Could foreign policy be Stephen Harper's Achilles' heel?

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According to a recent Leger Marketing poll, Canadians care a great deal about their country’s international standing. Sixty-four per cent of respondents said that “our country’s reputation in the world” was “very important” to them and 29 per cent said it was “somewhat important”.

After universal health care, Canada's reputation was of second most importance among a dozen symbols, achievements and attributes (the monarchy and war of 1812 were at the bottom of the list).

Yet Harper's policies have spurred an unprecedented international backlash against Canada. And, after nearly seven years of this government’s more belligerent and corporate centric foreign policy, displays of opposition are growing.

According to a video making the rounds online, during the Palestinian statehood vote at the UN two weeks ago foreign minister John Baird was the only speaker who wasn't cheered by the General Assembly. This is only one sign of the growing awareness of the Conservatives' extreme pro-Israel policy. The day before the UN vote the Toronto Star ran a picture of Palestinians marching on office of Canada's diplomatic representative in Ramallah carrying signs with a dog snout superimposed on Harper's face next to the dismissive slogan "this dog doesn't hunt."

In another example of the world's growing disdain for the Great White North, at the just completed Doha round of international climate change negotiations Canada won (with New Zealand) the Colossal Fossil, the Fossil of the Year Award. Unbelievably, this was the sixth year in a row that the Conservatives have won this award given out by hundreds of environmental organizations to the country most actively obstructing global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

Criticism of the Conservatives' climate policies has not been confined to environmental activists. Climate negotiators from other countries have repeatedly slammed Ottawa and after the Conservatives pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol last December many countries, including France, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, condemned the move.

In response to another one of the Conservatives "climate crimes," U.S. environmentalists have heaped scorn on Ottawa for its aggressive lobbying in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take dirty oil from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. A November 23 New York Times article, headlined 'Pipeline Protest Draws Pepper Spray From Deputies,' reported on protests outside Wells, Texas, in support of a two month long direct action to stop the construction of a segment of Keystone XL. The paper reported that 40 protesters "chanted 'Go back to Canada' and waved signs with messages like … 'Don't mix Canadian tar with Texas water.'"

Far from the highways of Eastern Texas, a number of European Union MPs have complained about Canada’s lobbying on behalf of tar sands interests, specifically the Conservatives' bid to exclude Alberta’s heavy carbon emitting oil from the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive. Highlighting the unique nature of Canada's campaign to exclude tar sands oil from the Fuel Quality Directive, Satu Hassi, a Finnish MP, told Reuters in May: “There have been massive lobbying campaigns by the car industry, by the chemicals industry, banks, food giants, etc. But so far I have not seen such a lobbying campaign by any state.”

In October activists in England interrupted the Canadian environment minister's speech at Chatham House. One of them took the stage to say "Peter Kent claims to be [in London] to talk about solving climate change, but actually he's a member of a dangerous anti-environment group called the Canadian government who are committed to wrecking the climate."

From Afghanistan to Haiti, the Congo to Honduras there are many examples of common citizens and government officials criticizing Canadian policy. But, only a small percentage of Canadians are aware of this growing international hostility. The poll mentioned above suggests that if more of us knew how much the Conservatives were besmirching Canada’s reputation, foreign affairs very well could become an election issue.

Not only do Canadians generally want this country to be liked, they disapprove of many specific Conservative foreign-policy priorities. The vast majority of Canadians say they are concerned about global warming and a number of polls have found support for international climate accords.

Similarly, 87 per cent of respondents to an online CBC poll supported Palestine's observer status at the UN and a survey commissioned by the public broadcaster two weeks ago found that 48 per cent of Canadians don't want Ottawa to take sides between Palestinians and Israelis (27 per cent said they wanted Ottawa to take sides, 19 per cent of whom chose Israel and 6 per cent Palestine). And, notwithstanding the Conservatives aggressive militarism, the public has consistently ranked increased military spending low on their list of political concerns and a number of recent polls show that they don't want the military to focus on war making.

Unfortunately, popular attitudes on these issues are amorphous as few institutions of any influence are willing to overtly challenge Conservative foreign policy. To translate popular attitudes into hardened opinions on which individuals act necessitates a great deal of organizing (strengthening existing organizations, creating new ones, building left media etc.). But, in the short term one way to push back against this more belligerent foreign policy is for the groups and individuals working on these issues to consolidate their efforts by targeting a half-dozen ridings where Conservative MPs are vulnerable with an aggressive foreign policy focused campaign.

One point we would want to drive home to everyone in the chosen ridings is that Harper's policies are unpopular around the world. We should also remind voters that the Conservatives have obstructed global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, supported Israel no matter what, made aid a tool of mining interests and diverted funds to the military instead of social programs.

If done properly this type of campaign could contribute to some Conservative MPs losing their seats and be a warning to politicians that there is a price to pay for international belligerence.


 Yves Engler's most recent book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's foreign policy.

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