In a speech to the Conservative caucus last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlined his government’s priorities for the coming months, chief among them the economy. He emphasized the importance of the free trade agreements currently being negotiated, especially those with the European Union and India. Canada is also currently in negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an existing agreement that both Japan and South Korea are considering joining. These trade negotiations are undoubtedly important as they will help open up new markets for Canadian products and reduce the dependence of the Canadian economy on exports to the United States.

Opposition parties, especially the New Democrats, are concerned that the agreements will offer few benefits to Canada while exposing Canadian businesses to even fiercer competition. The opposition also worries that the trade deals will be presented to Parliament without sufficient time for more than a cursory review, preventing thorough scrutiny. However, by focusing on the specifics of the trade deals alone, the opposition risks losing sight of the wider consequences of the Harper government’s shift towards an almost single-minded focus on trade negotiations. The result of this shift is that other foreign policy issues are falling by the wayside.

The Harper government’s increasingly narrow focus on trade stands in stark contrast to the platform on which they ran seven years ago, when Harper formed his first minority government. The Conservatives’ 2006 election platform proposed a comprehensive vision for foreign policy. For instance, it called not only for increased defense spending, but also foreign aid. Initially, the Harper government put much of this into action, adopting the ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy, which placed as much emphasis on Canada’s international military commitments as it did on more familiar themes of defending Arctic sovereignty.

Shortly before Harper took office in 2006, Canadian troops redeployed from Afghanistan’s relatively safe capital, Kabul, to the dangerous Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. What followed was the most brutal fighting that Canadian troops have seen since the Korean War. As the mission in Afghanistan became more difficult, the Harper government was forced to shift energy and resources to ensuring that Canada’s part of the war did not spin out of control. The budgetary constraints caused by the financial crisis further weakened the Harper government’s ability to implement its ambitious foreign policy agenda. This contributed to the government’s growing focus on international trade.

The shift is understandable. Trade negotiations are relatively inexpensive to run and offer the possibility of tremendous benefits for the Canadian economy. They do not put Canadian lives at risk, nor do they engender tough questions that inevitably surround decisions about deploying Canadian troops abroad. But trade does too little to address crises that are making news, whether in Mali or Syria, and crises that are not, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Trade also does not address the sorts of global issues that are likely to define the rest of this century, especially climate change.

The Harper government should resist the temptation to focus solely on trade. It should instead pursue a more balanced foreign policy, closer to the one that the Conservatives advocated in their 2006 platform, which emphasizes trade, but only as part of a broader set of international priorities. The opposition, for its part, should continue to voice its concerns about trade but also be sure to hold the Harper government equally to account for its inaction as for its actions. There are many international issues deserving of meaningful Canadian leadership. It will be up to this generation of politicians to ensure that they receive it.

Patrick Baud’s column appears every two issues.

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