In late 2014, I gave a speech at a conference in New York City about the positive impact of the fiscal reforms undertaken by the Chretien government in the 1990s. Following my talk there was plenty of flattering chatter about Canada as a global leader of advanced industrial countries. One delegate, who leads a prominent American think tank, approached me to proclaim his admiration for Canada’s then Prime Minister. “Stephen Harper is the strongest champion of freedom on the world stage. Unequivocally.” he firmly told me. “He leads with Churchillian clarity, whether it’s on Israel’s right to exist, Putin’s aggression, or the Islamic threat, he’s incredibly on point. We could only dream of having a leader like that here in the U.S.”
While principled conservatives in Canada didn’t always agree with Harper’s occasionally erratic foreign policy – our schizophrenic relationship with China being a major point of contention – when it came to the largest threat of our time, the menace of Islamic terrorism, Harper was consistent and strong. He led not only Canada but also the world in defining how a modern state must respond to the multi-headed threat of Islamic terrorism.
As Paul Bunner and Michael Taube wrote of Harper in these pages in late 2014, as “a little-travelled man who showed scant interest in foreign policy during his early political career, Harper cut an unlikely figure as future global statesman.” And yet, foreign policy and national security developed into Harper’s strongest file as Prime Minister. He became a confident and influential statesman and left Canada stronger and safer than it was under previous administrations. Harper’s approach involved three key components – the revival of hard power, taking a principled approach to foreign policy, and identifying the role of both state and non-state actors in global terrorism. Each led to significant achievements that profoundly changed Canada’s foreign policy.
The revival of hard power
Canada’s historic foreign policy could rightly be defined as the promotion of soft power; seeking to influence the world through international institutions, multilateral agreements, and abiding by the veil of consensus at the United Nations. Harper rejected the idea that Canada would sit on the sidelines and play the role of “helpful fixer” in world affairs. Instead he unabashedly promoted and supported Canada’s military, notably by committing to an outsized role in the bloody Kandahar theatre of war in Afghanistan.
When the primary threat of Islamist terror shifted from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Harper eagerly committed Canada to the U.S.-led coalition formed to stop IS. The contribution included 69 special forces members to train Kurdish soldiers, 600 Air Force personnel, six CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance planes, and one re-fueling tanker. Though a small contingent compared to our allies, it was a relatively big effort for Canada’s small military, and a clear message of support for offensive action against the latest violent mutation of Islamofacism.
Harper made numerous trips to Afghanistan during the war, routinely gave major speeches during Remembrance Day ceremonies and at First and Second World War commemorative events, and invariably tied his annual trips to the North to the military’s role in defending Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Although his government was sometimes tin-eared and parsimonious in dealing with veterans, Harper did more to celebrate and restore national pride in “our brave men and women in uniform” than any prime minister in living memory.
The flip side of Harper’s focus on hard power and military nationalism was his refusal to simply “go along to get along” with international actors and actions. This independent streak manifested early when the Conservatives withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol – a multilateral climate agreement signed by the Chrétien Liberals without any plans to meet its draconian targets. Harper refused to handcuff Canada’s economy while other nations with far worse environmental records and regulatory regimes were exempted from the deal.
Harper was also an unrestrained critic of the U.N. and the practice of “democratic leaders sit[ting] side by side with despots and dictators.” Many members of Canada’s professional diplomatic corps were appalled by such unsubtle rhetoric and were almost gleeful when foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon’s refusal to wine and dine U.N. diplomats cost Canada a temporary seat on the security council.
There were few grey areas in Harper’s foreign policy; the distinctions between Canada’s friends and enemies were clearly defined. Instead of playing the traditional “neutral broker” in the Middle East, the Conservatives provided unequivocal support for Israel in its unending conflict with regional enemies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The position was not particularly popular at home or abroad (except in Israel, where Harper was and still is widely admired), but it was based on a principled stand against bigotry and anti-Semitism.
Just as un-nuanced was Harper’s response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. While many other national leaders seemed timid and uncertain about how to respond to President Vladimir Putin following the takeover of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Harper effectively “shirt-fronted” Putin at an international summit when he told him, to his face, to “get out of Ukraine”.
Perhaps most importantly, Harper did not mince words about the threat of radical Islam. He categorically condemned terrorism, rejecting any and all attempts to rationalize, excuse, or divorce it from its primary contemporary source. While others (including U.S. President Barack Obama) cowered from the charge of “Islamophobia”, Harper relentlessly named Islamic terrorism as the biggest threat to national and international security.
As the frequency and severity of Islamic terrorist actions increased, so did Harper’s condemnations. As late as 2011, however, his critics were still insisting he was overstating the threat. But within a year, western intelligence revealed that upwards of 200 Canadians were known to be fighting overseas alongside al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other Islamic terror groups. It also became clear that the threat of domestic jihadism was growing, which was confirmed by the two deadly attacks against Canadian Armed Forces members in Quebec and Ontario in October 2014.
The contrast with Harper’s domestic political opponents could not have been more striking. In response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings by two radicalized Islamists that killed three and wounded more than 200, then-rookie Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suggested the attackers were victims of “social exclusion”. This was a “root cause” of radicalism and terrorism, said Trudeau.
Why Harper went after Iran
In Harper’s view, the real “root cause” of terrorism is a deadly mix of ideology, theology, murderous intent, and capacity. Recognizing the complexities of asymmetrical warfare and the various efforts to subvert our borders and undermine our national security, Harper saw that many violent terror networks are funded by hostile governments. Financing is the lifeblood of any terror organization and cutting the funding will curb its activities. Thus a major accomplishment of the Harper administration was recognizing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and taking steps to limit its ability to finance terror networks.
In 2012, the Harper government declared that the Islamic Republic of Iran sheltered and materially supported violent non-state actors that engage in terrorism. In fact, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, known as the Qods Force, was instrumental in creating, training, and supplying weapons to Hezbollah – the Lebanon-based Shiite organization that is among the most powerful terrorist groups in the world. The government of Canada listed Iran’s Qods Force as a terrorist entity under the Criminal Code because of its association with other recognized terrorist groups including the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The Iranian group is also active in the ongoing Syrian civil war, assisting the Assad regime in committing atrocities against the Syrian people, and thereby contributing to the legions of refugees now besieging Western Europe.
Alongside this official designation for Iran, the Harper government withdrew its embassy staff from Tehran, expelled Iran’s diplomatic staff, and closed Iran’s embassy in Ottawa. At the time, foreign affairs minister John Baird was quoted as saying, “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”
Canada went further by amending the State Immunity Act and in adopting the Justice for the Victims of Terrorism Act, both of which allowed the families and victims of terrorism to take legal action and seek damages from the perpetrators of terrorism and those who support them, including the government of Iran. This effectively eliminated the legal distinction between terrorist groups and the states that bankroll them, extinguishing the sovereign immunity protection typically granted to governments.
To assist victims in identifying and locating Iran’s state assets, the government released a list of known Iranian state-owned property in Canada. In 2014, an Ontario judge ordered the seizure of more than $7 million in bank accounts and property belonging to Iran. The historic ruling validated the Harper government’s legal changes. Currently over 90 Canadian victims of terrorism have launched claims in Ontario’s Superior Court seeking compensation from Iran for its role in training, arming, and financing Islamic terror networks.
Even as both the U.S. and the U.N. were cozying up to Iran to try to reach a nuclear agreement, Canada stepped out on its own and took a bold and principled position against the world’s largest funder and enabler of Islamic terrorism. Harper took responsible and powerful steps to curb Iran’s ability to finance terrorism, and to prevent Iran from using Canada as grounds for supplying resources to terror networks. His actions represented significant global leadership, and his efforts were applauded by security and counter-terrorism experts around the world.
Don’t worry, be sunny, ‘Canada’s back’
The Liberal Party and its leader campaigned on promises to change Canadian foreign policy back to a more traditional pacifist, consensus-seeking, and flexible approach. And Trudeau has indeed proclaimed that “Canada’s back” several times since winning the election. But so far, undoing the Harper doctrine is proving easier said than done. On his first day in office, Trudeau called Obama to inform him that Canada was withdrawing its CF-18 jets from Iraq and Syria. The jets are still there. Trudeau also reversed course on climate change, bringing an entourage of over 300 to the Paris climate conference and signing Canada up for an ambitious new emissions reduction plan. But it is by no means clear how the Liberals will meet the targets they agreed to.
Trudeau’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephane Dion, quickly fell in line with the Obama administration and announced that Canada would begin lifting sanctions and restoring relations with Iran. He also promised a return to Canada’s role of “honest broker” in the Middle East. The Harper era was “a drift period for Canada,” said Dion in a recent speech where he dismissed Harper’s foreign policy as “not the Canadian way.” The lines could have been written – and probably were – by the Foreign Affairs bureaucrats in Ottawa who cheered lustily when their new prime minister first paid them a visit.
Winston Churchill once said that if you had enemies, it meant that you stood up for something. Harper certainly had his adversaries, but that is because he governed with a belief that Canada can and should be a moral leader in the Western world. At the 2011 Conservative Party convention in Ottawa, just weeks after securing his first and only majority government, Harper alluded to this point in a triumphant speech by saying his government would, “take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not.”
Many older Canadians identify Canada’s role in the world with the vision set out by Lester Pearson and his commitment to peacekeeping. Younger Canadians, however, saw in the Harper era a glimpse of what Canada might look like as a real global power, where we take action, distinguish right from wrong, bravely call out tyranny, celebrate liberty and the rule of law, and become an anchor of peace and stability in an increasingly chaotic and dysfunctional world.
Candice Malcolm is an International Fellow with the D.C.-based Center for a Secure Free Society and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. She is the author of the book Generation Screwed and writes a column twice a week in the Sun newspapers.
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