Right-wing commentators routinely insist that Canada is a nation in decline, that we no longer command respect on the international stage. Beefing up our military spending is their usual solution.

In fact, what makes nations respected internationally is their contribution to international justice and the rule of law, not the size of their arsenals.

If arsenal size were what counted, the U.S., with its ever-growing military, would be gaining ever more respect worldwide (instead of the opposite), and Turkey (which spends a particularly large percentage of its GDP on its military) would be in hot demand in world capitals for its wise counsel.

Last week’s Palestinian election has presented just the sort of potentially explosive situation where tanks offer no help, but where effective diplomacy could make a difference.

In a column in The Globe and Mail, Palestinian-born journalist Rami Khouri argued for the world to avoid hysteria and calmly craft a process for recognizing and achieving legitimate Israeli and Palestinian rights. He identified three nations capable of playing a pivotal mediating role: Sweden, Norway and Canada.

In fact, Canada has been inching away from its traditional, respected role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East — a role established in the 1950s when former Prime Minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to defuse the Suez Crisis.

Paul Martin’s Liberal government quietly shifted Canadian policies at the UN, voting with the U.S. and only a few other nations against resolutions supporting Palestinian rights.

The election last week of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives promises to push Canada further down this path, allowing Israel to continue to insist it wants peace even as it builds more settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank. This Israeli behaviour has fed deep Palestinian resentment, which contributed to last week’s victory of Hamas — a group that has used terrorism as part of its armed struggle against Israeli occupation.

Harper hinted last week that Canada won’t recognize a Hamas government. Such outright rejection may feel good, but achieves nothing.

It should be remembered that former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was once on Britain’s wanted list for terrorist acts he committed in the fight to establish Israel.

The important thing is to move forward, to see if Hamas can change in its new governing role. In its election platform, it dropped its longstanding call for the destruction of Israel. In recent years, Hamas leaders have said they could live with Israel, if Israel ended its occupation and recognized the right of Palestinians to a state.

How Harper deals with the Middle East will just be one measure of his foreign policy, but an important one.

The Hamas victory — the result of a democratic election — calls out for the kind of smart, even-handed diplomacy that Canada has sometimes excelled at, and that wins more respect in the world than the most bloated fleet of tanks.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...