Commentary

Stephen Harper: One of U.S.

Stephen Harper’s foreign policy has fulfilled the hopes of American conservatives. As prime minister, Mr. Harper has validated my prediction during the last campaign (notoriously referenced in a Liberal attack ad) that he would become George W. Bush’s new best friend internationally.

Mr. Harper’s leadership followed the disparaged Chrétien and Martin governments, which the White House perceived to be strongly anti-Bush and possibly anti-American. Given Mr. Harper’s pro-American perspective on international affairs, his ideological soul mates to the south viewed his political ascendancy as a breath of fresh northern air.

The prime minister’s preference for following Mr. Bush’s lead is most obvious, and most appreciated, on Afghanistan, counterterrorism, defence spending, and the United Nations.

Predictably, Canadian opposition parties criticize this allegedly slavish devotion to Mr. Bush’s foreign policy.

Viewed from Washington, however, Mr. Harper’s government has formulated a more realistic foreign policy that recognizes the primacy of the U.S. relationship.

Every day, Canadians do $2 billion worth of business with their southern neighbour. Mr. Harper has sensibly prioritized strengthening that economic bond and has not let second-tier issues overwhelm the larger relationship. For example, the softwood lumber dispute was finally put to rest, while the two countries agreed to disagree on the question of Arctic sovereignty.

Canada’s traditional multilateralist posture is most noticeably absent at the UN. The Harper government shares the Bush administration’s cynicism towards an international institution dominated by dictatorial regimes that patently do not share the liberal democratic values that Canadians and Americans espouse and both countries at least attempt to honour.

Regarding the Middle East, Mr. Harper has proven to be a staunch defender of Israel. Broadly speaking, he has presented a perspective on Muslim terrorism not too dissimilar to that of Washington’s still-influential neoconservative community.

The Conservatives’ commitment to higher defence spending has encouraged Washington (and other nations) to take the Canadian military more seriously. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the counterterrorist campaign in Afghanistan.

Mr. Harper’s decision to extend the mandate for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan is his strongest selling point in Washington. In Afghanistan, Canada is seen to have stepped up to the plate, as it continues to bear the brunt of the burden to bring security and stability to the southern part of the country.

Considering both Mr. Harper’s policies and the respective departures from office of Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard, there is no doubt that, in the twilight of the Bush presidency, the Canadian prime minister is George Bush’s best foreign friend.

If the Conservatives are reelected, within a few months either a President John McCain or a President Barack Obama will seek the support of America’s northern ally across a wide range of diplomatic initiatives. Mr. Harper’s foreign policy record suggests John McCain will not have to work very hard to gain Canada’s co-operation.

There is a potential irony looming, however, if a Harper government should greet an Obama administration in January 2009. It would mark the first time in the modern era that an American administration’s fundamental world view was clearly to the multilateralist left of its Canadian counterpart.

How would the prime minister and the new president get along? Relations have been frosty between the Obama campaign and the Harper government since the leaked comments made by Austan Goolsbee, a top Obama economic adviser, to Canadian diplomats regarding Obama’s faux protectionism.

More broadly, neither Democrats nor Republicans have forgotten Mr. Harper’s support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both continue to view his foreign policy, and ideological sympathies, through that prism.

Will a President Obama serve, as most Canadians no doubt hope, as a moderating influence upon Mr. Harper? Or, will Mr. Harper prove adept at tugging an inexperienced liberal Democratic president in a more hawkish direction, as conservative Americans would wish? Without question, the forthcoming cross-border diplomatic dance will be compelling viewing.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.