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PETER McKENNA: What would an Erin O’Toole foreign policy look like?

Curiously, there is not a single reference to relations with the United States in CPC Leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign literature.
Curiously, there is not a single reference to relations with the United States in CPC Leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign literature.

Peter McKenna
Guest opinion


During his campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservative party, MP Erin O’Toole carefully outlined his foreign policy priorities. Now that he is the newly-minted leader of the party, those pronouncements are the best guide that we have for what an O’Toole government’s international policy would look like.

To be blunt: O’Toole’s international policy — setting to one side his mutterings about a “Canada First” strategy — looks a lot like the foreign policy universe of former prime minister Stephen Harper. He even attacks Liberal governments for courting dictators, disappointing our allies and paying far too much attention to the United Nations.

That sounds just like Harper’s favourite mantra of “not going along to get along” with every tin-pot dictatorship with a seat at the world body. O’Toole’s version is slightly more diplomatic, but no less pointed: “Canada and the world deserve a strong and principled foreign policy that truly aligns with Canadian values and interests.”

It was pretty obvious that Harper had little interest in, or respect for, the UN. Similarly, O’Toole would prefer to reform the multilateral institution rather than waste any time trying to secure a non-permanent Security Council seat.

Consequently, he wants to hold back financial support for UN agencies (like the UN Relief and Works Agency) that have performed poorly — at least as far as he is concerned — from a corruption and human rights standpoint. In the words of O’Toole’s campaign document: “Canada will not continue funding if these reforms are not underway by the midway point of our first term.”

But O’Toole is committed to strengthening Ottawa’s relationship with la Francophonie, our friends in the Commonwealth and Canada’s intelligence-gathering allies in the “Five Eyes” grouping. To that end, he is also interested in proposing a new partnership — a so-called CANZUK bloc — with Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Interestingly, O’Toole also wants to make Canada a leading advocate for international human rights — fighting for the people of Hong Kong, Iran, Syria and, most controversially, Taiwan. He pledges to defend “their freedom and championing the cause of oppressed peoples including Tibetans, Uighurs and Kurds.”

With respect to China, an O’Toole government would jettison Justin Trudeau’s “appeasement” of “Communist China” and stand up to the leadership in Beijing. Part of his plan for China would involve working in collaboration with countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia, enhancing relations with India (and negotiating a free trade pact), banning Huawei from our 5G networks and halting Chinese efforts “to infiltrate Canadian institutions and intimidate Chinese Canadians.”

Besides limiting the role of state-owned Chinese enterprises in the Canadian economy, O’Toole would adopt a hard-line stance against the “hostage diplomacy” of Beijing. “If Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig remain in detention when the Conservative government is formed, a 30-day period will be given for their release before the imposition of Magnitsky sanctions on the President, Premier of the State Council, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Party Congress and the President of the Supreme People’s Court,” he maintains.

Much like the Harper government, O’Toole promises to significantly improve relations with Israel. Accordingly, he has plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, subsequently, to move the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

As for the mullahs in Iran, O’Toole views Tehran as a menacing international security threat because of its nuclear weapons program and its blatant interference operations abroad. Sounding every bit as hawkish as the Harper crowd, he states: “We must show leadership to ensure that the Iranian regime does not succeed with its deception of the West.”

Hemispherically speaking, an O’Toole government would push a free trade agenda and stand up for the citizens of impoverished Venezuela. No mention, though, of ties to revolutionary Cuba — especially given its close relationship with the Nicolás Maduro government in Caracas.

Curiously, there is not a single reference to relations with the United States in O’Toole’s campaign literature. Given the centrality of that bilateral relationship to Canada, this is a glaring omission that will obviously have to be corrected before the next federal election. If he sticks with the Harper approach, though, the pivotal U.S. relationship will be central to an O’Toole foreign policy posture.

Equally surprising is the failure to mention anything about Canada’s international climate change policy. Perhaps that was by design and in keeping with the Harper disposition to downplay its significance. But if climate change-friendly Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency in November, it could pose a serious problem for Mr. O’Toole.

To be honest, O’Toole’s lifting of huge chunks of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy orientation is a big mistake. Not only will it be off-putting to many countries around the world, just as Harper’s international policy was, but it will also be a political loser within Canada.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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