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Harper's Revolutionary Foreign Policy

Bellicose words, pandering flip flops, just one aim: Win votes at home.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 15 Oct 2015 |

Andrew Nikiforuk's new book is Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider's Stand Against the World's Most Powerful Industry.

Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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No Canadian prime minister has put his personal stamp on foreign affairs more than Stephen Harper. And no prime minister has parted so radically from the national traditions of the past.

Canada used to play the role of a noble and sometimes self-serving Boy Scout abroad. The nation brokered peace deals, elevated the status of women, fought international poverty, championed arms control, and shared critical science.

It practiced real diplomacy and in the process, as former prime minister Joe Clark wrote in How We Lead, the nation became a "reliable, respected and responsible" global partner that built "concentric circles of influence on issues from defence, to development, to conciliation, to trade."

There were blind spots, of course. The nation often ignored the abuses of Canada's mining industry abroad and championed secret trade deals that have given unfettered power to corporations.

But the Boy Scout is long gone and a bully has taken its place. The Harper government practices "megaphone diplomacy" and flits from one outrageous rhetorical outburst to another.

One day Harper harangues Vladimir Putin as a common criminal, while the next day his Tory minions compare Iran to Nazi Germany. Canada has morphed from the reasoned voice of a middle power to a brittle fear monger that is now the first to close embassies, cut off dialogue and impose sanctions.

At the same time the Harper government can ignore the Syrian refugee crisis, because as Harper routinely suggests, many of these people might be terrorists or God forbid, homeless Muslims.

At first glance, much of this bombast (The Globe and Mail ridiculously calls it "muscular") might seem totally incoherent and inconsistent, and you'd be right.

Even Tories sitting on a foreign policy panel at the 2013 Manning Networking Centre (a gabfest for neocons) concluded that the Harper government, "and the broader conservative movement from which it springs, don't so much have a foreign policy as a vague foreign policy vision, dressed up with a mish-mash of policy ideas."

But the Harper doctrine has one central tenet, and that's shoring up electoral prospects at home to retain power at any cost. In fact, vote pandering now trumps all other strategic considerations in Canada's Machiavellian foreign policy.

Six rotten foreign policy pillars

A foreign policy geared to win domestic votes for an extreme political party offers no moral centre and no real conservative agenda either. Furthermore, it imperils the greater Canadian public interest, abuses the nation's reputation, and short sells the nation's future for the political ambitions of one man.

Though the recent Munk debate on foreign policy largely sidestepped this unprecedented development in its meek discussions, the Harper doctrine remains a revolutionary change in how Canada conducts business abroad.

According to former diplomats and even former conservative politicians, Harper's foreign policy basically consists of six key points with a single obsessive mission: filling the ballot box at home.

For starters, Harper makes all the decisions, and these decisions frequently reflect his affinity for idiosyncratic evangelical beliefs. Prime example: His zealot-like support for Israel's right-wing government, a position that has great electoral appeal among members of Harper's core base, Jewish and evangelical voters. (Not that Harper is irrationally ruled by evangelical dictates. When his political calculus told him to switch to embracing China, persecutor of Christians, he ruthlessly did so.)

Second, the government now makes its foreign affairs decisions on the basis of how well it might court or strengthen domestic voting blocs, particularly among the immigrant diasporas. These voters include Armenian Christians, Sikhs from India and Sri Lankan Tamils.

Third, diplomats and the public service have taken a back seat to the PMO's political operatives and their keen electioneering agendas. The imperative of winning elections has little or no time for diplomacy, let alone diplomats.

This painfully explains why Harper recently referred to David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, as his "bureaucratic foreign policy advisor" and openly referred to a highly partisan Tory party wonk as his true political advisor in China.

It also explains why Mulroney spent much of his time in China "fending off the more ideologically extreme agendas of my 'political counterpart.'" 

Fourth, the prime minister may speak about principles and no longer going along to get along. But getting along with a mega-targeted voting base combined with unbridled corporate commerce appear to be the only principles that matter.

No moral obstacle, for example, prevented Canada's $14-billion armoured vehicle trade deal with Saudi Arabia, a certified human rights violator and terror financier.

But the deal, brokered by a federal Crown corporation, no less, will provide jobs in a key Harper electoral hunting ground: London, Ontario, a place crippled by high unemployment and slammed manufacturing.

Astute readers will recall that Harper loyalists Jason Kenney and Ezra Levant once criticized Saudi Arabia as an exporter of "unethical oil" in 2011, but that's now another expired electoral mission.

Nor did any morals, let alone transparency and openness, get in the way of a grossly one-sided trade deal with the Chinese Communists.

Fifth, the Harper doctrine maintains that foreign policy that doesn't win votes is simply superfluous to the operations of government.

As a result, Harper has sold off nearly a billion dollars' worth of embassies and consulates, and shrunk the nation's presence at the United Nations and other international bodies.

Last but not least, anything that smacks of Canada's previous foreign policy, a respectful bipartisan engagement with countries and a championing of human rights around the world, will now be neglected or vilified as "liberal."

This reactionary populism, which portrays diplomacy as an effete pastime of champagne-swilling liberal elites, plays well with Harper's base.

'A total break with what came before' 

Paul Heinbecker served 38 years in the foreign service for nine different Canadian governments. His assessment: "I can confirm without any question that Harper's government represents a total break with what came before and is a total break with the past."

Although Heinbecker doesn't think catering to voter blocs is "the exclusive motivation" for the change, it is "obviously the larger part of the motivation," he told The Tyee.

Examples of Harper's transformation of foreign policy into a ballot box machine are many. Let's begin with his ping-pong like China policy, which now purely reflects electoral considerations at home.

When Harper first came to power in 2006, he bashed the authoritarian state and refused to go to the Beijing Olympics. Human rights, he mused, shouldn't be sold out "to the almighty dollar." 

As soon as the party realized that this sort of posturing was antagonizing oil exporters and many of the 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese origin who mostly live in key Vancouver and Toronto ridings, Harper abruptly changed his tune. (Thirteen per cent of new immigrants to Canada in 2012 came from China.)

Loud-mouthed Foreign Minister John Baird signalled the shift by eschewing any mention of human rights in a 2011 visit and was soon declaring the Communist Party of China an "important ally." Photo ops with Dalai Lama disappeared, while Harper now posed with reliable Communist propaganda props: pandas.

Unbalanced in the Middle East

Canada's foreign policy with Israel is another example of playing to the home voters. Canada's unabashed endorsement of the troubled right-wing state basically equates any criticism of the country's domestic politics as a form of anti-Semitism.

Support for Israel reached irrational proportions in February 2010 when Peter Kent, Harper's then minister of state for foreign affairs, claimed that "an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada." (For the record, Canada has no military defence treaty with Israel.) 

In 2014 Harper upped the rhetoric by promising the Knesset that "through fire and water, Canada will stand with you." 

Such unqualified support for Israel was calculated to appease the evangelical vote, as well as court the traditionally liberal Jewish community.

To date Harper's megaphone Middle East policy, a copy of the Likud's position on almost everything, has effectively changed historic voting patterns.

In the 2011 election, 52 per cent of Jewish Canadians voted for the Conservatives, compared with only 39 per cent of other Canadians. The Liberals, which once dominated the Jewish vote, received a scant 29 per cent. It was the first time a majority of Canadian Jews voted Tory.

Former diplomat Robert Fowler recently called a spade a spade by chiding the Harper government for selling out Canada's long-established reputation for fairness and justice in the volatile Middle East in order "to lock up the Jewish vote. "

But the international fallout from such overt vote seeking has been ruinous, explains Gerd Schönwälder with the Centre for International Policy Studies:

"Canada's unconditional support for Israel and its indifference to the rights of the Palestinians has severely damaged the country's moral stature in the region, robbing it of its hard-won capacity to serve as a go-between in the Palestine conflict."

Tamil twist

The Harper government has left no stone unturned to secure votes from immigrant communities, even when it means making a mockery of its avowedly "principled" approach to arriving at policies. To court the Tamil vote, for example, Harper has twisted himself like some sort of python.

In 2009, the federal government viewed Tamil boat refugees landing on B.C.'s shores as unwelcome intruders, if not terrorist invaders.

But when the party realized that some 300,000 Tamils were concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area and could decide the fate of six ridings (only one of which was held by a Conservative), Harper did an about face in 2013 and boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Harper now claimed that the Sinhalese government didn't represent Canada's so-called core values.

How does one explain Harper's sudden concern for human rights abuses directed against Tamils in Sri Lanka? Immigration lawyer Max Berger offered the best explanation: "The answer, cynical as it sounds, appears to lie in wooing the Tamil electorate in advance of the next federal election." In addition, the Sinhalese-speaking population numbers about 6,000 in Canada, while 300,000 Tamils occupy important urban ridings.

Before the about face, months earlier that same year, 2013, minister of immigration Jason Kenney, the Tories' chief ethnic vote catcher, confirmed to a private gathering of Tamils that the Conservative government acted against its own political interests in listing the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization.*

It is instructive that Kenney made this announcement at a meeting of Tamil Canadians to a closed meeting for ethnic press. According to many critics, Harper's crude diaspora politics have helped to erode civil society by encouraging Canadian voters to organize along ethnic lines.

"Privileging the positions of one ethnic group over another invites Canadians to think of themselves in hyphenated terms. Couple the destruction of civic identities with Stephen Harper's populist demagoguery and Canada has embarked on an uncertain and dangerous journey," recently concluded David Carment, a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

'Diaspora-driven foreign policy'

Canada's boisterous posturing in Ukraine is another example of turning foreign policy into a shameless vote collection machine. In 2013 foreign minister John Baird walked among protestors in Kiev for the cameras. But calling Putin countless names doesn't change Ukraine's grim realities or remotely help that gravely dysfunctional nation. Nor does it address Russia's concerns.

No matter. Harper is simply pandering to 1.2 million people who identify as Ukrainian in Canada. Several key ridings in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario have Ukrainians representing as much as one-fifth of the voters.

This political reality motivates Harper's constant sabre-rattling against Russia. That Canada is distant from Ukraine and our military power is minute compared to Russia's are facts inconvenient and unspoken.

"We've got a diaspora-driven foreign policy," Christopher Westal, a former ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, recently opined. "It might work at the polls, but it doesn't do much good in the world."

It also confounds any notion of diplomacy. "Trying to understand what Russia or its separatist allies in Ukraine are doing does not require us to agree with their views or approve of their conduct, especially not now," noted Harvard professor Stephen Walt in 2014.

"But unless we make some effort to understand how Russia's leaders see the situation, and what their real motivations are, we are unlikely to formulate an effective policy to address the present crisis."

Not even the Armenian genocide has escaped Harper's vote-marshalling foreign policy.

The Harper government recently jetted Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to Armenia to take part in the commemoration of the 1915 massacre of Christian Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Muslim Turks.

Turkey still largely denies the genocide (an event that inspired Hitler) in the same sort of way that Japan denies its role in the murder of millions of Chinese in Manchuria or the rape of Nanking during the Second World War.

But Canada's position was not about principle; it was all about catering to Christian and evangelical voters. Some 100,000 Canadians of Armenian descent largely live in key ridings in Montreal and Toronto and most are Christians.

Kim Richard Nossal, director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, last year summed up the intent of these machinations perfectly:  

"What we have seen is international policy shaped first and foremost by electoral considerations, and in particular the broader strategic goals of the Harper Conservatives to become Canada's 'natural governing party.'"

Hell bent on pandering

Even Canada's abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol along with any real concern about climate change can be interpreted as a shameless extension of Harper's doctrine to use foreign policy to secure domestic votes.

For starters, the demonstrably anti-science policy appeals to Harper's reactionary base, which is largely composed of climate change skeptics and people, including religious true believers, who reject evidence as a basis for decision-making.

In addition, Harper's party remains a well-funded voice for elite mineral extractors and carbon burners both at home and abroad.

Yet even the banks, Canada's most conservative sector, now estimate that catastrophic weather is eroding the economy to the tune of $5 billion a year.

A TD Bank report estimates that climate instability could grow that figure to an annual $40 billion national economic bleeding by 2050.

"Foreign policy is a mirror," Paul Heinbecker told The Tyee. "The perspective and philosophy of a country comes into better focus from abroad."

And that dark mirror now reflects a narcissistic and tactless country run by a party hell-bent on consolidating power by pandering to the lowest common denominator in domestic politics.

It is a revolutionary development in the history of the nation.

*Story changed Oct. 15 at 5:20 p.m. to reflect that Jason Kenney was speaking about Conservative government interests rather than Canada's interests.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015,

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