On November 27, Minister of International Trade Ed Fast unveiled the Global Markets Action Plan, an ambitious program of trade promotion that aims to give Canadian companies access to emerging markets and deepen trade with developed nations. Representatives of the business community immediately hailed the plan, Harper’s first major public document on foreign policy strategy. However, critics such as former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, commentator Roland Paris, and columnist Heather Mallick immediately attacked the plan for emphasizing trade promotion to the exclusion of Canada’s other international interests and goals, such as peacekeeping and poverty reduction.
Certainly, the Harper government deserves significant credit for its successful pursuit of trade deals around the world. When Harper took office in 2006, Canada had free-trade agreements (FTAs) with only 5 states: the US, Mexico, Israel, Chile, and Costa Rica. Since then, Harper has negotiated FTAs with Jordan, the European Free Trade Association, Peru, Panama, Honduras, and Colombia. Most notably, he reached the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union, which when it comes into effect will make Canada the only G8 nation to have free trade agreements with both the US and EU. Canada is also an active participant in ongoing negotiations for the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership. Thus, Harper is gradually diversifying Canadian trade from excessive dependence on the US.
Harper’s emphasis on trade is not a departure from past Canadian foreign policy practice. While Heather Mallick labeled trade promotion as a “gimme-the-money” policy opposed to true diplomacy and Canada’s peacekeeping and soft power traditions, in fact trade promotion has always been central to Canadian foreign policy. From its colonial beginnings, Canada has always been a trading nation. Today, 60% of Canadian GDP is based on international trade, as are 20% of Canadian jobs. When trade suffers, the Canadian economy suffers. Indeed, a central aim of Canadian post-World War II foreign policy was to foster a liberal free trading system that would avoid the worldwide protectionism of Great Depression that devastated the Canadian economy. More recently, Prime Minister Jean Chretien launched “Team Canada” trade missions to promote Canadian access to emerging economies. While Minister Fast presented the government’s emphasis on trade promotion as a “sea change,” in fact it is a long-established government policy.
Still, the glaring deficiency in the Global Markets Action Plan is its emphasis on trade to the exclusion of other aims. The Plan’s stated goal is to “entrench the concept of ‘economic diplomacy’ as the driving force behind” Canadian foreign policy. However, as even otherwise sympathetic commentators like trade expert Danielle Goldfarb note, Canadian foreign policy must be about more than only trade.
First, despite trade’s importance, Canada has national interests other than trade. As Paris emphasized, Canada has a strong interest in ensuring peace and security, confronting the problem of failed states, and ensuring a well-functioning system of global governance. As the 2011 internal Foreign Policy Plan pointed out before it was scuttled, Canada needs to concern itself with states such as Indonesia and Turkey, not just for their trade potential but for their strategic significance in geopolitics.
Second, paradoxically a narrow focus on trade promotion in international affairs can jeopardize Canada’s long-term trade prospects. As Goldfarb said, the reason is simple: “Our trade partners want to talk about more than just trade.” For instance, in Africa Harper has pursued a policy narrowly-focused on trade. Canada closed embassies in countries deemed to be economically unimportant, diminished its peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts, and restricted state visits to emerging trading partners. While African development and security may not be key priorities for Harper, they certainly are for African states. As the South African High Commissioner to Canada recently emphasized, “Canada today has a tendency of stepping back, and we want Canada to be more forward-looking…we want them to participate in the development of the Republic of South Africa.”
Third, restricting foreign policy to trade promotion at the expense of human rights and development is unsustainable in the long run because it is out of touch with Canadian public opinion. For instance, according to a recent Environics poll, Canadian public opinion strongly supports combatting climate change, and ranks trade promotion as of secondary importance. Likewise, a 2010 Environics poll revealed Canadians ranked the environment and global underdevelopment as more significant global issues than the economy. Most Canadians clearly want their government to promote environmental protection, development, and human security on the world stage, and by promoting trade at these issues’ expense Harper risks confirming NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar’s charge that the plan is a threat to a “balanced foreign policy.”