Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Everyone’s Wondering: What’s This ‘Americas Strategy’?

(Embassy – Michelle Collins)

Twelve months ago, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper embarked on a tour of Latin America to raise Canada’s profile in the region and demonstrate that his foreign policy would be geared toward these hemispheric neighbours, many took the trip as a sign that he was indeed serious about the Americas.

Yet one year later, there are few updates from the government about what is involved in this pillar of its foreign policy, the mainstream media say there’s no story to report, and most Canadians have nary a notion that their government ever committed itself to an “Americas Strategy.”

On his six-day trip through Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti, Mr. Harper visited aid projects built with Canadian funds, met with Canadian investors, and delivered speeches to economists and business crowds, all with parliamentary reporters in tow.

While in Chile, Mr. Harper delivered a speech declaring Canada a country of the Americas and said that expanding political and economic engagement in the Americas would be a major foreign policy goal for his government. “Re-engagement in our hemisphere is a critical international priority for our government. Canada is committed to playing a bigger role in the Americas and to doing so for the long term,” Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Harper and his officials, such as former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, repeatedly declared that the policy is built on “three key objectives” of prosperity, security and governance.

Since that time, the government has made a handful of funding announcements for increased aid projects in Latin America and moved ahead on free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia. Most recently, Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson announced that the Department of International Trade was opening four new trade offices in the region; two in Mexico and two in Brazil.

Beyond developments in the area of trade, however, little else about the strategy has been released publicly.

Although a Memorandum to Cabinet on the Americas Strategy was delivered in the last two months, ministers and officials at the Foreign Affairs Department refuse to talk about what’s in it.

When Mr. Harper’s government began ramping up the rhetoric about re-engaging the Americas, Latin American diplomats based in Ottawa were encouraged that this would be their chance to finally reap more of the benefits of globalization and tap into Canada’s economic prowess.

But more than a year later, those same diplomats are left with more questions than answers about what Mr. Harper’s plans really are and are expressing concern that, like other prime ministers before him, Mr. Harper’s commitment to the Americas has tumbled on his list of foreign policy priorities.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Helena Guergis has travelled to the area several times over the last few months, but only her announcements about domestic sports programs get reported in the media.

Additionally, aside from a media advisory, the government says little about the trips and Ms. Guergis herself is difficult to track down. Embassy made several requests to interview the minister about her trip to Belize and Guatemala this past week, but to no avail.

Indeed, Maclean’s political affairs columnist Paul Wells believes that the fact Ms. Guergis is the one being sent on these trips is evidence that the Americas are no longer a genuine priority. “I do get the impression this was an interesting idea, but the idea of an American Canada, understood in the Americas, it’s not automatic, it’s not driven by market forces, not driven by the attention space of ordinary Canadians, and would have to be artificial and built,” Mr. Wells said.

Mr. Wells said “serious distractions” to the west, east and the north – from China to Europe and Russia – are more interesting and geographically closer to Canada. Plus, he notes, Canada’s top foreign policy challenge remains Afghanistan, and the Latin American countries have not made any significant troop contributions to the conflict. “It’s just one example of how far away we are from the idea of this having a concrete application to the rest of the foreign policy universe,” Mr. Wells said.

Toronto Star reporter Allan Woods said that given the way Mr. Harper kicked off this foreign policy strategy, one might expect to have heard more about it by now. He said Mr. Harper’s trip last year was really the first Conservative-led foreign policy initiative since the party rose to power in early 2006, and the government itself billed it as the grandest one up to that point.

Mr. Woods said that at the time, he did plan to follow the issue over the next several months, but that since then, he hasn’t seen all that much happen. “A couple of trips does not a foreign policy make, and a couple of free trade agreements does not a foreign policy make,” Mr. Woods said. “It’s unfortunate because I’ve been on many trips with Harper, and that one was by far the most interesting; it was something of their own making and they just didn’t seem to follow up on it. The onus was on them to explain this.”

CTV reporter Robert Fife points out that if this were a focus, Mr. Harper would be talking about it. He said that if the Conservatives want to promote the Americas, they are going to have to convince people that free trade with these countries is a good thing. “If the prime minister wants to shine a light on it, he usually gets pretty good coverage on any issue he talks about,” Mr. Fife said. “If this issue is such a central plank in the Conservative foreign policy, then it should speak for itself; if you’re not going down there, then it can’t be much of a priority.” Read the complete article.