Foreign Affairs Should Not Be Debated Through Partisan Lenses
Justin Massie argues that party leaders should remove partisanship from the discussion of foreign affairs.
In partnership with SAGE Publications, one article of key significance from every new issue of International Journal is chosen to be featured in the IJ Spotlight Series. The unabridged version of this article was originally published in Vol. 73 No. 1.
The near total absence of foreign policy issues during this federal election has been severely criticized by experts and pundits. Repeated calls have been made for leaders to address the major challenges that Canada is currently facing, from the U.S.-China trade war to the rise of far-right populism. While understandable, this critique is ill-advised.
There are reasons why foreign policy is rarely debated during electoral campaigns. First, few Canadians actually care. As seen in poll after poll, the most important issues preoccupying Canadians are the economy, jobs, healthcare and taxes. Climate change is the only foreign policy issue that is salient to most Canadians, but this is mainly due to its domestic implications, such as pipelines and the carbon tax.
Second, to become salient, foreign policy issues must be dramatic enough to attract media attention, concrete enough to have clear domestic effects, and subject to disagreement between political parties. Neither the rise of China, nor Trump’s abdication of American global leadership meet these three conditions.
The Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats mostly agree when it comes to what Canada should do to meet its most pressing foreign policy challenges. They agree on defending Canada through a close security relationship with the United States, taking part in NATO operations abroad, renewing Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping, and promoting human rights. Several of their electoral pledges are remarkably indistinguishable. The Liberals promise a “principled” approach to foreign policy, borrowing a keyword from the Harper Conservatives. The Conservatives have promised a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, which would require mending Canada’s relationship with Russia. And the New Democrats support the current reinvestments in the Canadian Armed Forces, including the acquisition of new fighter jets.
Third, where the three parties do differ of foreign policy issues, it is mostly for targeted electoral gains. This fuels the polarization of Canadian voters, with negative consequences for Canada’s national interests. For example, the Conservatives’ promise to slash Canada’s foreign aid to countries such as Jordan and Iraq, where Canadian troops are deployed, risks jeopardizing their mission. And their pledge to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would shatter the little influence Canada still has in the Middle East.
The NDP’s promise to reopen the free trade agreement with the United States and Mexico risks jeopardizing Canada’s relationship with its most important economic partners. Jagmeet Singh’s support for the impeachment of President Trump is also misguided. Whether we like it or not, a significant segment of American voters firmly adheres to Trump’s ideas and beliefs.
The Liberals’ promise “renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping efforts,” meanwhile, is perplexing given their meagre track record, notably a 13-month commitment of helicopter support to the United Nations mission in Mali. This kind of empty rhetoric encourages cynicism and political disengagement.
In other words, advocates of greater foreign policy debates during Canadian elections should be careful what they wish for.
That is not to say that Canada does not face daunting international challenges. It clearly does. But the best way to tackle these is by forging a multi-partisan consensus on how Canada can cope with the rise of illiberal nationalism, the decline of U.S. global leadership, and the threat of climate change. This conversation should take place as part of joint parliamentary committee on foreign and national security policy, where politicians, public servants, stakeholders and experts can debate meaningfully and recommend sound policy proposals. We must leverage our existing democratic institutions to craft a comprehensive blueprint for Canada’s foreign policy in the 21st century.
Justin Massie is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Quebec in Montreal and the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canada-U.S. Relations at Johns Hopkins University.