Two left feet in the dance of diplomacy

Stephen Harper is correctly diagnosing the symptom that tightened photo-opportunity smiles at the latest, least congenial Three Amigos summit. How fully the prime minister grasps the deeper disease is less certain.

Stephen Harper is correctly diagnosing the symptom that tightened photo-opportunity smiles at the latest, least congenial Three Amigos summit. How fully the prime minister grasps the deeper disease is less certain.

It is, as Harper says, at least partly the fault of Canada’s dysfunctional refugee system that Mexicans travelling here now need visas. But it’s also true the haphazard imposition of restrictions needlessly bruised the overarching relationship.

Blindsiding a friend is a textbook foreign policy failure. But it’s downright foolish to anger a continental neighbour badly needed in the struggle to keep the U.S. from building more barriers to the free flow of people, goods and services.

That’s what makes the current tension so troubling, even if distinguishing Canada from Mexico in American minds has the potential benefit of reminding the U.S. that its northern and southern borders are very different. It’s a warning that Canadian diplomacy is in eclipse just when the art of what Winston Churchill called “jaw-jaw” is returning to global sunlight.

This country’s international relations are no longer guided from the Sphinx-like Ottawa building labelled, with respect and humour, Fort Pearson. The transfer of key foreign files to the Prime Minister’s Office that began with Liberals is now complete with Tories. Starved of resources and even more precious influence, low-morale diplomats are now largely reduced to keeping operations ticking over.

Setting foreign policy is the prerogative of the party in power. Even so, that right comes with responsibility to competently advance national interests within a coherent framework and, to the extent possible, protect citizens abroad.

Having taken diplomacy into its own hands, Harper’s clique consistently drops the ball. Surprising Mexico is but one entry in a list that includes strained relations with China, the loss of Middle East balance and surprising callousness to the plight of Canadians in trouble far from home.

Again, it’s important to remember that the department’s decline began with Liberals. But it’s also imperative to consider the result. In the absence of a fully formed foreign policy reflecting this country’s history, reputation and world view, Conservatives are fixating on relations with three capitals: Washington, Kabul and Tel Aviv.

Reasons for those priorities range from broad cross-border economic threats to the narrow search for a partisan edge. Still, the reality is Canada’s influence in all three places, as well as globally, is limited by systemic foreign service erosion.

Along with kneecapping national opportunities, that puts Canada out of international step. Diplomacy, the kind that gets vital things done, not the kind that blathers endlessly over tiny shrimps, is back, cemented in place by the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as by the urgent need to communally solve problems without borders.

Reduced too simplistically to Canada’s searing experience, those tutorials teach that killing “detestable murderers and scumbags,” no matter how satisfying, is not the way to nurse failed states back to peace, security and prosperity. Slow, frustrating and costly, that process, the one fast becoming this century’s defining work, is shaped by diplomacy and supported by defence guns and development butter.

If the world needs more Canada, then the party now ruling this country must learn to lean on its diplomats. Unless that lost trust is found, Canadians will have to brace for problems more serious than the one straining summit smiles.

James Travers is a syndicated Toronto Star political columnist.

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