National Post editorial board: A better, prouder Canadian foreign policy

Dave Chan/Reuters
Under the Tories, we intervene when it will matter, and no longer crave the approval of the UN.

In a series of year-end interviews last month, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird revealed just how much Canada’s foreign policy has changed for the better under the Tories. Gone are the days when our diplomats avoided taking pointed stands on issues that mattered to Canada so they could pretend to be “honest brokers” among the world’s warring nations. Call our new approach “muscular pragmatism.” We intervene where our involvement can make a difference; no longer worry what the moralistic — but largely useless — United Nations thinks of us; and are redirecting the efforts of our foreign service to expanding Canadian trade.

The “soft power” approach, advanced by the Liberals over two decades, got Canada nowhere and solved none of the world’s worst problems. The Liberals told us Canada should no longer stand with its traditional allies, such as Israel. If we took a more neutral stand on such matters as Palestinian statehood, the combatants would look to us as an unbiased adjudicator, or so the logic went. It didn’t happen that way. No matter how objectively we acted, the major powers never asked for our help. Even the United Nations, whose favour we were most trying to court, ignored us.

Our honest broker strategy failed us even where superpowers were less interested, such as in the Sri Lankan civil war. For years we refused to back the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the terrorist, separatist Tamil Tigers, despite the Tigers’ repeated use of suicide bombings and other attacks on innocent civilians. But our hands-off approach won us the trust of neither side. All it accomplished was to make Canada the Tigers’ largest single source of fundraising. By refusing to designate the Tigers as an outlawed terror organization in Canada, Ottawa permitted the group to use agents to extort tens of millions of dollars annually from ex-pat Tamils in Canada, potentially prolonging the conflict.

Under the Tories, we no longer are so naive and pretentious.

Take, for example, our decision to intervene in Libya in 2011, but not in Egypt, Syria or Tunisia. Ottawa judged, correctly, that the presence of our warplanes in the skies over Libya might help the domestic rebels defeat strongman Muammar Gaddafi, which it did (indeed, a Canadian general, Charles Bouchard, commanded the entire NATO effort). But there was no need to intervene in Tunisia — democracy there could win on its own — so we stayed quiet. Meanwhile, nothing could be done to direct events in Egypt or Syria, so nothing is exactly what we did, at least publicly.

The Tories also haven’t hesitated to deal more responsibly with the United States. Sometimes that has meant drawing closer to Washington, as with the new Beyond the Border agreement, despite the usual protestations from the left that we are undermining our sovereignty. Sometimes it has meant reminding the Americans that we’re certainly able to do business with others, if they’re not interested — a recent example being Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s musing about selling our oil to Asian markets if U.S. environmentalists make it too difficult for us to ship it south.

Perhaps the most welcome change in foreign policy under the Tories, though, is the way we no longer crave the UN’s approval. In 2011, we refused to play games — such as joining in the UN’s annual festival of Israel-bashing — just to win a seat on the Security Council. We opposed the General Assembly’s motion to grant Palestinian nationhood in the absence of any Palestinian assurance to recognize Israel’s right to exist. And, of course, earlier this month, we withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, perhaps the UN’s most high-profile initiative.

The Tories have even started to make nice with China in order to advance our trade interests with the world’s most-populous country. Mr. Baird claims Ottawa will not soften its demands that China do more to respect human rights, political dissidents and ethnic minorities, but the Tories have decided to work with China for change, rather than to confront Beijing at world forums, as they had done while in minority. This sugar-instead-of-vinegar approach is more likely than the Tories’ old confrontational ways to produce results.

There will still be plenty of hand-wringing by the Tories’ critics about the way Tories are diminishing Canada’s reputation on the world stage and harming our chances of having an outsized impact — “punching above our weight,” as the Liberals liked to call it — on world events. But the opposite is true. In 2011, the Tories proved that standing up for Canadian interests, occasionally even forcefully, gets us much further on the world stage than our former, group-hug approach. We look forward to more of the same this year.

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