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Opinion: Ideology vs. national interest

November 2, 2007

Harper ignores difference between personal biases and sound foreign policy

October 28, 2007

HARRY STERLING

A nation's foreign policies should be based on its national interests,
not on the personal whims or prejudices of whoever happens to be its
leader at the time.

Leaders of governments who confuse their own personal viewpoints with
those of their countries' national interests can cause unwelcome and
even dangerous consequences for their fellow countrymen.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a leader who increasingly appears to
base his foreign policy actions more on his personal or ideological
biases than on what may be in the best interests of Canada.

The latest example of this is Harper's plan to meet publicly this week
with the Dalai Lama, the one-time religious leader of Tibet until it was
occupied by Mao Zedong's Communist government in 1951, resulting in the
Dalai Lama fleeing to India in 1959 after an unsuccessful uprising by
Tibetans.

Although the highly personable and globe-trotting Dalai Lama has many
admirers and won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989, most Western leaders
until recently downplayed meetings with him, avoiding undue publicity.

They did not wish to anger the Chinese authorities in Beijing who
strongly oppose such encounters, considering the Tibetan spiritual
leader a separatist.

The only Canadian prime minister to previously meet the Dalai Lama was
Paul Martin in 2004. Even that private meeting took place in the
residence of Ottawa's Catholic archbishop and was quite brief.

In contrast, Harper will meet the Dalai Lama openly with the media in
attendance. The forthcoming encounter has already been criticized by the
Chinese authorities as interference in China's internal affairs.

Beijing's unhappiness with Harper's meeting the Dalai Lama is thus not
unexpected. Nor is China's growing displeasure with the pro-Taiwan
stance of many prominent members of Harper's Conservative party.

Although Members of Parliament have as much right as anyone else to be
favourably disposed towards the Dalai Lama – or Taiwan for that matter –
totally ignoring the possible negative trade fallout is another matter,
especially since China is now Canada's fourth-largest export market.

As much as some would praise Harper for standing up for his principles
in such cases, others see such actions as potentially undermining
important national interests, a concern that even the Canadian business
community has voiced in the past.

Harper's decision to meet the Dalai Lama is only the latest example of
what critics describe as his highly personal approach to Canadian
foreign policy, an approach that ignores the views of others, including
his own cabinet colleagues.

His statement that the devastation inflicted on the Lebanese population
by Israel during the conflict with Hezbollah was a "measured" response
stunned many Canadians, especially considering the disproportionate
number of Lebanese civilian casualties.

The fact that he never subsequently altered his viewpoint despite
widespread criticism of his lack of balance raised serious questions
concerning his open-mindedness and objectivity toward complex Middle
East issues.

Harper's recent tour of Latin America also raised questions regarding
his ideologically driven foreign policy initiatives since he chose to
visit only countries with non-leftist or conservative governments.

Harper's claims at last summer's G-8 meeting of industrialized nations
in Germany that his government's controversial environmental policy was
a model for others to follow has been greeted with astonishment by other
countries.

Most have been too diplomatic to challenge what many of them have
privately labelled a do-nothing policy. One ambassador described
Harper's praise for his own government's environmental policy as
"absurd." (Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore bluntly called it a "sham.")

The fact Harper has remained remarkably silent about the violation of
international law and human rights covenants by the Bush administration
– President George W. Bush countenancing practices considered torture –
has only reinforced the view of those who regard his support for human
rights and religious freedoms as highly selective. As well, Harper seems
indifferent to the imprisonment at the notorious U.S. prison at
Guantanamo, Cuba, of Canadian teenager Omar Khadr, incarcerated since
July 2002 when he was captured at the age of 15 in Afghanistan.

Harper is fond of suggesting that thanks to his leadership, "Canada is
back" on the world stage.

This self-congratulatory statement suggests that only his arrival on the
political scene has awakened this country from a long, unproductive
slumber on the foreign policy front.

But there's a fundamental difference between pursuing sound,
well-thought-out foreign policies with a positive and defensible outcome
and pursuing policies based essentially on purely personal or
ideologically driven considerations that do not advance important
Canadian interests.

Prime Minister Harper seems incapable of understanding this difference.

 

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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