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Narrow diplomacy: Domestic politics in Harper's foreign policy

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Photo: flickr/Ivan McClellan Photography

When many of us think of diplomacy, the inevitable image that comes to mind is one of meetings discussing matters of peace, war, territorial disputes and matters of trade. For those who travel abroad, consular services -- reporting missing or stolen passports and asking legal advice and the like -- are the first things that come to mind when thinking of diplomacy. Regardless of the images the word represents to each of us, it is a vital art -- the way in which countries negotiate with each other. There are some instances as well where domestic politics come into play. With the nature of politics, it is inevitable.

But when many of these instances come to mind, some of these acts have little negative impact upon a country's relations with the wider world. It can be a positive means to help minority populations feel included in their newly adopted land and a means to address any possible grievances they have. However, what happens when diplomacy focuses exclusively on the domestic to the near absolute exclusion of other global concerns?

Since the Conservatives won their first minority government in 2006, we have seen a gradual shift in Canadian foreign policy where domestic political concerns have come to override any other concern. And it has accelerated with each success and rise in their electoral fortunes, to the detriment of our country's long-standing international reputation as a fair and cooperative player on the world stage.

One of the major changes is the race to appeal to the Conservative base and progressively add specific groups thought of as potential supporters on the basis of perceived values, as well as aiming to peel away traditional supporters of other parties. Targeting to various degrees Eastern European, Asian and Jewish communities, the aim is to make policy pronouncements that attempt to be morally principled. Principle may indeed influence some of those pronouncements, but the exact nature of these pronouncements appears to be primarily dedicated to gaining their support by focusing on issues that these groups care a great deal about.

Symbolism has appeared to be the most important aspect of these changes. The importance of saying, "We are with you and our values are your values" cannot be underestimated in these changes. There are numerous examples of this stand within the foreign policy of the Harper Conservatives but I shall cite three examples in particular.

The much vaunted maternal survival aid policy that the Conservatives introduced and sponsored at the 2010 G8/G20 Summits does, on the surface, provide some policies that support improvements to the potential for maternal survival in childbirth in the developing world. However, this policy refuses to support the need for abortion in any case or provide funds to pay for it as a part of reproductive treatment.

And to go even further, recent pronouncements in the past year by Conservative cabinet ministers in Foreign Affairs and International Development have also denied the possibility of funding abortion for child-brides or rape victims in war zones. While keeping the lid on the abortion debate at home, much to the chagrin of the anti-choice movement and some in the Conservative's own social conservative base, this policy may represent an important concession. The denial of a debate and abolition at home is replaced by a policy denying choice and the potential need for therapeutic abortion to vulnerable people aboard. No doubt some are slightly mollified by this action, though attempts to reopen the debate through private members bills would suggest otherwise.

Another example would involve last year's decision to not attend the Commonwealth Summit hosted by Sri Lanka. While many of the actions taken by that government since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War have violated civil liberties and the rights of the Tamil minority, Canada could have taken these concerns and still made a principled stand against these violations in attendance. However, the 'principled stand' taken in this case is a boycott of the conference.

Somehow, I rather doubt that the Sri Lankan government found anything particularly persuasive in this stand that would make them change their minds in regards to the treatment of the Tamils. The only possible win with this stand is an attempt to add the Tamil community in Canada to the Conservative electoral coalition. As it so happens, this group is currently more likely to vote for the opposition parties.

The most widely circulated example of playing domestic politics on the world stage is the federal government's unquestioning support of Israel. While there is a number of things to admire about this state as a well-established democracy, its relationship with the Palestinians and the settlements in the West Bank are not. One of a number of obstacles to peace in the Middle East that exist on both sides of the divide, there is no talk or discussion these days about these problems as obstacles to peace. Instead, the Harper Conservative is more likely to parrot Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likhud party rhetoric.

His recent visit to Israel took this uncritical support even further by characterizing any criticism of Israel policy as it stands as a part of the New Anti-Semitism. This position is deeply disturbing as it demonstrates that the Conservatives are likely, as they have in the past, to tar any critic of specific Israeli policies as an Anti-Semite. While being of little practical use to advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East, playing domestic politics on the world stage has diminished our status as an impartial player in the Middle East peace process and secured the Jewish vote for the Conservatives at home.

As these examples and others cite, domestic politics feature very heavily in Conservative foreign policy. Focused on using so-called principled stands to add to or solidify their electoral coalition with targeted groups, much of these gains have come at the cost of Canada's international reputation. By failing to be a part of the picture, real change and advances on the world stage do not become part of the Canadian dialogue with the world. Instead, Canada's international picture has more and more come to resemble the petulant child screaming out in a crowded room with the adults in the room sadly shaking their hands in exasperation.

Brenna Slawich is a Canadian postgraduate student currently wrapping up her MPhil degree program with Cardiff University's School of European Languages, Translation and Politics.

Photo: flickr/Ivan McClellan Photography

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