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A Wolf in 'Compassionate Conservative' Clothing?
Description: It's not often that Canadian politics are a heated topic of discussion among Americans. But last week, during a series of meetings in New York, I found myself peppered with questions about our federal election and the significance of the Conservative
Date: 16 June 2004
Author: Lloyd Axworthy Senior Associate
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
It's not often that Canadian politics are a heated topic of discussion among Americans. But last week, during a series of meetings in New York, I found myself peppered with questions about our federal election and the significance of the Conservative challenge to the governing Liberal party.

What was of particular interest to my U.S. companions was whether the upsurge in support for the Stephen Harper forces represents a turning of Canadians towards the political views of George W. Bush and a repudiation of the anti-Iraq war stance taken by Jean Chrétien's government. It appears that right-wing commentators in the United States -- while chagrined at the defeat of the Spanish government that supported the war, as well as the war-inspired political woes of Tony Blair in Great Britain -- are latching on to the rise of the Canadian Conservative party as an endorsement of the Iraq invasion and other Bush-type policies by their North American neighbour.

I tried to explain that there were other factors particular to our political scene at play, such as a natural tendency to change a party long in power and the impact of the sponsorship imbroglio. Then it struck me that these Americans, in an important sense, just may have it right. Perhaps the Canadian election needs to be viewed through a wider prism than self-contained, self-interested domestic concerns. We are an integral part of a global system, and what we do and the choices we make on June 28 will influence the views and actions of others.

Certainly, if our election is seen as an endorsement of military intervention as a way of imposing peace and security -- a clear turning away from multilateral solutions through the UN -- then that will only strengthen the position of those in the U.S. who defend the pre-emptive strategy of President Bush as exemplified by his Iraq policy. Similarly, if a new Canadian government tears up our commitment to the Kyoto agreement, as Mr. Harper threatens to do, then all those in the United States and elsewhere who deny the importance of global warming as an issue of immense significance will derive great succour from our retreat as an advocate of international environmental agreements. And if we become totally enmeshed in U.S. continental-defence policies, then our strong voice on key disarmament questions, such as the weaponization of space, will go missing.

I think back to my days in Foreign Affairs when critics of the then-Official Opposition, many of whom are now being touted as potential ministers in a Harper government, scorned Canadian initiatives to achieve a treaty banning land mines, voted against our participation in the new International Criminal Court, and dismissed our efforts to protect child soldiers as weak-kneed 'soft power" diversions.

There was an aversion then to Canada's efforts to build a global order based on rules of law, human rights, international co-operation and acceptance of responsibility to protect others. One can only assume that the same holds true today. If so, then Canada under a Conservative government would re-align itself into the ideological camp of "might makes right, no international rules allowed". And this would be a loss to those around the world who have looked to Canada to provide independent leadership in opposition to such positions.

Ironically, there are signs this hard-line unilateralist posture is perhaps being abandoned by its prime advocate, the Bush administration. At last week's G-8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia, the Americans launched a charm offensive to bring other countries on-side in support of a UN resolution for the transfer of authority to Iraqis and to help in the reconstruction of Iraq. There was enlistment of international involvement for a democracy initiative in the Middle East and a commitment to co-operative action to fight global diseases. These are trend-lines that need to be encouraged by friends of the U.S. in an effort to tilt American policy towards more engagement in joint international efforts in the aftermath of Iraq.

This is where the Liberals under Paul Martin offer a relevant and effective international strategy in the post-Iraq war era, one more in keeping with time-tested Canadian talents. They want to direct our military expenditures towards a peace-building capacity, understanding that security is as much about providing safety for civilians in a post-conflict situations as it is about invasion. Even more important, this strategy supports preventive action against the outbreak of violence or conflict in the first place.

The Liberals seek major collaboration to contend against AIDS, malaria and polio, afflictions that threaten people's well-being and security as much as terrorism. They want to organize a G-20 organization to deal with vital matters of North-South trade, international development and environmental sustainability in a forum more representative and responsive to the interests of developing countries. I've expressed my disagreement with the decision of the Martin government to pursue negotiations with the U.S. on a missile-defence system, and am glad they have put off a decision until after the election. This offers time for an open debate in a new Parliament. If given a return mandate by Canadians based on a clear understanding that it would maintain an independent trajectory in foreign policy, I think this move might be reconsidered by a Martin government.

This election carries major consequences for Canadians and the role we play in the world. Just as my American friends see the Canadian outcome as having significance for them in their own debates on security and internationalism, we should see that there is a considerable difference in world-view between the two major parties, leading to very different paths for Canada in navigating the international landscape. The stakes are so high that this should be a major consideration when the ballot is cast.
To paraphrase one of my associates at the New York sojourn: "Watch out for the radical-minded warrior in the compassionate conservative's clothing. We didn't in the last election -- and look where it got all of us."


Lloyd Axworthy is president of the University of Winnipeg. He is a former Canadian foreign minister and senior Manitoba MP, and was most recently CEO of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.
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