Harper’s quiet diplomacy

Harper’s quiet diplomacy
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It’s no great secret that Stephen Harper has frequently been something of a sell-out to his conservative base. Whether it’s deficits (still giant), the size and cost of government (ever-growing), social issues (ignored), or immigration (ever-increasing), the Canadian right has rarely had a shortage of heresies for which to bash this ostensible partisan ally. In the realm of foreign policy, however, it’s hard to argue the PM’s record has been anything less than unwaveringly ideological.

On Friday it was announced that Canada was immediately severing all diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our Tehran embassy was to be closed, as was theirs in Ottawa. All diplomats were sent back to their home countries, diplomatic immunity was suspended, and all officers and officials of the Iranian regime were declared persona non grata of a henceforth illegitimate, unrecognized government.

There was some feigned surprise at this move, but for anyone who knows anything about Harper and the black-and-white moralistic tradition of foreign policy he’s consistently championed throughout his career, it was hardly a shock. Happy and cordial relations between democratic Canada and dictatorial Iran (already hardly the norm under his predecessors) were never something the Harper administration held much pretence of maintaining, with the PM rarely missing an opportunity to aggressively denounce the Islamist clericocracy of Ahmadinejad and friends.

Under Harper’s leadership, Canada has been stalwartly opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, deeply critical of its human rights record, and consistently frightened by its anti-Israeli rhetoric, with the PM routinely speaking on such matters with a tone of uncompromising aggression he rarely evokes for any other issue these days. There was thus no specific”cause” of Friday’s formal divorce; his government’s official statement on the cessation of ties was basically just a laundry list of traditional Conservative anti-Iran talking points. The charade of normalcy between our two nations had simply become too forced to sustain.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post several months ago, following a strongly anti-Iran interview Harper gave the CBC, one of the critical things to understand about Canada’s present government is that it’s run by a particularly unrepentant follower of what’s now usually sneeringly referred to as the “neo-con” school of foreign relations. Among western politicians, Harper was one of the most eloquent and forceful in his support of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war he believed was absolutely critical to help guarantee international peace and security, curb the spread of WMDs, perpetuate democratic values, and all the rest of it.

This made him very much in tune with the Republican Party ethos of the time, and a strain of North American conservative thought, which, in the early 2000s certainly seemed to be among the domineering factions of the movement. But one wonders just how well-received he’d be in U.S. conservative circles today, at a time when foreign policy bluster has considerably diminished from the GOP script.

Watching John McCain give his speech at the RNC the other week, it was striking was how dated this man’s unrepentant Bush-era rhetoric sounded — spread of freedom this, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the oppressed masses of the world that — certainly a far cry from Governor Romney himself, whose acceptance speech infamously made no mention of war or military at all.

The reason for this, of course, is that in the United States the consequences of President Bush’s optional war have been inescapably sobering. Billions spent. Thousands killed. A presidency tarnished. A legacy uncertain. It’s more than enough to provoke a bit of reflective moderation. Stagy Republican rhetoric against rogue regimes certainly remains, yet the Romney-Ryan ticket simultaneously spends a great deal of time denying they harbour actual plans for actual war. Increasingly, they just try to change the topic altogether.

In Canada, by contrast, a country that narrowly chose to opt-out of Iraq, there’s been no similar cautioning of conservative thought. Whether or not the war itself was a failure, Canada’s right-wing has never been forced to justify or apologize for it; the Liberal Party decided to stay out, and the finality of that decision has in some ways stagnated the maturing of the Canadian political narrative as far as the language surrounding terrorism and failed states and corrective intervention goes.

None of this is to suggest Harper’s embassy-closing move was necessarily wrong, mind you; it merely provides some context for why “a country like Canada” would engage in the aggressive style of diplomacy it has. (I know some Americans, in particular, seem to believe Canada is immune to the sorts of ideological swings that happen in their own country; I did a fun HuffPo Live panel discussion about this topic yesterday, in fact).

I have no clue if a Middle Eastern war over Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be seriously avoided at this time. Some Israeli insiders figure it’s just a matter of weeks now. It does seem clear that if Canada is going to play any sort of role in resolving this crisis, however, we could probably do worse than participate in a growing international show of diplomatic solidarity against the Iranian elite, even if it does ultimately generate little of practical consequence beyond a single line in some New York Times article — “Canada closed its embassy in September, while Italy…” etc.  Such small gestures do help contribute to a larger international “climate” as they say, and in this case it’s hopefully one that makes Iran’s mullahs realize the sheer hopelessness of their current course.

There’s been a lot wrong with conservative foreign policy over the last decade, and I’ve written some words of repentance in the past. Yet I do believe the moral clarity of the so-called “neo-con” right remains as worthy an orientation point for the conduct of foreign policy as any, especially within the limited toolbox held by Canadian governments.

In a small, militarily weak nation like Canada, our bark might always be worse than our bite, but that’s no reason to stay silent.


  1. Kyle

    R-o-g-u-e. Rouge is a type of makeup.

  2. Magical Platypus

    Maybe Iran needs to freshen up before they go to war?

  3. Theinternationalist

    JJ, I never understood: why is it considered "conservative" to cut immigration? Is it to avoid the diminishment of national identity? I always viewed the GOP's difficulties with immigration as somewhat silly, considering that the US (and pretty much every country in the Western hemisphere) is made up of three kinds of people: 1. The ones who came willingly, such as many of the British, French, Italians, recent Asians, etc, 2. The ones who came against their will, such as the slaves of various persuasions and indentured servants, and 3. the Native Americans who survived the arrival of groups 1 and 2. Where would the North American identity be without the attempts to integrate the hated Irish and Chinese into American and Canadian lives? Without Cortez's domination of Mexico? How could Argentina be the same without the high number of Italian immigrants?

    With all this in mind, who in their right mind can diminish immigration on the grounds that they may diminish the "national character," if the national character was based on immigration, not "the people who were always there," like the native Americans (or the French, who for that matter are derived from Franks, Gauls and Normans)?

    I could understand if it was Marine Le Pen, where the French had a somewhat integrated national population between the French Revolution (which finally created a national identity in a feudalistic society) and the last few decades. But Canada- and for that matter Quebec- are not.

    So: What's so unconservative about immigration?

  4. Zulu

    Perhaps it is in the meaning of the word: conservatives; the preservation of things as they are. Immigration brings about a lot of change in demographics, politics, and economics.

  5. J.J. McCullough

    Pretty much.

  6. @Kisai

    I think this is a modern conservative point of view.

    Canada's been racist about immigration before (look up "Chinese head tax") and no apology was made until 2006 (After Harper was elected.)

    What is going on is a crackdown on immigration fraud (which again involves Chinese immigrants as well as middle-eastern ones.) I'd also say that most Canadians are on-board with the idea as long as it's labeled immigration fraud. Citizenship of convenience costs Canada money to rescue "Canadian" Citizens in foreign countries that become or already are politically unstable.

    As for Iran, It's surprising, but I think it was inevitable. Canadian politics aren't quite so heated as American ones are. As long as one party holds the Majority, they can pretty much push any agenda they want.

  7. Virgil

    Perhaps I'm in a unique spot to answer this question. As those who know me already realize, my changes of views on immigration are similar to JJ's changes regarding the neoconservative rationale for war.

    In the 1990's, I was fairly libertarian inclined. The state was the enemy, and the ability of government to get its all encompassing tentacles around and into everything was what needed to be avoided. The solution was to diminish state power through free trade and free immigration. These restrictions, over time would prevent tyranny based on the world community it would create. Let mankind become migratory if he chooses….so went my thinking.

    Then came 9-11. Suddenly the state no longer seemed to be the worst enemy. In fact, the state seemed to be necessary to act as a screen to keep out truly terrifying people. I began to turn against illegal immigration on the grounds that I did not want a security risk. I was still in favor of letting most people in, but I wanted their background checked out first.

    That is basically still my stance, and I work as an immigration attorney in the US. I try to get as many people in legally as I can provided that they are not security risks. Security is one great reason that Conservatives try to restrict illegal immigration. A second reason can pretty much be summed up as "Clash of Civilizations", and I think its naive to ignore this. While your point about Cortez's influence in Mexico is well taken, I think that its human nature to avoid radical cultural changes if there is a choice (and particularly, in Cortez's case, if such a change is violent in its initiation.) Finally, as other posters have noted, many immigrants tend to, in the short term, support the welfare state on the basis of their circumstances. This naturally attracts them to the left voting wise, and therefore the right has an electoral reason to try to limit their influence.

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Plus illegal immigration or open borders is just international welfare. Why should I create jobs just so another country can have them? I give them jobs but I don't get to shape their laws. It's the notorious free rider problem.

  9. Iridium77

    In the United States, it seems that the issue of skilled immigration has gotten mixed into the same debate as the issue of what to do about the millions that have immigrated without a visa. There is not a GOP consensus on skilled immigration. Certainly, there are some Republicans that talk about enhancing competitiveness by making immigration easier, just as there are labor unions that are against skilled immigration because they believe that it hurts American workers. I'm not sure that, on skilled labor, the split is on party lines so much as on geographic area, with representatives from tech heavy areas looking for more skilled immigrants and representatives from areas devastated by globalization wanting less.

    The real political divide between the parties involves those here without a visa. I think that the GOP fit their objection into a conservative framework in two way: 1) their 'law and order' side objects fundamentally to those that can get ahead by not following the rules; even if immigrant's presence was a net positive they would still object to those already here because they didn't follow the rules (Republican politicians will sometimes propose a 'guest worker' program but that those in the country already would be put in the back of the line). 2) Those here without a visa are disproportionately unskilled (as in no college education and no training in areas of severe labor shortages) and as citizens would earn low wages that would result in very little tax revenue for the government, while they would still receive their share of government services. As a result those immigrants do not look good from a conservative budget standpoint as they could make it more difficult to balance the budget without resorting to tax increases. However, again we have a geographic split: Republicans from California seem to be a bit more likely to worry about the budgetary aspect of immigration than Republicans from Texas (perhaps because there are less government services in Texas).

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Very well thought out point and I think it sums it up perfectly. Immigration isn't so much about race and as it is about geopolitical issues.

  11. Jake_Ackers

    GOP never really had "difficulties with immigration." Illegal immigration yes but not regular. Santorum and Romney I think made it clear in the past few debates. No one really can be against immigration in the Western Hemisphere. Doesn't make make sense.

    However, I do understand small countries like Canada wanting a controlled immigration. And I use the term "small" loosely because only part of Canada is habitable (realistically anyway). I know it's the second largest country in the world per square mile.

    Lets face it, immigration is all about politics. Harper has favored immigration from countries who share his view point. The left in America does the same exact thing with illegal immigration.

  12. JonasB

    I think the "…all officers and officials of the Iranian regime were declared persona non grata of a henceforth illegitimate, unrecognized government" part might be a bit excessive. Expelling diplomats/closing embassies is a standard foreign relations move that's somewhat low on the totem pole of "aggressive things nations do to each other". It's not a good sign as far as relations go, but it's hardly Canada refusing to acknowledge the Iranian government. It's just Canada refusing to /deal with/ the Iranian government.

  13. J.J. McCullough

    But they listed the nation as an official state sponsor of terror, which completely revokes diplomatic immunity. This is not just one of those hissy-fit "recall the ambassador" moves like we did with Denmark a while ago. This is a complete breakdown and a recognition that Canada no longer considers the Iranians anything other than a terrorist rogue state.

  14. JonasB

    "State sponsor of terror", to me, does not immediately imply "terrorist rogue state". I can see how that connection can be made, but I personally do not believe the leap exists from saying a state sponsors a terrorist group to saying it's a rogue nation. I admit that it is a serious label that does elevate the embassy closing from the level of the Denmark thing, but again I don't believe it is quite the level of revoking acknowledgement of a government.

  15. OldsVistaCruiser

    Was there something rotten in Denmark? ;)

    (As someone from the States, I am unfamiliar with that episode that you cite)

    My country hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran since they booted the Shah out in the 1970s. At least you guys can get Cuban cigars up north!

  16. Jake_Ackers

    It does seem silly but it does give Canada a big card to play. If anything it makes them look tough. Without an embassy Iranian business and anything else is hurt, badly. It means Canada won't deal with any mess there so pretty much almost all Canadian citizens are not going to do business in Iran. If there were any to begin with. Plus now Iran has to meet certain preconditions if they want to reopen diplomatic ties.

    Moreover, I think with unofficial communications there are advantages. There is no overt politics involved and really necessary issues can be discussed by level headed people without the political dance in front of the cameras and public eye.

  17. Daniel

    they are *severing* their diplomatic ties, right?

    But interesting, I haven't read about this in the German media yet…

  18. Andrew

    Bunnicula reference made me smile big time!

  19. Zulu

    JJ, regarding your "words of repentance" from the Iraq War, I too was pro-War and remember reading your political cartoons and the news with great enthusiasm. In fact, you made a comic of the description you made here about you on the subway listening to the news. Obviously, I look upon the war now as a big mistake, which is an understatement considering the loss of life and wealth as a result of the war. However, given what we were told and the supposed stakes involved, I don't think we were totally unreasonable in our decision. Naivety was surely a part of it (we were younger), but I still think that confronted with what we the people were told by trustworthy officials and without knowing the reality, the pro-war case was not a bad one.

  20. RonT.

    There are probably reasons for it that we don't yet know…

    Bottom line is that the Iranian embassy in Canada runs operatives in Canada.

  21. Guest

    JJ – did you just publish a cartoon that has a black character that bears an uncanny resemblance to the President and use the term 'monkey'? Not to mention the word 'dog'.
    AND then you go and throw in such racist language as 'midnight'.

    I'm just kidding but sadly we live in a world where some people want to find offence everywhere they look and who think everything is about race (particularly in the current political climate).
    Such people might find your cartoon inflammatory.

  22. Taylor

    …and the only thing more irritating than those people are people like you.

  23. Virgil

    Well, no sooner do you publish your cartoon with accompanying mea culpa on the Iraq War than the mid-east explodes. Will this lead to a revival in neo-conservative rhetoric here in the states?

    While there has been a climb-down from neo-conservative policies in recent years there is still the problem that we don't know how to deal with regimes like Iran. That's a shame since, if this week is any indication, there will be more of them in the future.

  24. Trenacker

    As much as it pains me to say it, I'm in strong agreement with Zulu. The primarily white, Protestant base of the Republican Party is looking around with uncomfortable awareness that their neighborhoods are changing, and they are uncomfortable. You see it at the individual level when people privately admit anxiety over the non-white family that moved in next door. What if they turn out to be everything the stereotypes promise?

    If anybody needs proof that ideas about race and immigration have become linked in the minds of many conservatives, just look at the moment during the primary debates when the candidates were asked to explain how they would engage Latino voters: they almost uniformly leaped into lengthy explanations of their hardline stances on immigration, as if no Latino could worry much about anything except how much of their extended family they could sneak across the border.

    In the United States, the "problem" of our relationship with Iran is even more complex because it ties into how we engage with and send signals to Israel, to which both the American Jewish and Evangelical Christian communities are deeply attached. And those constituencies have been shown prone to move based on very simplistic mischaracterizations of a sitting administration's policies. It isn't "President urges Israel not to make unwise moves" or "President warns that Israel might overestimate its ability to attain success," but, "President doesn't back Israel." And sadly, many American Jews still use American policy toward Israel as a bell weather to help them figure out how much tolerance the Christian majority supposedly has for them. A surprising — startling? — number of fundamentalist Christian movers-and-shakers — although not necessarily the rank and file — have also been partisans of a hyper-aggressive Israel, as they were during the 1980s when they supported Israeli intervention in Lebanon in hopes that Israel would be able to stand up a Maronite state. For these people, Israel's military ascendance is a matter of escatalogical dimensions. As for Muslims, they are a supposedly backwards, barbaric people who are all implacable enemies of ours by virtue of their values systems, and are therefore unimportant to the calculus of foreign policy or anything else.

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