All Politics is Local – What we can expect from the Munk debate on foreign policy

By Stephanie Carvin

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A stalling Chinese economy. And of course, refugees.

When the election was called in August, it is likely that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party anticipated that they had the foreign policy issues locked down. From their view they could make an argument to have taken a strong stance against Russia and Iran, fighting terrorism abroad, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq and spending billions of dollars on aid to improve maternal, newborn and child health globally.

But things have not quite worked out the way they planned. The Conservatives hard security stance has – thus far – seemed off-key in light of recent events that have largely called for “soft” (diplomacy and negotiation) rather than “hard” (military) power. In short, there has been foreign policy issues in this election – but not the ones Stephen Harper counted on.

But while the first half of the campaign was something of a minor calamity for Harper, can it really be said to be a boon for the other parties? Certainly Trudeau and Mulcair have tried to make political hay out of Harper’s floundering on the refugee issue. But a quick look at any of the political party websites with three weeks to go in Canada’s longest election quickly reveals that foreign policy has taken a back seat in all party platforms, if it is addressed at all.

Indeed, many of the “foreign policy” issues raised thus far are actually immigration issues (refugee), environmental policies (climate change), national security (terrorism) and economy issues (trade, perhaps military procurement) with an international flavour. This is, to be sure, the result of a globalized world where many policies and regulations are set and negotiated outside of our borders.

But to a large extent, it also reflects the lack of a grand strategy that has been missing in Canadian foreign policy for almost a decade. How do our party leaders see Canada’s place in the world, and what do they think we should, broadly, accomplish? So far, no one has offered an in-depth answer.

So what can we anticipate during Monday night’s “foreign policy” debate? We can almost certainly expect questions on Russia and Syria. The refugee issue will likely arise as well. And possibly climate change, and the TPP deal. We may even get some throwback questions on supporting the UN and peacekeeping operations.

However, I suspect that in terms of foreign policy that we should not expect much in the way of answers. Although some of us may like to see ourselves as an outward looking country, it is doubtful that Canadians truly pay attention to foreign policy issues. Other than, perhaps, the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1987, it has not been the issue that has won or lost elections in Canada – and it seems that our parties know this. If things are going just swell in Oshawa, Prince George and/or Chicoutimi, it is not likely that the election will hinge upon Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East. As such, we should not be surprised if the party leaders answer questions on foreign policy issues with elements of their domestic platforms.

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