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Transatlantic Briefing No. 1-06

Commentary, 24 January 2006
Northern Neocons or Business as Usual? Canada’s Conservative Turn and Transatlantic Relations

By  Michael Williams

No doubt a number of Canadians - especially those who see themselves as more socially aware than their southern neighbours -  are cringing this morning after the general election yesterday which ended twelve years of Liberal government. After over a decade of Liberal rule Canadian voters have made a course correction which could have an interesting effect on Canadian foreign policy. Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservatives in Canada, has after all been referred to as a Canadian neo-conservative. But, does a change of resident at 24 Sussex Drive mean a radical departure from the Canadian foreign policy of the last decade or so?

On the election trail Harper advocated a stronger Canadian military and promised to increase defence spending. His logic is that Canada’s lack of commitment to military expenditure has reduced its international voice. Harper has pledge £2.5 billion more on top of what the Liberal government allocated for defence spending for 2006. A strong and more militarily capable Canada will, in Harper’s eyes, have more influence on global strategic issues. As he said during the campaign: "I've made no secret of our desire to rebuild the Canadian military to have the capacities of a sovereign nation; to make foreign policy decisions that are not only independent but are actually noticed by other powers around the world." Despite this increase in defence spending, it is doubtful that the Americans will be throwing up a fence to deter a Canadian invasion. Indeed, relations between Ottawa and Washington DC are expected to improve. Whereas the Martin government was highly critical of US foreign policy, Harper seems to be less so. A recent low point between the close neighbours came when Paul Martin made what were seen by Washington as anti-American comments during the election campaign – a worrying trend following on Gerhard Schroeder’s use of the same tactic in the 2002 and 2005 German federal elections. Mr. Martin’s attempts to distinguish between American values and Canadian values failed, however, and Washington likes what it has seen of Mr. Harper thus far. That said one should not expect a return to the closeness of the Mulroney-Reagan era. The possibility for continued engagement by Canada in a number of security initiatives led by the US looks good though, and a warming of relations will be of benefit to both nations, as well as the Atlantic alliance.

This does not mean, however, that Canada is going to join Washington on its next democratizing adventure, if there is one. Harper has been consistently Canadian when it comes to Canadian involvement abroad. He is on the record stating: "The stronger the international consensus, the stronger basis for Canadian participation."  Canada has long been a responsible international citizen taking part in a number of peace-keeping, reconstruction and stabilization operations from the Balkans, to Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. A brilliant move by the former Liberal government was the decision to increase Canada’s contribution to ISAF while opposing the Iraq war. This deflected any potential US criticism of Canada weakening international security efforts and strengthened what Canada deemed to be a vital mission for the preservation of international peace and stability. Canada will most likely remain on a similar tack. Harper has pulled back from his 2003 statements about being “shoulder-to -shoulder with the US” and preferring instead a more moderate approach. That said, he has indicated that there is no cut and dry template for Canada’s international actions. He would not commit to fighting exclusively under the banner of the UN which leaves options open. Potentially then, one might expect Canada to participate in anything from NATO actions to coalitions of the willing such as ISAF at its founding in 2002.

Canadian relations with Europe and UK will remain on the same course as they have for the past several years. The Canadians have managed to establish a formal mechanism with the EU for Canadian involvement in ESDP and will continue to nurture this link. If Canada is able to develop forces and technologies that improve upon EU capabilities the possibilities for co-operation will most likely improve. In NATO Canada will remain engaged, perhaps becoming even more so with the transformation of their military forces. NATO, along with the US, was highly critical of the Liberal’s cuts to the Canadian defence budget during the 1990s. The course correction by the new Harper government is therefore a most welcome one. If anything it will strengthen then Alliance and its ability to deliver, especially in Afghanistan where to date NATO efforts have been less than sterling.

While some have attempted to portray Stephen Harper as the closest thing in Canada to an American neo-conservative such portrayals are poor attempts to distort the truth. Harper’s rhetoric during the campaign illustrates a pragmatic leader who has recognized that although Canada is a responsible international citizen, that it often lacks the ability to support operations around the world that it ideally would like to support. Harper will attempt to improve this status and will maintain roughly a status quo foreign policy. Afterall, he will be leading a minority government. If he is clever, he will avoid creating an imaginary mandate for change unlike his counterpart in Washington DC who thought he could ride roughshod over established US preferences after his relection.

Canada, like the US and UK, has a specific idea of how the world should work. The Harper government, in increasing defence spending, hopes to gain a reciprocal increase in Canada’s ability to influence international debate. Given the Canadian record thus far, it is perhaps time that someone in Ottawa turned up the volume a bit – there is certainly a message worth hearing. In the meantime, Allies on both sides of the Atlantic can rest assured that Canada will remain an engaged and responsible member of the Alliance.

Dr. Michael J Williams is the Head of the Transatlantic Security Programme at RUSI.

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.

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