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We can’t turn back the clock on Canada’s foreign policy

Foreign policy rarely occupies centre stage during Canadian election campaigns. The refugee crisis in Europe, of course, is the exception. What appears different this time, however, is that there no longer seems to be a national consensus on the role Canada can and should play on the world stage. Indeed, many voters have the impression that the parties are deeply polarized on this issue, an impression confirmed by the willingness to devote a debate specifically to foreign policy on Sept. 28.

Many Canadians have noticed – some with enthusiasm, others with consternation or exasperation – an important shift in foreign policy since the Conservatives came to power in 2006. Some criticize the Harper government for its militarism, for its assertiveness in labelling friends and enemies, or for being less committed to development assistance and to climate-change policies. Many fear that Canada's international reputation has been stained.

And numerous Canadians long for a return to the policies adopted by the country up to the turn of the millennium. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, writing in this newspaper recently, is clearly one of them.

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But can we simply turn back time? Could a Liberal or an NDP government adopt, for example, policies giving greater pride of place to peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and development assistance, while being more active at the United Nations and more engaged in efforts to protect the environment?

In principle, nothing would prevent a new government from adopting a different style, beginning with rhetoric. Canadian diplomacy could be less virulent in its tone toward Russia and Iran, more constructive in negotiations on environmental issues, less suspicious of international institutions and less inclined to constantly proclaim itself to be "Israel's best friend."

But in substance, a return to alleged past glories is unlikely, for three reasons that fall largely outside the control of political leaders.

First, Canada's foreign policy operates within a number of constraints imposed by the international system. UN peacekeeping missions, for example, have significantly evolved, such that many now are best labelled as peace enforcement or combat missions, and not as the classical blue-helmet endeavours that many Canadians remember. Ottawa is also under pressure from its allies, and so can hardly escape the imperatives of the struggle against terrorism and violent movements, such as the Islamic State.

Second, Canadian society has also changed. It is now more sympathetic to some conservative notions, such as those favouring the maintenance of order and dividing the world into good and evil. The use of force as a means of pursuing stability in a volatile international environment is more tolerated than in the past. We can see this in the Arctic, where many Canadians believe, even if quite wrongly, that our territory is threatened. The climate of insecurity engendered by the October, 2014, attacks in Ottawa and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., help explain this state of mind. The extreme violence perpetrated by Islamist movements throughout the world further reinforce it.

Third, a central element in Conservative strategy since 2006 has been the adoption of measures to entrench as deeply as possible the changes they have made. By narrowing the tax base, in particular, they have reduced the margin of manoeuvre for future governments wishing to invest significantly in the development and defence budgets. In addition, many of the Harper government's commitments, such as the North American security perimeter and the many free-trade agreements it has negotiated, would be difficult and costly to jettison.

Moreover, the opposition parties have not proposed, at least not so far, clear alternatives to the policies pursued by the Conservatives under Mr. Harper. This is too bad. The renewal of foreign policy is no easy task, and it calls for much more than simply reminiscing nostalgically about the past.

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Stéphane Roussel is a professor at the École nationale d'administration publique in Montreal. Jean-Christophe Boucher is an assistant professor of political science at MacEwan University in Edmonton. Stéfanie von Hlatky is an assistant professor of political studies at Queen's University in Kingston. Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Kim Richard Nossal is a professor of political studies at Queen's University. Jonathan Paquin is an associate professor of political science at the Université Laval in Quebec City.

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