Warrior, Neighbour, Partner: A look at Canada’s shift in foreign policy under Harper

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2011 Volume 32 Issue 4

In October, Ploughshares Executive Director John Siebert gave a speech on Canadian defence and foreign policy as part of a series sponsored by the Mir Centre for Peace at Selkirk College in Nelson, B.C. The following are excerpts from that speech.

In the afterglow of the May 2, 2011 federal Canadian election, in which the Conservatives secured a majority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Conservative Party national convention on June 10 to extol the virtues of his foreign policy. Canada now would be known according to three alliterating foreign policy archetypes: the courageous warrior, the compassionate neighbour, and the confident partner. He declared that, in international relations, “strength is not an option; it is a vital necessity. Moral ambiguity, moral equivalence…are not options, they are dangerous illusions.”

I’m not dismissing peacekeeping, and I’m not dismissing foreign aid—they’re all important things that we need to do, and in some cases do better—but the real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.

Stephen Harper, July 2011 (Whyte 2011)


For the Gaddafis of this world pay no attention to the force of argument. The only thing they get is the argument of force.

Stephen Harper, September 2011, congratulating Canadian Forces in Italy for their role in the NATO-led Libya campaign.


Right now, the brutal reality is it doesn’t matter to these countries what position Canada takes on these issues because our current government has left the country so weak.

Stephen Harper, 2006 federal election campaign.

The prosecution of war entails the deliberate, planned, and executed taking of life, often on a massive scale; and destruction of property, often making vast landscapes uninhabitable or unusable for years or decades. Whether we participated in, or were even alive during the great conflagrations of the 20th century, we know the destructive power of mechanized war; as well as the slow, grinding, debilitating destruction of insurgencies in emerging and post-colonial states in underdeveloped regions of the world. The estimated number of total deaths is staggering—in excess of 160 million.

Putting a strong defence at the centre of Canadian foreign policy in peacetime is a remarkable first. It also is consistent with the codification of Conservative policy in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy. More shopping list than policy document, it shows the defence budget expanding “from approximately $18-billion in 2008-09, to over $30-billion by 2027-28.”

Projecting leadership abroad can take many forms…. One thing is clear, however: Canada cannot lead with words alone. Above all else, leadership requires the ability to deploy military assets, including ‘boots on the ground.’ (DND 2008, p. 9)

Most Canadians would be surprised at this change in how Canada presents itself officially to the world. Harper has put a strong military at the heart of Canadian foreign policy, not just defence policy. And he has gone a step further, calling alternative approaches “timid and trendy.”

To this I ask: Does this approach to Canada’s role in the world make sense in its own terms? Is this approach necessary, inevitable, logical, and in the best interests of Canada and Canada’s neighbours, both near and far?

My short answer to each of these questions is, No.

Department of National Defence (Canada). 2008. Canada First Defence Strategy.

Whyte, Kenneth. 2011. In conversation: Stephen Harper. Maclean’s, July 5.

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