journalism that swims
against the current.
Election 2015

Canada as 'Denier and Outlier': Joe Clark on Harper's Foreign Policy

Timely excerpts from the former Tory PM's book 'How We Lead.'

Joe Clark 28 Aug

Former Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark served as the 16th Prime Minister of Canada, from June 4, 1979, to March 3, 1980. He works with international foundations, associations and businesses on issues of governance, democratic reform, security and peace. His book How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change was published by Random House in 2013.

Cam Sylvester chose the excerpts published here in The Tyee. He is a journalist, Political Studies professor at Capilano University and director of the Global Stewardship Program at Capilano University.

image atom
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark's warning: 'This outward-reaching country could gradually turn inward.'

[Editor's note: "An essential question for citizens of lucky countries is not simply who we are or what we earn, but what we could be. That question implies others: To what do we aspire? What are our talents and advantages and assets? How can we be better than we have been, in our impact on events both inside and outside our country?"

This is how former Canadian Tory Prime Minister Joe Clark opens How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change. He writes that his 2013 book is meant to serve "as a warning that this outward-reaching country could gradually turn inward, and, in the process depreciate national and personal assets that will become more valuable in the world that is taking shape than they have ever been before."

Believing Clark's perspective is particularly relevant during Canada's current federal election, The Tyee publishes here, with permission, parts of "How We Lead", adding subtitles

And the walls came tumbling down

In a single year, 1989, two huge walls came down and changed profoundly the way the world works. The famous fall was the Berlin wall -- a physical, armed, concrete barrier. The other was a wall no one knew was there, until it was breached by the insurgent internet. The real change, it turned out, was psychological. All across the world, people felt freer.

Some of the starkest signposts of contemporary changes are growth rates in major economies. By 2050, according to projections of Goldman Sachs, "the United States will be the only Western nations to make it into the top five." It will trail a distant second behind China. Canada will rank 16th, a little behind Egypt, and a little ahead of India.

Embracing difference: Lessons from minority governments

Leaders from far outside of that Western core have different views on basic issues ranging from the sanctity of the market system to concepts of human rights. If they are regarded as emerging powers, their recent lineage has been as outsiders, whose real international power could be described, in parliamentary terms, as the official opposition. They remained bystanders to power. To extend that parliamentary analogy, the governing West has recently seen its status reduced to that of a minority government, compelled suddenly to take serious account of forces we have counted as marginal before and to consider permanent coalitions.

When the Cold War ended, the guiding priorities become trade and economic growth. Western governments, Canada included, chose to believe that trade would defeat poverty, that market models would release energies that were inherently democratic, and that the "shock and awe" of modern military technology would ensure a more orderly world. Baseline certainties of a decade ago are now going or gone. The dynamics of leadership have changed because the world has changed.

'Leading from beside'

The model now should be "leading from beside."

This concept is crucial to Canada and Canadians. Internationally it inspired our signature commitment to building multilateral institutions and was at the heart of the concept of peacemaking. From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq it has become evident that wars are virtually impossible to win by military means alone. In every sphere power has changed, and so must the way that we exercise power. Yet we are devaluing, and putting at risk, the soft power that has so effectively bolstered our strong international reputation and contributed to our traditional capacity for leadership.

'Canadian, not partisan'

Canada's current international policies mark much more fundamental changes in our relations with the rest of the world than usually occur when a new federal government comes into office. In August 1979, External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald and I represented Canada at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. At the end of the first day's discussion, the president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, who chaired those meetings in his country, said privately to me: "I'm surprised that the positions you are taking are very similar to those which Mr. Trudeau took." I replied, "Naturally they are. We represent the same country."

The rule has been a high degree of continuity in the policy and approach of different Canadian governments to international policy across a wide spectrum. In the six decades after the end of the Second World War, this country's international policy was Canadian, not partisan. This international policy was once characterized by a rough balance among diplomacy, trade, defence and development, with diplomacy usually in the lead role. Today defence has been placed decisively in the lead role of that quartet, with trade next, while the roles of diplomacy and development have declined sharply.

'A sharp turn'

One of the current government's defining characteristics has been a sharp turn away from the soft power assets that had helped earn Canada's international reputation in international affairs.

• Some of the world's poorest nations were removed from the countries of focus for aid, in favour of countries where trade or commercial interests are stronger.

• Canada was regarded as a leader on international environmental issues. Today our country is often divisive and derided in international environmental discussions.

• Canada was often the single largest contributor of troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations. In 2013 we ranked 58th.

• The current government is uncomfortable with the United Nations and sometimes hostile to it, boycotting UN conferences they call "hatefests."

These changes reflect a significantly different view of Canada. There are, however, real questions as to whether this is a direction that Canadians would have chosen, and whether it is the appropriate policy for a country with our strengths in a complex and troubled world.

An obsolete game

The Cold War mindset required to navigate an ideological conflict between two economic and military superpowers cannot successfully navigate the fears and grievances of different groups who perceive their interests and very identities to be under threat. The issue now -- the talent needed now -- is the ability to identify shared interests between conflicting identities and hostile groups, patiently seeking enough common ground to build a truce, build some trust, and start talking.

The "Great Game" was the name given to the century-long conflict, beginning in the early 1800s. In that era, international relations were overwhelmingly about conquest and the protagonists were almost exclusively nation-states or empires. That was the nineteenth century. This is the 21st. One profound change is that international affairs are no longer dominated by a handful of powerful states and empires. The mix has been leavened by thousands of new actors -- some tiny and local; some linking across countries -- and include a growing array of non-state actors.

Squandering the power of NGOs

The number and size of non-state actors continue to grow significantly. Yet there is still a tendency to treat these non-state actors as relatively peripheral factors. That is a serious misjudgment. According to the Trust Barometer published annually by the Edelman Organization, in 2012 "for the fifth year in a row, NGOs are the most trusted institution in the world," ranking ahead of, in order, business, media and government.

But a minority of these new players are terrorist groups to whom no target is sacred. These outlaws pose a real threat to modern society, and pre-occupy governments. An unfortunate consequence is that since the 9/11 attacks, Western governments pay more attention to the world's "new threats" than to the world's "new solutions," overshadowing our use and appreciation of the much broader range of international non-state actors, whose motives and activities are highly positive.

The danger is this process creates its own spiral. As societies become more fearful, governments focus -- and lead public discourse to focus -- on the threats in the world, especially terrorism. The disproportion is enormous between the money and attention that Western governments spend on defence and "homeland" security compared to their investment in the capacity to understand and implement improvements in the conditions that often give rise to upheaval, crime and terrorism. Addressing desperation, poverty and prejudice is precisely where non-state actors already make a huge difference. They could be even more effective if the issues they address, and the forward looking perspectives they acquire, were treated as seriously as military and terrorist issues.

Canada is one of a handful of countries which, in the past, has been able willing and trusted enough to establish strong purpose-specific partnership with non-state organizations, such as the international treaty to ban landmines. Our skill at building partnerships has been a distinguishing Canadian credential. We have vital trade and security issues. But these are all in jeopardy if conflict thrives and grows. A successful policy of partnerships with non-state actors could help significantly in addressing the most challenging issues of the future.

Afghanistan, China, and the Middle East

International issues have played virtually no part in the elections won by Stephen Harper, nor in the platforms or prominent policy positions of his Conservative Party with three significant exceptions: Afghanistan, China, and the Middle East.

1. Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Harper government stepped up Canada's profile as a war-fighting nation, accompanied by an "image" decision to reshape Canada's international reputation in more aggressive terms, shuttling cabinet members into and out of Afghanistan for "photo ops" that would incubate and encourage a more macho characterization of Canada's role in the world. That emphasis stands in contrast to a steady and deliberate decline in the funding and priority assigned to Canada's diplomatic and development capacity.

2. China. With respect to China, the Harper government inherited a "long and generally positive relationship with the People's Republic of China" according to UBC professor Pitman Potter. The Harper Conservatives brought suspicions about the Beijing government that were almost pre-Nixonian. They described their harder-line position as reflecting "a principled foreign policy" that Potter says "had near disastrous consequences."

By 2008, Harper realized this was harming Canada's long-term interests and began systematically to change his government's conduct, which The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon calls "one of the most dramatic foreign policy reversals in recent memory." However, when Mr. Harper travelled to Beijing in late 2009 and met Premier Wen Jibao, Wen reminded Harper that while the "cool politics" might be over, they were not forgotten.

3. The Middle East. Canada's commitment to Israel's rights and security has been unequivocal since that state was formed. But for seven decades we developed productive relations with both Arabs and Israelis, and helped reconcile some of their turbulent differences. Over that period, we have made mistakes, including my own bravado affirmation of a campaign promise to move Canada's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I reversed that decision upon accepting the advice of a study I had requested by the wise and careful Robert Stanfield. His report also charted a course forward for Canada in the Middle East and noted that we "must be regarded as fair-minded by the parties, and willing to express disapproval when actions are taken which we believe are counterproductive to the peace process."

The Harper government explicitly rejects even-handedness in the Middle East. Instead, in Foreign Minister John Baird's words: "We're not a referee. We have a side." That single-minded support of Israel includes Minister Baird suddenly closing Canada's embassy in Tehran, and expelling Iranian diplomats from Canada. Former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who brought American hostages out of Iran in 1979, was among those surprise by Baird's decision, saying, "Given Canada's status as an international player, there's great value to having someone there on the ground who can interpret what is going on."

These outspoken positions limit, or eliminate, Canada's capacity as a mediator, or even as a calming influence, on broader issues in the increasingly volatile Middle East because other countries in the region regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be the litmus test of fairness and credibility. That reputation could easily spread to other areas of the Islamic world, where conflicts are growing and Canada's traditional reputation for even-handedness could otherwise help relieve tensions or find compromise.

Missing in action

The Harper government turned relatively more attention to international policy after winning a parliamentary majority in the 2011 election. Remarkably, this sense of connection to the rest of the world is confined narrowly to trade and economic policy. It is certainly not reflected in current Canadian policy on the environment or international development. On the contrary, in both fields, Canada has become a denier and outlier. Even on its chosen ground of military matters, the government has developed no coherent and consistent approach. Military historian Jack Granastein is characteristically direct: "It is becoming increasingly clear that the government has no defence policy."

Reputation is particularly important for a country like Canada, whose economic or military weight are not enough alone to defend our interests in a competitive and unpredictable world. In 2012 the BBC World Service "Country Ratings Poll" recognized Canada as having the third most positive reputation of any nation it asked about. What is notable is that, in the early years of the poll, Canada often ranked first.

But the most emphatic single demonstration of the decline in Canada's reputation came in 2010, when we were forced to quit before we were beaten in our campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. According to professor Denis Stairs, "Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a reputation for not caring very much for the UN, and Louise Frechette, the Canadian Foreign Service officer who served as the UN's deputy secretary-general for six years has argued further that the real problem is we don't seem to be there anymore. In effect, we have ignored Woody Allen's famous dictum on how to get ahead and gain influence: 'Show up!'"

Canada now talks more than we act, and our tone is almost adolescent -- forceful, certain, enthusiastic, combative, full of sound and fury. That pattern of emphatic rhetoric at the podium, and steady withdrawal from the field, raises a basic question: what does the Harper government consider the purpose of foreign policy?

'A Private Interest Government'

Put at its simplest, Stephen Harper and his colleagues lead a "private interest" government in a "public interest" country. In their careers before politics, both Mr. Harper and his most influential minister, Jason Kenney, led interest groups whose principal purpose was to cut taxes and limit government.

A mindset that resists government leadership at home is less likely to take initiative internationally because in most cases, such initiatives would involve some degree of continuing government participation. By contrast, Canadians have a broad view of their role in the world. When asked whether they agreed with the statement "I see myself as a world citizen," 85.8 per cent of Canadians said they agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 68.6 per cent of Americans.

'Cast out of the loop'

I have been involved with Canadian cabinets and minister for more than 50 years, and Stephen Harper has accumulated more personal power than any prime minister in that half-century. I know many members of the Conservative caucus, in both the elected and appointed houses, and admire some of them enormously; but with the rarest of exceptions, that caucus has been as silent as the grave on issues on which I am sure several disagree with government policy or conduct.

More ominous is that this rule of emasculating silence has been extended to the public service. I know of several occasions when expert public servants offered considered and apt advice, which government ministers -- or, too often, their partisan staff -- didn't want to hear, so those expert professionals were cast out of the decision-making loop in which their training, experience and honest advice would have helped avoid bad policy or foolish mistakes.

Strategies to limit public discussion range from omnibus bills that sharply limit Parliament's ability to examine legislation, through to the failure to publish "white papers" on foreign policy. Open debate allows for the public to become part of the choices societies have to make, and informs them about their options for the future, which in turn gives citizens the opportunity to improve measures. That is a significant advantage in a society that is becoming more educated. It is especially important when the calculations are complex, as they are increasingly on major public policy issues, from the cost of the F-35 stealth fighter jets, to the value of statistics, to aboriginal policy, to climate change.

Canada's 'special' potential

Policy that we used to call foreign is not a luxury but a necessity, an investment in our own ability -- and our children's ability -- to live peaceful and productive lives. So the national interest of Canada is much broader now. A narrow definition of national interest may have applied in an age when most international relations were adversarial or occasional, and international decisions were dominated by a handful of powers, but that concept is almost antique today. It has not, in fact, ever really fit Canada's experience.

Unless Canada refreshes our status as an active force in multilateral and development affairs, linking the developed and developing worlds, several emerging countries could assume a role we had performed historically, and be enthusiastically welcomed as a country with a "special relationship" with the U.S., because Washington need to recalibrate relations it once dominated with countries that are now becoming more powerful. Instead, we have been paying less attention to our political relationship with Washington, including in international policy, where the Obama administration would have been drawn naturally to the traditional Canadian model of broad engagement in conflict resolution, multilateral institutions, and international development.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Where Are You Feeling Inflation the Most?

Take this week's poll