Windsor Star

Voters a world away

- BY ADAM CHAPNICK Foreign policy Good sound-bite

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.

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