Opportunity Lost: Where Was Foreign Policy in the Federal Election?

By Sullivan, Alan W. | Behind the Headlines, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Opportunity Lost: Where Was Foreign Policy in the Federal Election?


Sullivan, Alan W., Behind the Headlines


I was disappointed, although not entirely surprised, that foreign policy did not feature prominently in the recent federal election campaign. In fact, foreign policy had no focus whatsoever, except perhaps in British Columbia where Canada-United States negotiations over salmon took some colourful turns, possibly under the influence of the campaign.

In some respects, the lack of debate was not unusual. The perception is that foreign policy can lose votes if you get it wrong but wins few if you get it right. Thus elections have tended to focus on domestic issues - and in this Canada is probably not all that different from other countries. There have been elections, however, where foreign affairs did feature prominently. The elections of 1963 and 1988 come immediately to mind. But these were exceptions. For most of the post-Second World War era foreign policy was seen largely as something on which there was little disagreement and, perhaps, one of the few things on which there was a national consensus.

In a world dominated by globalization, however, I would argue that the need to ensure that we are pursuing the right policies abroad - ones that advance our national interest rather than simply play to our comfort zone - is greater than ever.

We are living in times defined not by geopolitics but by the global economy, much, though by no means all, of which is beyond the control of government and subject to the whims of the market and the speed of the internet. To the extent that political, social, and military conflicts occupy the international agenda, the presence of only one superpower has reduced their potential for threatening global stability. As a result, such conflicts are more likely to be relegated to the sidelines, except when modern communications bring them into our living rooms through TV. At that point, everyone begins to pay attention, largely because domestic political imperatives are driven by emotional reactions to disturbing images rather than by any particular commitment to a long-term resolution of the problem.

Other issues, from human rights to disarmament, from the environment to population control, are still on the table and can still occupy an important place from time to time - continuing nuclear reductions and non-proliferation and, more recently, land mines and global warming are prominent. They do not, however, dominate the agenda because governments must now devote so much attention to the economic dimension of foreign policy, a dimension marked by the intensity of global competition for markets, products, and money. …

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