National Politics

Canada in the World: The Foreign and Defence Policy Ideas of the Conservative Leadership Candidates

Mathew Preston
August 16, 2022
Was the nadir of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy when the prime minister beclowned himself in donning an Indian folk costume while on an official state visit? Or when he declared Europe’s acute energy supply crisis would be solved through more wind and solar power? Each became emblematic of the sad slide in Canada’s international credibility. So it has been encouraging to see all the Conservative Party leadership candidates thinking seriously about foreign and defence policy. While they differ in detail and disagree about significant aspects, it seems certain whoever wins the race will put the Liberals on notice that under a Conservative prime minister, there’d be no more Mr. Dress-Up. Mathew Preston reviews and compares each candidate’s positions – and agrees it’s time for Canada to put its Big Boy Pants back on.
National Politics

Canada in the World: The Foreign and Defence Policy Ideas of the Conservative Leadership Candidates

Mathew Preston
August 16, 2022
Was the nadir of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy when the prime minister beclowned himself in donning an Indian folk costume while on an official state visit? Or when he declared Europe’s acute energy supply crisis would be solved through more wind and solar power? Each became emblematic of the sad slide in Canada’s international credibility. So it has been encouraging to see all the Conservative Party leadership candidates thinking seriously about foreign and defence policy. While they differ in detail and disagree about significant aspects, it seems certain whoever wins the race will put the Liberals on notice that under a Conservative prime minister, there’d be no more Mr. Dress-Up. Mathew Preston reviews and compares each candidate’s positions – and agrees it’s time for Canada to put its Big Boy Pants back on.
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As Russia’s war upon Ukraine grinds on, there is an ever-widening perception that this act – seemingly singular in its savagery – has changed the world. For the first time since the Persian Gulf War more than 30 years ago, one nation invaded another for naked imperialist reasons, steamrolling international law and the norms that uphold it. Sinister rhetoric from the Kremlin – such as Vladimir Putin’s ideological courtiers equating a unique Ukrainian culture to Nazism – suggests Putin’s goals extend beyond occupying portions of eastern Ukraine or even toppling its government. The war’s implications reach past Ukraine and even beyond Europe, for Russia’s actions could embolden China to invade Taiwan. This is a different world.

Not-so-new reality: The post-Cold War global system rooted in international law, liberal norms, diplomacy and trade arguably has been deteriorating since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (top, showing the Brandenburg Gate). Unfortunately, few noticed the evidence, like worsening threats by China to forcibly annex Taiwan (middle, picturing Taiwanese forces firing an anti-tank missile during defensive exercises) or Russia’s recurring aggression against nearby countries (bottom, depicting Russian troops occupying Sevastopol in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2014). (Sources of photos: (top) Lear 21/English Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; (middle) AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying; (bottom) Anton Holoborodko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yet this seemingly new reality isn’t exactly new. It can be argued that the post-Cold War international system – generally understood as the liberal order of norms and multilateral institutions that maintain peace and constrain rogue actors (backed by often-unacknowledged American diplomatic leadership and deterrence) – disintegrated earlier. Some would even say the unipolar era of American dominance following the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began eroding the day it dawned. Bad actors crept back onto the stage. For years, China has been increasing its pressure on Taiwan and other militarily weak regional countries. It has further escalated its rhetoric and provocations in recent months, especially since U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August. China had already kidnapped Canadian citizens for political leverage in 2019. Russia, for its part, pushed into Georgia in 2008 (among several aggressive adventures in the Caucasus region), then annexed Crimea in 2014. Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa always remained cauldrons of naked power and realpolitik, the celebrated “Arab Spring” proving mainly a cruel joke.

So perhaps the world didn’t change in February; perhaps it merely awoke to reality. The shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made millions of people – including, it seems, some of Europe’s elites – realize that such things were still possible in Europe, in a modern country and on such a large scale. However fervently peaceable nations might have wished it, the world didn’t suddenly stop being dangerous in 1990. The end of the Cold War didn’t erase the age-old temptations of war, and it assuredly didn’t end defensive military force being the ultimate and essential tool of state power and diplomacy, even for peace-loving nations.

It is not only war that reawakened people and at least some elites to how the world actually works. Covid-19 and the social ills caused by the loss of so many well-paying blue-collar jobs made many recognize the utility of borders and the need to ensure critical supply chains, or to re-think globalization altogether and advocate re-shoring key industries (there are even modest signs of success on this front). The war in Ukraine has also shown that climate change is a risky obsession, for when natural gas becomes suddenly scarce and alternatives are scant, finding a secure supply becomes far more important than carbon taxes and greening the grid. Europe is shelving plans for a quick transition to green energy and is refiring coal-fuelled power plants.

Reality hasn’t changed. But the way those who would be in charge of the rest of us must think about it – and confront it – has changed. That most certainly includes Canada – and the men and woman who seek to lead the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Unfulfilled Potential of Harper and the Failures of Trudeau

Few in Canada’s leadership class seemingly understood the world could be this way. Stephen Harper was one. Perhaps due to his association with the Calgary school of political science, Prime Minister Harper developed a more hawkish foreign policy which asserted that China and Russia – and to a lesser extent Iran – posed real security threats to Western liberal democracy. Harper is remembered mainly for his international leadership responding to the 2008-09 financial crisis and Great Recession (he is an economist, after all), and for his staunch, moralistic defence of Israel.

Often forgotten is Harper’s clear-eyed approach to Russia and China, each of which he viewed as threats to the West in general and Canada in particular. Both had designs on our Arctic. At a time when some world leaders were positively dewy-eyed over Putin, Harper assessed him as a ruthless, amoral killer. As for China, Harper knew the rising power wanted an international economic system based not on the rule of law but rule by the strongest. A small, trading nation like Canada could not survive in a system like that, and so Harper recognized – and acted accordingly – when facing the threat.

Even when Harper was able to alter Canada’s defence and security posture, however, there was little appetite in Canada’s foreign policy establishment (or among corporate interests) to follow through. But now, six months into the war in Ukraine, it is almost cliché to evoke Barack Obama’s put-down of Mitt Romney in 2012 attempting to point out that Russia was America’s (and, by extension, Canada’s) number-one geopolitical threat. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” the former president scoffed, to devastating effect at the time. Note to Obama and fellow-travellers: the 1980s didn’t call; what you heard was them talking in the other room, because they never left the house. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Justin Trudeau is listening at all.

From Conservative legacy to Liberal shambles: Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s clear-eyed strategy of dealing with Russia and China as tangible threats to Canada’s security was thrown overboard by Justin Trudeau, with his open admiration of China’s Communist regime. (Source of photos: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Even before the world “changed,” however, this Prime Minister had already failed at foreign policy. Trudeau enabled the sale of critical defence companies to China. He angered allies by promising peacekeepers for a UN deployment to Mali, then delayed before sending only a token force. He embarrassed international allies and trade partners. He naïvely thought China would make its labour policies more “progressive” just to get a free trade deal with Canada. Canada’s defence procurement system is so dysfunctional that it can’t even buy hats for junior naval officers – yet the Prime Minister remains focused on signing gender equality agreements with other nations. To survive amidst changing geopolitical realities, Canada urgently needs a seat at the table of relevant multilateral organizations. But as other nations have noticed the Liberals’ lack of geopolitical seriousness, Canada has been frozen out of major new Pacific security arrangements.

Some of these failures appear due to Trudeau’s obsession with optics over governing in Canada’s interests. Others appear driven by his insistence on seeing the world as he wants it to be: the UN (and related international organizations) can fix all problems, Canada has only ever been a peacekeeper, and the only true global emergency is climate change. Trudeau’s combination of political aestheticism and utopianism has created a serious mess for whoever comes after him – be that a Liberal successor or a Conservative challenger.

The challenges resulting from Canada’s degraded international position also mean there is ample opportunity for a future Conservative leader to distinguish him- or herself as a serious practitioner of foreign and defence policy. The current reawakening to the world’s reality and danger implies that any future Prime Minister failing to take this seriously and re-orient Canada’s policies will be at odds with the electorate and our international allies.

The strength of the Harper legacy, the weakness of the Trudeau approach, and the world’s realization that geopolitics is changing have provided a potentially generational moment for whoever wins the current leadership CPC race. The next Conservative leader should be positioned to show Canadians that he or she is prepared to deal with the “new” (i.e., old) world while serving Canada better by undertaking a serious change in foreign and defence policy. Who might be able to do that best?

Key Foreign Policy Ideas of the CPC Leadership Candidates

Foreign policy is rarely – and defence policy is almost never – going to be a top-five issue for Canadians. This is a simple reality of Canadian politics. For example, Nanos’ tracking data from June 3, 2022 suggested that Canadians consider the most important issues inflation, jobs/economy, healthcare, the environment, and free speech/freedom. The only one in the batch with direct international relevance is the environment. While peace/fear of war ranked seventh, this concerned a mere 3.6 percent of poll respondents.

Simple reality of Canadian politics: Because global affairs and foreign policy are of less concern to Canadians than bread-and-butter issues, as Nanos’ recent data confirm, they have not been front-and-centre in the Conservative leadership race. Still, all five candidates have thought seriously about these issues and have put forward ideas.

As such, foreign and defence policy have gotten little attention in the CPC race. Part of this is probably also because the frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre, is focusing on bread-and-butter issues like affordability and home prices, and the frontrunner largely sets the agenda for the other contenders. Still, all the candidates have made a number of foreign and defence policy commitments, broadly defined to include military, diplomatic, trade and global governance issues. These vary in scope and direction, in some cases sharply, but not radically. All have taken generally hawkish and mostly traditional conservative stances on foreign and defence policy.

Broad Agreement on Defence Spending – Roman Baber, Leslyn Lewis, Jean Charest and Scott Aitchison have all committed to meet the NATO-wide national defence spending target of 2 percent of GDP – a level frequently demanded by the U.S. but chronically flouted by European countries and Canada. Canada’s current annual defence spending of $23.3 billion amounts to just 1.4 percent of GDP.

Chronic underperformer: All five CPC leadership candidates agree Canada must aim to increase its military spending to the NATO benchmark of 2% of GDP – an extra $11 billion per year. Not only is this a tall order in an era of massive deficits, but Canada’s inept defence bureaucracy is often unable to spend the money it does have. (Source of graph: Office of Parliamentary Budget Officer)

While in general agreement, Poilievre has been more nuanced on this issue, stating that he’d “work toward that goal.” In his view, committing the cash isn’t the hardest part. The larger problem is that the otherwise-bloated Department of National Defence can’t properly spend the money it already has, due to a lack of institutional talent, a risk-averse culture that considers the procurement process more important than the outcome, and a sense that any and all weapon procurement projects will result in scandal – creating an incentive to drag feet. This area is sorely in need of reform.

“Canada’s credibility in the world is eroded right now because some countries don’t believe we’re an actual democracy anymore,” says Roman Baber, who as an Ontario MPP attempted to protect unvaccinated workers from being fired, but was himself ejected from Doug Ford’s caucus. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

Roman Baber – Baber, an Ontario MPP who was banished from Doug Ford’s caucus for speaking out against Covid-19 health restrictions, has focused on energy and Canada’s interactions with international institutions while approaching foreign policy questions through his personal experience of having been born in Communist Russia. He notes that Canada’s defence spending needs to be increased by 50 percent to meet the NATO target, a stiff challenge. At the same time, Baber is cautious about Canada’s habit of frequent peacekeeping deployments, saying it is time for other countries to provide boots on the ground.

The Ontario MPP also links the quality of democracy at home with Canada’s reputation abroad. In the May 11 leaders’ debate in Edmonton, Baber charged that, “Canada’s credibility in the world is eroded right now because some countries don’t believe we’re an actual democracy anymore.” In Baber’s view, Canada’s international “soft power” so beloved by our Laurentian Elite is being undermined by their own heavy-handed actions at home.

Former Huntsville, Ontario mayor Scott Aitchison not only wants to increase trade and deepen ties, but proposes that Canada recognize Taiwan as an independent country, which would be guaranteed to enrage the mainland dictatorship. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

Scott Aitchison – The former Huntsville, Ontario mayor and MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka has centred his foreign policy on being the race’s fiercest China hawk and staunchest supporter of Taiwan. Most boldly – or riskily – Aitchison has unequivocally called for Canada to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, placing him far beyond even the U.S.’s “One China” policy that officially recognizes one Chinese state of which Taiwan is part, while simultaneously opposing the forcible takeover of Taiwan by China. Aitchison has also pushed for Canada to increase trade with Taiwan and to invite Taiwan into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Not surprisingly, Aitchison is a strong proponent of banning the widely mistrusted Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from Canada’s networks, something the Liberals dithered on for years to the point of nearly having Canada ejected from the critical “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance with the U.S., UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Aside from China, Aitchison would follow the previous Trump Administration’s controversial move of its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (something several other nations have also since done). On national defence, Aitchison plans to fix the procurement system by focusing on objectives and outcomes. “Step by step,” he states at 2:37 of the linked video, “We will build back up our armed forces capable of keeping Canada safe and increasing our power around the world.” Aitchison’s use of the word “power” appears deliberate, reflecting his view that “Canada is not a reliable partner in the world” (20:46 of video) largely because our military is unable to project power abroad. Aitchison has led two cross-party working groups dedicated to CANZUK, a proposed alliance of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK which would strengthen trade, immigration and defence ties. Previous Conservative leader Erin O’Toole also liked the concept which was, predictably, labelled a racist idea by Liberals.

Not just a social conservative: Toronto MP and previous leadership contender Leslyn Lewis shares a growing popular concern that global organizations are increasingly dictating policy to participating governments. Focused mainly on protecting Canada’s sovereignty, Lewis promises to strengthen Canada’s military in mandate as well as capability. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

Leslyn Lewis – A contender in the last CPC leadership race who has become primarily known for her socially conservative positions but who was also once an environmental lawyer, the Toronto MP has used the war in Ukraine to focus on Canada’s energy sector as a tool of foreign policy. Lewis says the war shows why the world needs more Canadian energy to replace supplies from authoritarian and untrustworthy regimes. She is also highly mistrustful and openly critical of international institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

According to many commentators, Lewis’s views border on conspiracy theorizing, but her underlying concern is that Canada is losing national sovereignty and, therefore, Canadians are losing control over their lives to these increasingly unaccountable and uncontrollable global organizations. They do not help themselves by claiming they do have power, such as WEF head Klaus Schwab openly boasting he has “infiltrated” governments and, via Liberal Cabinet members being former Young Global Leaders, has “penetrated” Canada, or such as the WHO recently demanding vastly more power.

Anti-globalism appears to be the animating spirit of Lewis’s foreign policy. In her view Canada is a nation, and its government and parliament will answer to Canadians, not to the global elite, regardless of its form. Her rebuke of international organizations is a significant break from post-Second World War Canadian foreign policy as practised by both governing parties. The Liberals were always more enamoured of global organizations like the UN, while the Conservatives tended to favour more defined multilateral organizations that advanced Canada’s direct interests, like NATO or the Commonwealth. Still, both parties trusted that such organizations operated in good faith. Lewis’s stance is something new, reflecting growing popular concerns that global organizations increasingly dictate rather than answer to member countries.

Consistent with that view is Lewis’s belief that Canada’s national defence needs to be beefed up, physically and in attitude, and better integrated with foreign policy. Her policy statement on “Defending Ourselves” concludes with a clear-eyed declaration: “A Lewis government will change course immediately. Our men and women in our armed forces will be properly equipped. Our economy will be treated as an issue of national security, and our borders will have meaning.”

The Frontrunner – Of the six candidates, Charest and Poilievre have the most meat on their foreign policy bones. An MP since 2004, a minister in Harper’s last government and a key Opposition critic since 2015, Poilievre is the heavy favourite to win. His limited foreign/defence policy credentials come from stints as a Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Harper and Opposition Critic for Finance and the Treasury Board (whose single largest spending item is national defence).

“If you want to go to Davos, to that conference, make it a one-way ticket,” frontrunner Pierre Poilievre has declared of the World Economic Forum, echoing Lewis’ concern that the organization threatens Canada’s national interests and the freedoms of Canadians. (Sources of photos: (top) The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz; (bottom) World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt)

Like Lewis, Poilievre regards the war in Ukraine as evidence for Canada to resume developing and marketing its energy resources aggressively. But he sees Ukraine as more than a means to an end, stating that Canada moved too slowly in arming the Ukrainians with lethal, modern weapons, pledging more humanitarian aid to the country and those fleeing it, and vowing he would expel Russia’s ambassador to Canada and pull Russia Today’s broadcast licence. He draws the line at NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as this could start a direct war with Russia. Still, Canada could contribute meaningfully to curbing Russia by thinking strategically and using our energy potential to break Russia’s ability to blackmail Europe.

The Poilievre campaign was not above aiming at a particular constituency, however, in issuing a statement on Flight PS752, the airliner shot down by Iran in 2020. The statement mimicked Harper’s previous hawkish stance on Iran, echoing earlier statements regarding the regime, reflecting both the anti-authoritarian bent of neoconservatism and continuity with a long-held stance on Iran in the conservative movement.

Like Lewis, Poilievre has made opposition to the WEF’s economic and climate-change agendas central in his critiques of the current international system as representing a threat to Canadian sovereignty. At this campaign rally he even pledged to bar ministers in a future Poilievre government from attending WEF meetings. “If you want to go to Davos, to that conference, make it a one-way ticket,” he declared to roars of approval. “But you can’t be part of our government and working for a policy agenda that is against the interests of our people.” Poilievre’s pugnacious populism provoked not only the left’s predictable critics, but some within the CPC, like MP Michelle Rempel-Garner, who described the Davos Summit as merely “LinkedIn for the c-suite but in person.”

But like Lewis, Poilievre agrees with – or has tapped into – a significant body of perception among the electorate that the international order is moving away from its post-Second World War role as a system of alliances and organizations that perform functions and contribute to overall stability, to a supranational policy-making system that can override or simply bypass national decision-making. Protecting national sovereignty has become of increasing concern in a number of countries – and now Poilievre and Lewis propose adding Canada to this group. Baber has one foot in this camp, saying he is not opposed to the WEF or Schwab, only the ideas they promote.

The Main Challenger – Charest has positioned himself in direct contrast to Lewis and Poilievre’s views in this area, calling them conspiracy theories. Charest says his cabinet members would be free to attend the Davos Summit and notes that he himself has been there. He insists the WEF is primarily a business networking event and not a threat to national sovereignty. Consequently, he says, “If any of my ministers go to the WEF, fine, they have good judgment, they have a brain. They know what’s good or right.” Tellingly, Charest made these comments in a video responding to the top questions people had about him – one of which was whether he was a WEF member.

Charest has by far the most detailed foreign and defence policies of any Conservative leadership candidate. He has made a number of bespoke pronouncements, including taking a strong stance against terrorism in a statement on the elections in Lebanon. The former Liberal Premier of Quebec and federal Conservative minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the late 80s has taken a very similar stance to Poilievre on supporting Ukraine.

Like the other candidates, Charest has promised to raise Canada’s defence spending to 2 percent of GDP but has added particulars. He wants to increase the Canadian Armed Forces to 75,000 regular force personnel and 50,000 reservists, expand the training system to do so and fix the procurement system (although providing no details). He wants to open two more military bases in the north to protect Canadian sovereignty (and boost the local economy), buy two armed icebreakers, and explore upgrading the Royal Canadian Navy’s meagre and problem-plagued submarine fleet. These pledges, Charest said, would restore credibility, noting that it was because we aren’t taken seriously as a military partner that Canada has been left out of recently formed alliances, like AUKUS. Charest would also make “significant” investments in cybersecurity and undertake foreign and defence policy reviews.

Former Liberal Premier of Quebec and federal Conservative minister Jean Charest scoffs at concerns over the WEF’s potentially corrosive influence. He seems equally sanguine about the threat posed by China. Even as Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig (bottom left) and Michael Spavor (bottom right) were prisoners of the regime, Charest was a paid consultant to Huawei, which was finally barred from Canada’s 5G networks due to pervasive security concerns. Charest has yet to provide a convincing explanation. (Source of top-left photo: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

Charest is, however, deeply compromised on the most important foreign policy issue of all – China – having worked as a consultant for Huawei even as the “two Michaels” were locked up in a Chinese jail. This is a substantive problem for Charest. It represents a particular way of interacting with the world that appears to accept that, even if might doesn’t actually make right, large authoritarian regimes basically call the shots and countries like Canada must work with them on their terms. It rejects the competing view that threats to Canadian and Western interests are multi-faceted and include human rights – especially where tyrannies are concerned, no matter how powerful they may be or how lucrative their markets might seem.

Charest’s past with Huawei needs to be convincingly explained. At the May 11 leaders’ debate, Charest argued that Huawei had been invited in by a Conservative government. This response seems inadequate, failing to account either for China’s increasingly bellicose international behaviour since then or the growing awareness of the security threats posed by Chinese organizations – pointedly including Huawei.

Evaluating the Positions: A 30,000-Foot View

There are two main lenses through which to evaluate the candidates’ defence and foreign relations chops: by policy and worldview. Policy promises during a leadership or even an election campaign are always subject to the harsh reality of government, when the real numbers start coming across the prime minister’s desk or a new crisis diverts all attention. The first security briefing can turn a policy preference on a dime. But remaining in the world of policy for the moment, most of the leadership candidates pass the test, to varying degrees, of facing the world as it is and offering conservative approaches to the main challenges.

Charest is right to call for a stark increase in defence spending, while Poilievre is equally right that reaching 2 percent of GDP isn’t as easy as just spending the money. As the Parliamentary Budget Officer has shown, Canada would need to spend an additional $13 to $18 billion over the next five years to reach the 2 percent target and, as has been said time and again, DND doesn’t have a funding problem as much as it is simply unable to spend promptly or effectively. Procurement falls behind not because of lack of funds, but lack of professionals able to make decisions and allocate funds. The other candidates have also made largely surface-level commitments, with nothing distinctly outside the bounds of historical Conservative positions. Most of the specific policy ideas from everyone in the field are in keeping with the Harper approach.

Regarding worldview, however, there are significant differences from Harper – and from Brian Mulroney before him. Poilievre would likely not be insulted to be told he acts far more concerned with domestic issues facing everyday Canadians than foreign and defence policy. With inflation, housing prices, and major productivity and competitiveness issues facing Canadians, as a campaign strategy – and even moral imperative – he’s not exactly wrong. But Poilievre also quite clearly likes politics, and foreign and defence policy in Canada already suffer excessively from the intrusion of domestic political considerations.

Baber and Lewis have also shown far more concern for Canadian domestic interests, and their focus in foreign affairs comes mainly from how global institutions threaten Canadians and Canada’s interests. Their worldview appears less about how Canada should act in the world than how to ensure the world doesn’t act negatively upon Canada.

Charest was a cabinet minister already in the waning days of the Cold War, when Canada stationed mechanized forces and fighter jets in Europe and helped lead the global campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. He’s no stranger to a time when Canada was willing and able to take charge – and back it up – a time when the world was clearly dangerous. But Charest has shown questionable judgement, most importantly his representation of Huawei, which raises red flags concerning how a Charest government would approach our era’s – and likely the next generation’s – foremost geopolitical challenge. Charest shares a similar disposition to Aitchison, who would focus on properly funding and competently executing traditional foreign policy postures where Canada acts in the world – rather than risking acrimony and conflict by breaking with international organizations.

The Next Conservative Leader’s Foreign Policy Landscape

As has been tradition in CPC leadership races since 2015, discussions quickly began about who could best carry on the Harper legacy. These also quickly became about who can respond to the changing conservative voter – more populist and looking for more outside-of-the-box thinking. Both domestically and internationally, Canada needs to keep the best of the Harper years but move outside of their shadow.

The next CPC leader needs to think beyond general hawkishness to focus on a select few geopolitical adversaries – such as, in Harper’s case, Iran and Russia – to support a sound international financial system and to begin to think holistically about national security. The next leader needs to strengthen values of democracy and freedom at home and abroad, as Baber suggests. This does not necessarily lead to neoconservatism. A Conservative leader need not try to spread democracy where it has no foundation and few prospects. But he or she should encourage Canada to resume its role as a beacon to the world, inspiring and strengthening freedom-loving people in other countries to build their democracies. Canada comes by this role honestly, being the world’s only successful leading nation that is home to multiple ethnicities, religions and languages without resorting to assimilation.

The next leader also needs to think of national security and Canada’s national interest in broad terms. This means being honest about which international groups, events and interests truly affect Canada and Canadians, and which are more like progressivist crusades. Lewis and Poilievre’s skeptical eyes are essential to this, although one must distinguish between threats that supersede national sovereignty and opportunities that serve Canadian interests. It is perfectly consistent, for example, not to accept WHO policy as Canadian policy by default while still supporting a properly constituted WHO for its usefulness in identifying and mitigating emerging international public health threats. Similarly, free trade agreements can both enrich economies and hurt particular groups – and should be viewed as such. Most important, an unshakeable focus on Canadian interests would facilitate global engagement while protecting Canadian sovereignty and the values and principles which make it worth protecting.

Not your parents’ Cold War: While the world never stopped being a dangerous place, our era has a new mix of participants, relationships and potential conflict triggers. In contrast to Canada’s – and the West’s – complete economic independence from the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, today we depend on China for a vast proportion of our consumer and manufactured goods, while China could not function without imported crude oil. Pictured at top are Canada’s annual imports from China in billions of dollars. (Source of graph: Comtrade/

The goal – and hopefully the result – would be a holistic policy that intersects all key areas. Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t generally “do” that kind of holistic strategic thinking well. The last national defence white paper, published in 2017 and entitled Strong, Secure, Engaged, developed a defence policy before undertaking a geopolitical threat assessment. But strategy is more than just a plan; it should be regarded as a verb – thoughts and actions that never cease. This means combining defence policy with industrial, economic, energy and even social policies to develop an overarching approach to the world.

In assessing the Conservative leadership contenders, accordingly, one needs to look beyond whether Charest is there to carry on the Mulroney legacy or whether Poilievre is the next Harper. Nor can the current situation simply be framed as a new Cold War. As many similarities as there are with that era, approaching it the same way would be ineffective if not self-destructive. The West did not, for example, depend for a vast array of its consumer goods and manufactured items upon the Soviet Union the way it does China today. Comparatively speaking, Canada hardly traded with the Soviet Bloc at all. Today we are nearly as dependent on China for manufactured goods as Germany is on Russia for natural gas.

Conflict in this “new” world – whether large-scale events in which Canada is called upon to help its allies against Russia or China, or proxy wars where Canada might provide political, economic or military aid – is likely to be more complex than during the Cold War. East Asian and Pacific countries comprise 60 percent of the global economy. This suggests Canada needs to strengthen its maritime capacities and work to join and contribute to a network of multilateral organizations and alliances that have similar goals of containment and deterrence as Cold War arrangements but are conceived, structured and operated according to the needs of today’s world. And all of that must follow, not precede, development of sound foreign and defence policies. The foremost goal is the prevention of war; achieving this goal demands Canada be ready for anything.

Looking for a “good dancer”: The new Conservative leader – and hopefully future Prime Minister – will need to focus on multiple policies and relationships simultaneously, requiring greater national defence and foreign policy capability. In a way, this would be a return to Canada’s past as an active international player. Shown at top is Lester B. Pearson, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs (seated at left) speaking with UN Under-Secretary Ralph J. Bunche before a Special Emergency Session of the General Assembly in 1956 for establishing a UN emergency force in the Middle East. At bottom, Canadian UN peacekeepers. (Source of photos: UN)

The world is still a nasty place; that has not changed. What has changed are the ways that it is nasty, the geographic focal points, as well as the capabilities, alignments and needs of the peaceable nations. Accordingly, the particular mix of foreign and defence policies for Canada must be adapted to today’s circumstances. Constant over time should be a defence of Canada’s democratic and pluralistic values, continued participation in and support for a Western-orientated and largely American-led alliance structure, and strong support for national sovereignty tempered by Canada’s undying promotion of universal principles of human rights. This might mean, at times, disagreeing with, diverging from or even defying international organization if these threaten or attempt to override Canada’s core beliefs, interests or sovereignty. In sum: A Conservative realism that understands the world as it is while defending and advancing Canada’s interests consistent with the tradition of Canadian rights and freedoms, morals, and partnerships.

More than anything, however, the next CPC leader – and, hopefully, Prime Minister – needs to be a good dancer, managing domestic concerns like inflation and flagging productivity while dealing with the international dispersion of global power. As with nearly all good leaders, many of the most important decisions will be made when they form their team and hire their senior advisors. Fiscal conservatives may not like it, but not only defence spending but the foreign policy apparatus in the Prime Minister’s Office may need to get bigger to guide these initiatives and ensure the Prime Minister is accurately informed of constant changes.

To navigate this “new” world, the next conservative leader will need to dedicate more time to foreign policy. Not necessarily to Trudeau-style performative aspects but to more thinking, more directives and more implementation. The passive and sometimes disconnected thinking at Global Affairs Canada will pose a huge hurdle. Just in June, this department thought it appropriate – despite stated government policy to diplomatically isolate Russian – to send an official representative to the Russia Day party at the embassy in Ottawa.

Hiring even low-level personnel in key departments like Global Affairs, National Defence, Trade, and Industry would have to be reorientated so that it was understood at all levels that the tools of state power were now being used to protect Canada, Canadians, and our interests. That is a very tall order and would take years to get through. But if successfully implemented, it would leave lasting results, a legacy of the sort that eluded Harper. Canada needs to be strong – economically and militarily – sure of its democratic, market-oriented, pluralistic and federalist values, and be a contributing member to a strong network of alliances while maintaining tools capable enough to provide a certain independence of action. The Conservative Party’s leadership race represents a step towards meeting the challenge and seizing the opportunity.

Mathew Preston is a government relations consultant with Canadian Strategy Group and has written for iPolitics, the Hill Times, Alberta Views, and Quillette, and has a Master’s Degree in Military and Strategic Studies from the Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

Source of main image: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld.

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