin Gabrys

There was also a renewed caustic attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a regular feature in Harper's pronouncements on the world stage.

Harper did get a lot of mileage — at home and abroad — out of a comment he apparently made to Putin (while still agreeing to shake his hand) last year, telling him to "get out of Ukraine."

And yet, for all the hawkish talk, and the sanctions that go beyond Europe's, Canada only temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Moscow, only provides non-lethal assistance to Ukraine (like all its Western allies), and contributes only a symbolic number of troops to a "reassurance" operation in Poland, a NATO country on Russia's border that's watched developments in Ukraine nervously.

What's more, Canada's military spending is about half of what NATO wants it to be.

Whether any of that should be different, is up for debate, but none of it quite lives up to Canada's constant tough talk.

Even if it is only rhetoric, the symbolic action is appreciated, at least in Poland, says Gabrys.

220 on land, 250 at sea

"People feel that Harper's decision to stand, to show strength of Canada, is a very positive change," he says.

Even the small number of Canadian troops now based there is appreciated. The total commitment is 220 soldiers on the ground and about 250 at sea. Canada is still thinking about the possibility of adding to that, but so far that's just talk.

Though there are critics in Canada who question the motivation behind the rhetoric, there are many others at home who would agree with the Polish, and it is those people Harper is targeting, says Michnik.

"A lot of people say that actually foreign policy is mostly domestic policy, just, you know, sent abroad," Michnik says.

"If you look into Ukrainian-Canadians, it's … obvious why Harper government got engaged."

In recent months Harper has also sought to send the message that both conflicts directly impact the safety of Canadians at home — threats some critics at home say greatly overblown.

No Baghdad embassy

Yet Canada's commitment in Iraq for example is only about 70 trainers in the north, with six aircraft participating in coalition bombing in both Iraq and Syria, supported by around 600 soldiers based in Kuwait.

While the answer to ISIS is widely acknowledged to require a political solution in addition to a military one, Canada is the only leading Western nation without an embassy in Baghdad, and no obvious strategy on supporting political answers in Syria either.

Canada's foreign policy choices have not gone unnoticed. Palestinian protesters, for example, chanted slogans against former foreign minister John Baird during a visit to the West Bank in January and threw eggs at his car. (Reuters)

Of all the tools available in a foreign policy tool box, engagement — soft power — seems to have been pushed to the very back, the professors agree.

Does the blunt rhetoric, or the symbolic action, still elevate Canada's status on the world stage?

The professors are finding that the answer, at least in Europe, seems to lean toward no. Canada's decision to drop out of the Kyoto climate change accord, and its decision to eschew its traditionally balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by siding strongly with Israel do not help its reputation in Europe either.

Not top priority

Soon, if Europe and the U.S. strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear technology, with the help of Russia, Canada will also be out of step with most of the world on that country.

"What strikes me it's that Canada is treated relatively low-level in the European commission," said Gabrys. "So it's not the top priority of Europe."

Other Canadianists use blunter words like "negligible" and "irrelevant."

Add perhaps, self-defeating — for example, for cutting funding to organizations abroad that are so good at promoting the study and understanding of Canada, they deserved a Governor General's medallion.

Students who want to study Canada are the most affected, but so is Canada, says Soroka.

"Everyone loses," he says.

Then again, perhaps not. Because most of Canada's foreign policy decisions seem expressly made for audiences at home.

We want to hear from you: Do you think Canada matters on the world stage? Why? Email us your answer or tweet with the hashtag #CanadaMatters.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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