Why Harper wants to take on the world

“When I have something to say, I’ll tell you,” Stephen Harper said at one of his first news conferences as Prime Minister in 2006. Very well then. What has he been telling us since he won a majority on May 2?

In two important speeches and an interview with my boss at this magazine, Harper has given important hints, and left open important questions, about his plans for the country. A surprising amount of what he’s said has to do with foreign policy.

I don’t want to overstate this. In two speeches to Conservative partisans, at the party’s Ottawa convention on June 10, and again at the Calgary Stampede on July 9, Harper spoke first about more familiar subjects: his party’s electoral success and the economy. But Canada’s place in the world has grown as a theme until these days foreign policy is one of Harper’s big applause lines. He clearly sees it as a way to sharpen the contrast between his party and its opponents, to Conservatives’ advantage.

That hasn’t always been the case. Before the 2006 election, foreign diplomats in Ottawa couldn’t get a meeting with Harper or any trusted lieutenant. He didn’t travel much.

This is common enough among political leaders. Very soon the realities of the job caught up. Here’s how Harper described it a couple of weeks ago in his interview with Ken Whyte: “Since coming to office—in fact since becoming Prime Minister—the thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectations—I don’t even know what my expectations were—is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but in fact that it’s become almost everything.” Canada’s economy is obviously strapped into the global roller coaster, but our prosperity depends on trade, our security starts far from our shores, and so on.

At first Harper turned to international tasks from a sense of duty. What’s new is the enthusiasm. “Re-equipping the military is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making Canada a meaningful contributor in the world,” he told the Conservative convention in Ottawa. “We also have a purpose. And that purpose is no longer just to go along and get along with everyone else’s agenda. It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations. And I confess that I don’t know why past attempts to do so were ever thought to be in Canada’s national interest.”

Hooray, a chance to caricature the Liberal record. Indeed, if you’re looking for an explanation for Harper’s increasing rhetorical reliance on foreign affairs, it may lie in this extract from earlier in the Ottawa convention speech. “Within 100 sitting days of this majority Parliament, as promised, we shall combine our outstanding criminal justice bills—measures the opposition has been blocking in some cases for years. We will put them into comprehensive legislation and we will pass them.”

If that happens, it won’t be an unalloyed triumph for the Conservatives. Politicians like to have something to fight against. Harper got a lot of mileage out of his frequent displays of frustration at the opposition for blocking his crime bills. Even when the opposition parties weren’t blocking his crime bills. Often Harper’s own decisions to prorogue Parliament killed his bills before they could be passed. But the opposition was handy to blame.

If he gets that omnibus bill passed, Harper will need something else to fight against. The opposition is a bit of a toothless foe these days. The world will make an excellent substitute enemy. “We are living in a world in which, after decades of stable, sometimes stagnant international relationships, change is the new constant,” he told the Ottawa convention. “New forces are coming to the fore. Some we will be pleased to work with. Some we must resist.”

This is, more or less, the “sea of troubles” speech Harper repeated at every stop in the spring election campaign. The argument contributed mightily to building voter support for a stronger Conservative government. Might as well keep making it.

In his Maclean’s interview, Harper discussed “the kind of values we have in the world: freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law.” As a rule of thumb, he added, “those societies that promote those values tend to share our interests, and those that do not tend to, on occasion, if not frequently, become threats to us.”

He seems preoccupied with threats. In Ottawa and again in Calgary there was an odd passage about Canada’s future. “Friends, in a few short years, we will celebrate our 150th anniversary as a united country. If, in 50 more years, we wish our descendants to celebrate Canada’s 200th anniversary, then we must be all we can be in the world today.”

“If?” What’s the 50-year challenge to Canada’s very survival?

“We know there are challenges to us,” he told Maclean’s. “The most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism. We know that’s a big one globally. We also know, though, the world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I’m saying we have to be prepared to contribute more.”

This is, to say the least, a bold bunch of claims. Canada’s survival is not assured; our allies, including even the United States, are less able to defend it; Canada has to do more. Just talk? Harper rarely says the same thing three times in a month unless he’s been thinking about it a lot. But he still has a lot of explaining to do.

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