Voters a world away
When news of the death of the 97th Canadian soldier in Afghanistan coincided with Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s decision to dissolve Parliament, a number of reports immediately suggested that foreign policy was going to be a significant election issue.
It is true that Canadians are increasingly uncertain about the state of the mission, and if the death count reaches 100 there are bound to be calls for a reconsideration of the current strategy, but there is little reason to believe that Afghanistan, or any other aspect of Canada ‘s approach to world affairs, will dominate the 2008 campaign for very long.
There are two reasons to be confident that this election will focus on domestic issues. First, the two leading parties share similar visions of Canada ‘s place in the world and therefore don ‘t have anything to gain by politicizing foreign policy. Second, historically, Canadians have rarely put worldwide concerns ahead of themselves come election time.
A quick scan of the five parties ‘ campaign websites following the election announcement suggested that none was interested in making foreign policy a defining issue in their campaigns, and for good reason.
The Tories and Liberals reached a consensus on the immediate future of the mission in Afghanistan, making it difficult for either one to claim a uniquely superior vision of Canada ‘s external role. Indeed, since the election campaign has begun, both parties have reiterated their commitment to pulling our troops out of Khandahar by 2011 (announcements, it should be noted, that created only passing headlines).
The NDP demands an immediate withdrawal from Khandahar, which is both indefensible given the party ‘s alleged commitment to fulfill its international obligations (note Jack Layton ‘s anger with Canada ‘s unwillingness to meet its Kyoto targets) and also unrealistic considering the Conservative-Liberal consensus.
As for the Bloc and the Greens, neither have developed comprehensive foreign policy platforms, nor will either benefit from shifting the focus of the campaign away from their primary areas of interest: Quebec, and domestic approaches to environmental change.
Even if a party did see an opening to make foreign policy a more prominent plank of its electoral platform, history suggests that gambling on such an issue to grab and maintain the public ‘s attention is unwise.
The last time we debated foreign policy during an election was 1988, and the issue — free trade — was as much about attitudes toward the United States as it was about the details of the agreement.
Before that, one might point to the 1963 debate over nuclear weapons, but even then, the issue was leadership more than it the weapons themselves.
We debated conscription in 1940 and 1944, but from the point of view of its impact on Canada, not on the Second World War. Indeed, one has to go back to 1911 (both free-trade and the naval debate) to find an election that was genuinely focused on external relations.
Canadians are largely uninformed about their country ‘s actions abroad and as a result lack the visceral attachment to foreign policy necessary to mobilize them to vote for a particular candidate or party
Historically, even the national commitment to foreign aid, one which appears to be so tightly tied to our national values, has been compromised with ease in times of domestic economic difficulties.
Foreign policy is also by its nature elitist. It serves constituencies beyond the national borders (the people of Afghanistan being the most prominent example right now), and it is too nuanced to make for a good sound-bite.
Mr. Harper will likely mention his party ‘s commitment to defend Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic over the coming weeks, Mr. Dion will probably note the Liberals ‘ more sophisticated attitude toward China, the New Democrats will decry the deaths in Afghanistan, and the Greens will muse of an Elizabeth May government leading the international campaign for nuclear disarmament. But when Canadians go to the ballot box next month, the vast majority will not have foreign policy at the top of their minds.