Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Diplomacy fit for the times

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The Harper government has always had a way of expressing itself in ways that generate controversy and confusion, which it has again succeeded in doing following the announcement of its plan for "economic diplomacy."

From now on, "all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector," the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said Wednesday in announcing what appeared to be a major policy shift.

It said all the resources of the foreign service are to be used to support Canadian industry, particularly small businesses.

Concerns were immediately expressed that aid and development would be downgraded or used as leverage to extract concessions for Canadian businesses. It sounded kind of un-Canadian.

Diplomats have always worked to promote Canadian commerce -- that's their job -- but the announcement made it seem like they would now be taking directions from corporate CEOs, as opposed to representing the broad spectrum of Canadian interests.

In one sense, the announcement makes perfect sense at a time when the global economy is rapidly expanding and becoming much more competitive. Canadian businesses could use a leg up, particularly when giants like China are using their massive heft to push their way into every available market.

The Conservative party has been moving in this direction since it was elected in 2006, but the first significant step occurred last spring when the government changed the status of the Canadian International Development Agency.

It is now a department within Foreign Affairs, rather than a separate agency, which critics said at the time was evidence that foreign aid was being hijacked by commercial interests and political agendas.

And there's the rub.

There's nothing evil about directing aid in ways that also benefit Canadian interests, as opposed to shovelling money at a wide and endless swath of hungry mouths.

Canada's foreign-policy and development goals, however, must recognize that the country has interests that extend beyond the corporate bottom line, such as human rights.

And yet there is no evidence the government intends to avert its gaze from the nastiness in the world. Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized this year for refusing to attend a Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka because of its poor record on human rights.

Mr. Harper's aggressive stance against Iran, his support for Israel, generosity for Haiti and other diplomatic positions do not support the idea that Canada is caving to corporate agendas at the expense of high principles.

The government did an about-face on China, deciding it would no longer link human rights with trade. Mr. Harper's original hardline was naive and inconsistent with the views of our allies, which recognized the need for commercial engagement with one of the world's military and economic superpowers.

Canada needs a balanced foreign policy that combines self-interest with humanitarian action. It would help if Mr. Harper made it clear that "economic diplomacy" will not undermine Canada's reputation as a principled nation, which itself carries an economic benefit.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2013 A12

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