The Passion of the Clark

The Right Honourable Charles Joseph Clark, PC, CC, AOE, MA, LLD, was in fine form Wednesday demonstrating the razor-sharp wit and political cunning that narrowly won him relief from the heavy responsibilities of the Prime Minister’s office on March 3, 1980.

Canada is in danger of losing its long-cultivated ability to punch above its weight-class on the world stage because of the Harper government’s narrow view of foreign policy, according to former prime minister Joe Clark.

Clark was on [University of Alberta] campus Monday to meet with University officials and others to discuss a proposal for establishing a conference on hemispheric energy. However, the former leader of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada also approached the political science department about offering his views on Canada’s foreign policy.

…according to Clark, the Harper government has discarded this [balanced] approach to foreign policy, one that had been the basis of the Canadian style for almost 60 years. In its place, Clark sees a strategy that’s almost exclusively focused on good relations with the Americans. He noted that 16 separate members of the Harper Cabinet visited the US in 2006, while during the same period only two ministers went to Africa, none to the Middle East, none to China, one to Haiti and none to South America.

— Ross Prusakowski, “Harper government comes under fire from former PM Joe Clark“.  The Gateway, 21 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine]

Readers may remember that Mr. Clark was famously bad with numbers, losing his minority government on December 13th, 1979, to a non-confidence motion brought by NDP MP Bob Rae.  If only poor Joe wasn’t too proud and stubborn to seek a coalition government (or at least accommodation) with Quebec’s six Social Credit MPs.  If only poor Joe had bothered to figure out how many of his own MPs would be present that evening.

But nevermind that.  Joe went to Africa, Japan and the Middle East when he was in the Big Chair, you see.  He’s what you call a statesman, an “expert” on foreign affairs.  Hard data — well, that’s someone else’s department.  Let me set the record straight for you on his most recent pronouncements.

  • United States: The U.S might win on quantity, but then they are our major trading partner.  One would hope to maintain cordial relations with them.   It’s also worth pointing out that PM Harper’s first foreign visit, in March of 2006, was not to the United States, as is usually the case, but to Afghanistan.  And plenty of other ministers have been to Afstan regularly ever since.
  • Africa: In addition to two ministers of the Crown, Her Excellency the Governor General conducted a state visit to Africa from 18 November through 11 December 2006.  Not technically a minister but she is our head of state, after all.  Incidentally, Joe’s 1979 state visit to Africa was hardly the masterstroke of visionary statesmanship he pretends it was.  In lucid moments he admits the truth, like he did here for a university newspaper (see p. 3).  Turns out the state visit was arranged for then-PM Pierre Trudeau, and when Pierre had the misfortune of getting himself hoofed from 24 Sussex Drive, Joe — as the newly elected PM — took his place.
  • Middle East: You get a reluctant sorta-pass on that since Peter MacKay’s five-day visit didn’t happen until  January of 2007.  Joe’s old record is a little more interesting.  In 1979 — a mere two days after he was sworn in as Prime Minister — Joe managed to get Canada in hot water with practically all of the Arab nations by proposing to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  The Arabs threatened a retaliatory boycott of Canadian companies and goods, and Joe backed down swiftly.  Smooooth move, Joe.  Nothing says “increased stature” like being seen mewling for mercy from Arab autocrats.  And that was before your more famous buffoonery of losing your luggage over there on a state visit.
  • China: No ministers went to visit?  Are you sure?  Minister Strahl was there from October 6th through 13th.  Maybe no evil right-wing ConservAllianceReform ministers went there in your mind, Joe, but government records suggest otherwise.  Try checking with them before you open your pie-hole.
  • South America: I’ll give you a full pass on this one since Peter MacKay didn’t make it to Brazil until February 5-6, 2007.   Surprisingly, Joe inexplicably seems to have avoided making an ass of himself in the same region.

In addition to expressing concern over the singular focus on the US, Clark said there are three other areas of Canada’s new foreign policy approach that he believes present a troubling departure from Canadian traditions. These include what he perceives as an absence of any evident priorities in dealing with the developing world, the erosion of Canada’s professional Foreign Service, and the decline of the country’s influence and relations with the People’s Republic of China.

I am not sure what one would call significant initiatives in vaccination, HIV research, fiscal transparency and so on — all targeted specifically at developing nations.  Then there’s the matter of Afghanistan, which is a major diplomatic, financial and military effort targeted at the reconstruction and stability of a third-world developing country.  But who cares about that!  It doesn’t fit into Joe’s storyline, where he is the One True Tory and everyone else is a Hueguenot or Lollard practicing heretical abomination.

“The Harper government has embraced a pre-Nixonian policy towards China, deliberately distancing Canada from the emerging mega-power, thereby limiting our ability to affect China’s performance on human rights or on other issues,” Clark said.

Let’s be blunt.  We have no military leverage on the PRC.  We have no diplomatic leverage on the PRC.  No other nation is going to pull their legation out of Beijing if we decide to pack up our embassy and flip Hu Jintao the bird on the way out.  The only leverage we have is economic, and that is marginal at best.  In terms of investment and trade, our southern neighbours matter a whole lot more to the PRC than we do.

Tell us, Joe — what sort of imaginary ability do we have that is significant enough to guide their hand on human rights policy?  Don’t be shy, now.  There’s a Canadian citizen currently being held by the PRC — which doesn’t recognise dual citizenship, by the way — and he is surely waiting for your magic foreign policy prescription to secure his release.  We can’t scold them, or they might not cooperate; so instead we do — what, exactly?  Keep buying stuff and nagging them in soft voices until they feel like complying?  I’d be inclined to say “behave yourself, or there will be economic consequences” — the Arabs, after all, used that same tactic quite successfully on you, Joe, in 1979.

It’s a pity you’re too blinkered to learn anything from your own freakin’ experience, Joe.  Good thing you only lasted nine pitiful months.

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7 Responses
  1. Alan says:

    “Tell us, Joe — what sort of imaginary ability do we have that is significant enough to guide their hand on human rights policy?”
    I think you are being quite unkind and perhaps blinded by the lack of a recording of history on the Internet. One of the great things Joe and Brian did in their time was manage to make a difference in both South Africa and South Korea. He has expereince and Canada did punch above its weight diplomatically during that period. Mulroney gave a great speech in South Korea on the importance of the opposition as a principle in a democracy – something executive Harper apparently cares little for – but the text of what he said on that day is nowhere to be found. Google has killed history in large part by making the present so overwhelming.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    Oh I fully recognize Mr. Clark’s considerable contributions as the Minister of External Affairs for Prime Minister Mulroney, particularly where South African sanctions are concerned. There is no blindness there, only a wish to avoid comparing apples to oranges, since unlike Mr. Clark, Mr. Harper has never served as a minister of the Crown in any other capacity than his current one.
    I was interested in comparing apples to apples, that is, Prime Minister Clark’s foreign affairs record versus Prime Minister Harper’s. If Mr. Harper manages to snare a cabinet post from some future Prime Minister, then I will be happy to compare their records as parliamentarians and cabinet-level officials. And at that point, Joe may become a contender. As a “mere” Prime Minister, though, his brief record in that role speaks for itself.

  3. Colin says:

    Joe Who?

  4. Alan says:

    Fair enough but that would presume that currently we have someone responsible for foreign affairs who can make any decision without checking with the PMO for permission.

  5. Chris Taylor says:

    I think history will view this minority government’s foreign policy favourably, if for no other reason than replacing the aimless drift of the Chrétien-Martin years with something a little more robust.

  6. Alan says:

    I think that will be the downfall of Harper, expecting to be measured only against the non-fiscal aspects of the immediate successor. This will be especially the case if the PQ gets in tomorrow with that extra boost from the PM’s most stunned week yet.

  7. Chris Taylor says:

    PM Harper is liable to toppling from his own base, if he follows the George W. Bush model of “fiscal conservatism” for too much longer. The base will not sacrifice fiscal prudence for steadfast foreign policy indefinitely, as GW learned in the ’06 midterms. Harper may learn that lesson too if he insists on promulgating spendthrift budgets.