Few would have predicted a year ago that the boldest aspect of Stephen Harper's leadership would be foreign policy. Yet the Conservative prime minister -- by his own admission, one of the least-travelled PMs in recent Canadian history -- during his first months in office has directed his government's most forceful action on this front.
Recently in Bucharest, Harper put on an exceptional show, breaking with other Francophonie countries on wording of an Egyptian-sponsored statement deploring effects of last summer's war, which killed 1,500 Lebanese. The statement made no mention of Israeli losses.
"We are able to deplore the war, we are able to recognize the victims -- but on both sides," Harper told a news conference. His stand led to a change in the statement so it read: The 72-member Francophonie deplores the suffering of "all civilian populations."
That intervention prompted Beryl Wajsman, president of the Montreal-based Institute for Public Affairs, to issue florid praise: "Stephen Harper is raising a bright, new dawn for this nation. It is to be hoped that the brilliant rays of its light will burn off the stagnating smog that has been a protective cloak over the bodyguard of lies under which Canadians have lived far too long."
Retired University of Toronto psychology prof John Furedy remarked this week on a political discussion website that Conservatives, in their domestic policy, "are much less impressive. But in foreign policy ... the changes are quite substantial and becoming more apparent as time passes, even though [Harper] still only has a minority government."
Indeed, in terms of domestic policy, Harper has been nothing but timid, although the same-sex marriage issue could re-emerge this fall. Consider what Conservatives have tackled so far; what could be less controversial than lowering the GST, sending child-care cash to parents of youngsters, passing federal accountability legislation and introducing a Clean Air Act?
By contrast, many of Harper's foreign policy stands have been politically dangerous, especially in Quebec. His determination to have Israel considered fairly in the Middle East conflict has been unwavering despite static he regularly receives from various quarters on the home front.
His commitment to Afghanistan is extremely controversial for Canadians, and will become more so as the armed forces death toll climbs. His laying down the law on Canada's sovereignty over its northern territory has been positively daring, even extending to a bellicose posture toward the U.S.
Before being sworn into office last January, Harper elbowed the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, in the ribs after Wilkins stated the U.S. doesn't recognize Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
Declared Harper: "The United States defends its sovereignty and the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States."
This dispute is heating up, following a U.S. National Research Council report to Congress that cited a need for "increasing U.S. presence in international waters of the North." Ottawa, meanwhile, has announced three armed icebreakers for the North. The government is investigating the feasibility of an Arctic deep-water port and enhancing underwater surveillance.
It's not much of a stretch to imagine that this government soon could take another decisive step toward an increasingly principled foreign policy. That is, Canada could do more to embrace Taiwan, which has been requesting international recognition for its independence movement as Beijing continues trying to intimidate countries daring to sympathize with Taiwanese aspirations.
While in Opposition, B.C. MP Jim Abbott introduced the Taiwan Relations Act as a private members' bill, aimed at normalizing relations with the former Formosa. Currently, Foreign Affairs implements a whacko list of rules pertaining to contact with Taiwan and its representatives.
Meetings between Canada and Taiwanese reps, for example, must "remain private and unofficial in character." Canadian officials cannot refer to Taiwan as a country, only a "customs territory" or "island."
If the Harper government remains true to form with its hard-nosed foreign affairs perspective, this could well be a front on which Canada takes firm action.
© The Vancouver Sun 2006