49th Parallel: Harper to Afghanistan

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Don't bet on Stephen Harper making his first foreign trip to George W. Bush's Texas ranch or even to Washington. The first overseas journey for Canada's newly sworn-in Prime Minister is likely to take him to Afghanistan. "He wants to go where Canadians are on the front lines today in the war on global terrorism," says an Ottawa source familiar with the new government's thinking on foreign policy. "One of the first briefings he got was from the defense staff on the role Canada was playing in Afghanistan, so a trip there would be very symbolic."

Yes, it would be. But symbolic of what, exactly? Foreign affairs, aside from a few cheap shots at the U.S., barely rated a mention during the last campaign, and Harper has not rushed to fill that gap so far. The new government's five priorities remain domestic ones: cleaning up official corruption, shortening medical wait times, cutting the gst, helping families afford child care and toughening crime laws. The Tories promised a made-in-Canada foreign policy in 2004 that was unclear beyond calling for higher defense spending, and they were similarly vague in 2006. There are no grand Harper world visions similar to the flights of rhetorical fancy preferred by former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who once notably declared that "showing others the way is at once [Canada's] destiny and our responsibility." The Harper team's approach will be "practical," Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay told Time. "We're not going to go with hundreds of priorities--just concentrate on the things we think are achievable." This government, in other words, doesn't do world visions.

But does it do foreign policy? The prospect of an Afghan trip says more about Harper than about his approach to international affairs. At the defense briefing, he peppered Chief of the Defense Staff Rick Hillier and other officials with questions about what Canada's projected 2,200-strong force in Afghanistan needed to do its job. "He wanted to know how it could become more efficient, what sort of equipment was necessary to keep the troops safe," reports a Harper adviser. A prime ministerial photo op with troops in the field would help establish Harper's credentials as a national leader representing Canada abroad without his having to worry about being embarrassed by his inexperience at an early, high-profile meeting with Bush. Harper's immediate predecessors were already at home on the world stage by the time they became PMs. Jean Chrétien had been Foreign and Finance Minister when he met Bill Clinton at a 1993 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting two weeks after taking office, and Martin's credentials as Finance Minister helped finesse his first trip as PM, to a 2004 meeting of leaders in Monterrey, Mexico. "Foreign policy was not among Harper's top five priorities," concedes Derek Burney, who heads the transition team.

Call it an anti-foreign-policy foreign policy. No ambitious initiatives, no attempts to set the world on fire. Official Ottawa, at least, seems to be relieved by the downshift. Some of Harper's early Ottawa-oriented diplomacy, such as scrapping the complex foreign policy and national-security superstructure established in the Martin Cabinet and reversing the controversial split in 2004 of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade departments, have already won bureaucrats' hearts. The atmosphere, says a top Foreign Affairs official, "is definitely more practical."

But the go-slow approach could also leave Canada behind in a world that won't wait for Harper to learn the ropes. "There's a concern in the business community that the sense of urgency on issues like border management with the U.S. has already been lost," says Perrin Beatty, head of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, an Ottawa-based lobby group. Beatty, who was the last Tory Foreign Minister before MacKay (in Kim Campbell's short-lived 1993 government), hopes the Harper team will live up to its election-platform commitments to expand free trade in the hemisphere and around the world and revive the dialogue with the U.S. about the North American economy. Also on the should-do list, according to Beatty and other policy analysts: strengthening continental security and developing a post-Kyoto approach to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions.

Too much to ask of a minority government? Maybe, but bold visions aren't needed to set Canada's relations with the world--in particular the U.S.--back on an unambiguous course. It may only require making sure that key foreign priorities aren't shelved by a government determined to fulfill its domestic agenda.