Foreign policy musings before the fall election

Sheryl Saperia

As the federal election approaches, party leaders have begun to articulate their visions for how Canada would best be served in both the domestic and the international arenas. It behooves all Canadians to reflect on the political issues that matter to us. What does your ideal Canada look like? Below is a sampling of broad foreign policy principles that would win my vote.

My Canada would demonstrate a genuine concern for human rights, in particular, the most basic human right to life, liberty and security of the person. 

To that end, Canada would serve as a voice of reason and moral clarity at the United Nations, where the Human Rights Council – comprised of some of the world’s most despicable human rights abusers – reserves its strongest condemnations for Israel. A recent UNHRC resolution, for instance, called on Israel to hand over the Golan Heights to Syria. Little consideration was given to the implication of such a measure: ceding strategic territory either to Bashar Assad’s regime, which is currently murdering its own citizens by the tens of thousands, to ISIS, or to other Al Qaeda affiliates intent on destroying non-believers in barbaric ways. 

Moreover, when a choice must be made between standing up for a repressed people or enjoying lucrative economic ties with a repressive government, my Canada would opt for the former. Relations with an unrepentant Iran would not be restored, even in the face of pressure from Canadian companies eager to enter the Iranian market and from allies that do not appear truly committed to long-term stability in the Middle East. Instead, Canada must consider re-engagement with Iran only on terms that benefit the Iranian people and pressure their government to change course. A renewal of ties, both political and corporate, should only come when Iran meets its international obligations regarding its domestic human rights, support for terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

China is often held up as a foil to this position. China’s human rights record is indeed appalling, from its imprisonment of human rights activists and Falun Gong practitioners to compulsory abortions as a government-enforced family planning tool. Canada should undoubtedly strive to influence a change in Chinese behaviour. But a realistic foreign policy must distinguish between countries like Iran and China. Unlike Iran, China is an economic powerhouse far too integrated in the global economy for Canada to cut off ties with completely. 

My Canada would support liberal democracies and stand up to totalitarianism and terrorism whenever possible. This would not require our military to deploy in every conflict zone. The government could respond with a range of options, including official statements, diplomatic communications, targeted sanctions against wrongdoers and financial aid to those under attack. 

My Canada would unequivocally support Ukraine against Russian aggression. It would nimbly designate groups or states as terrorist entities if they employ terrorist tactics. And it would stand side by side with Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, avoiding the popular temptation to be “even-handed” by equating the actions of terrorist aggressors with any damage caused by Israel in defending itself.

Finally, my Canada would seek to avoid military conflict but would be prepared to use force when necessary – and would be able to identify those circumstances clearly. The overriding objective would be peacekeeping in the truest sense: recognizing that peace is more likely to come when free countries confront, rather than appease, tyrants. 

A blue-helmeted foreign policy posture predates the geopolitical and technological realities of our time. The Barack Obama administration has demonstrated the failure of this approach and the need for greater involvement of second-level powers in tackling the ideological and physical threats to the western world today.

Domestic issues greatly matter, and they will guide many voters’ decisions. But in today’s globalized world, Canadians do not have the luxury of disregarding a party’s foreign policy positions at the ballot box. 

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.