Recently an editor from the increasingly pro-Conservative Montreal think tank the Institute for Research on Public Policy published a preposterous fluff piece in Postmedia papers praising foreign minister John Baird. I offer this blog post as a counterweight and as a sharp dose of realistic thinking.
When Stephen Harper announced during his latest European excursion that that continent’s debt-ridden governments were “running out of runway,” and then his pet MPs in Ottawa loyally chimed in, the reactions in Canada were fairly predictable. Pro-regime people, a category increasingly scarce except in the Conservative caucus and in the professional media, all nodded and said that Harper had diagnosed the problem correctly. Political dissidents shook their heads. At least one pro-government flake hilariously concluded that Harper’s speech ruled out the possibility of a stimulus fund in the case of a renewed recession here in Canada. Yeah, right. For better or worse, if there’s another recession there will be another stimulus package. The government’s business partners will leave it no choice.
Harper’s remarks were made in Europe, and we are supposed to assume that they were intended for a European audience. But to what ends? What was Harper’s goal in Europe?
Stability and continued trade, we can safely assume, but these remarks are utterly pointless. It’s incredibly unlikely that any European government is the slightest bit interested in the economic commentary of a man with no relevant qualifications and no real-world job experience, even if he is the head of state of a minor and increasingly impotent junior ally of America. We know, from the recent food security debacle, how Canadians are likely to react when a foreign dignitary flies into our country and says something we don’t want to hear about our society: we send him packing. The European governments aren’t likely to be much more charitable than we are, especially since most of their publics associate Canada with clubbing baby seals and baking the planet via the tarsands.
But let’s suppose someone — France’s new president, perhaps, or an up-and-coming moderate in Greece — for some reason pays close attention and decides that maybe the views of the Canadian government are worth listening to on this matter. After all, Canada isn’t in any danger of defaulting on its debt payments. Harper says Canada’s doing pretty swell. So why not call in the diplomats from the Canadian embassy and set up some sort of liaison mission to see what Canada’s doing right? That, at least, is what we are supposed to assume is Harper’s objective here.
Except we all know that won’t happen. Before our hypothetical politician makes it to the Canadian embassy, he’ll consult his advisors. They’ll ask their country’s embassy in Ottawa for an assessment of the Canadian fiscal situation. That assessment will conclude that even if the situations were similar (which they aren’t, because Canada still has its own currency and therefore by definition can never be forced into default, something which 99.9999% of journalists don’t seem to realize), Harper isn’t the economic wizard he thinks he is. He inherited a large surplus, turned it into the largest deficit in Canadian history, and is still only half of the way out of a hole of his own making. In the process he’s gutting scientific research and social welfare programs which were already sad shades of their European counterparts. The Canadian bank bailout was proportionately as big as America’s. In short, Canada really isn’t worth listening to. There are real European countries with real balanced budgets, if that’s what people are looking for.
So this message is just going to make Canada look like a yappy, immature rabble-rouser, in the unlikely event that anyone’s paying attention enough to notice anyways. Oh, it will garner a few friendly showcasings from fellow austerity-seekers who want to prove that the rest of the world’s on their side. But they won’t push it very much either, because, quite frankly, no one cares what Canada has to say on this subject.
On the whole, Harper’s attempts to singlehandedly coax Europe out of its fiscal crisis are actually one of the more consistent planks of Conservative foreign policy. Consider the foreign policy objectives of the Harper regime, when it comes to the world outside of North America (i.e. outside of Canadian-American integration). Actually, don’t bother: there are no such objectives.
Instead, objectives and “principles” come and go with all the pathetic flexibility of a totalitarian state. China is a communist dictatorship which we should denounce — right up until China is a major trade partner that we should deepen our cooperation with. A seat on the UN Security Council is a sign of Canada’s influence and maturity — right up until we lose the vote for the seat, at which point not only did we not really want it in the first place, but we’re never going to try again. (Last week Conservative back-benchers went one better and publicly suggested, presumably with the Prime Minister’s authorization, that Canada leave the UN altogether.)
In the absence of any sense of direction, the only things we’re getting out of foreign policy these days are an increasingly silly series of more than 50 free trade agreements, with any foreign government willing to sign one — honestly, why on Earth do we need a free trade agreement with Morocco? — and the occasional chance to join the Americans in blowing up a tinpot dictatorship. (This is pretty much the only category of dictatorship we will fight, because we can’t start or finish a fight on our own, and any country with a real army might shoot down one of our too-expensive-to-lose jets.)
Some readers will instantly object that there is at least one other objective in Harper foreign policy that has remained consistent: its unswerving support for Israel. Well, yes, that’s true in a sense. But what’s the objective there? There isn’t one. Canada’s not trying to further trade with Israel; we hardly trade with them at all. We’re not trying to leverage Israel’s position to maintain a stable peace in the Middle East. We haven’t provided Israel with any meaningful diplomatic or other resources by way of assistance. Canada has no real interest in Israel and to the extent that we have an interest in Middle Eastern politics, it’s to keep regional tensions simmering (since that, in turn, boosts our oil prices). Instead, what Harper cares about is being seen to support Israel. This position is seen as appealing to Conservatives within the Jewish community, for obvious reasons, and to the evangelical far right, for the slightly less obvious reason that these anti-Semitic bumpkins think Israel will be the landing pad for Jesus when he returns (probably within a few years) and commences to drown gays, Muslims, leftists, atheists, and Mormons in the lake of fire.
Posturing for the audience at home has always been an essential if cynical component of Canadian foreign policy. But outside of trade policy and American integration, it’s increasingly apparent that that’s all the government has to offer. In the meantime, Canada continues its tradition of shrill moralizing, albeit in somewhat different directions that it did before, and the rest of the world continues to ignore our tantrums as much as possible.Tweet