When Canada’s then-leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition staked out his position on the Iraq War in the Wall Street Journal in March 2003, he didn’t mess around: “[We support] the American and British position,” Stephen J. Harper and his shadow foreign minister wrote, “because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values.”
No hedging. No equivocating. Just a bear hug for freedom and the defining foreign-policy decision of the George W. Bush administration.
While Bush and fellow Anglosphere interventionists like Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard have all moved onto greener pastures, Harper’s Conservative Party rules today in Canada — and his neoconservative foreign policy along with it. The Harper government, in power since 2006, has remade Canada’s global role into that of a warrior nation bent on the spread of democratic capitalism and ready for confrontation with those who resist, from Moscow to the madrassas.
But that could change.
Canadians head to the polls for a federal election on Oct. 19, and Harper’s Conservatives are shooting for a rare fourth consecutive term in power. It’s still the early days, but some polls have the governing Tories well behind the leading opposition party.
While the Canadian electorate considers shooting the longest-flying Bush-era hawk out of the sky, it’s worth wondering: What motivates him to continue with the project his elder brother in the faith, George W. Bush, fashioned from the rubble of the Twin Towers?
First and foremost, Harper is a believer. You don’t advocate for something in “civilizational” terms unless you mean it. The Harper-led Canadian Alliance (the Canadian Alliance merged with the smaller Progressive Conservative Party in late 2003 to reestablish the historic Conservative Party) was unequivocally supportive of the Iraq War and the transformational undertaking it symbolized. Call it neoconservatism, call it the Liberty Doctrine, or call it Revival Wilsonianism. Whatever it was, it was Harper policy.
And while the Conservatives cooled their Iraq rhetoric over the years as the war got messier — and as Canadians’ original antipathy to the project hardened — their underlying sympathies never came into question.
On Afghanistan, the Conservatives strongly supported a robust Canadian combat mission while in opposition, and took eager and unequivocal ownership for the war when Harper was elected prime minister in January 2006. Early that year, Canada began combat operations in bloody Kandahar province. Nearly 3,000 Canadian troops would join the effort, and Harper kept them there until 2011 despite steadily slipping public tolerance for the casualty count. But by then Harper had made his point: Canada was back in its historic global role, marching in lockstep with its U.S. and British allies, punching above its weight class, and taking heavy blows.
That steely commitment to advancing “freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” now a very well-worn Harper government phrase, hasn’t wavered over the years — even as Canada’s key ally, the United States, has increasingly made its foreign policy an exercise in passivity and “patience.”
Harper’s assertive foreign policy has had more staying power than its equivalents in America and elsewhere partly because of the prime minister’s renowned political cunning. He has fused smart domestic politics with values-based policies from the outset.
For example, Canada is home to the second-largest Ukrainian population outside of that country itself, making Harper’s biting opposition to Putin’s expansionism politically practical. The Conservatives’ staunch pro-Israel stance is similarly good domestic politics. A broad swath of suburban “swing” electoral districts are home to strong Jewish communities in Canada, and Harper has been making inroads largely due to his pro-Israel foreign policy. The 2011 election cycle was the first on record when a majority of Canadian Jews opted for the Tories. The trend is clear: Harper’s toughest foreign-policy stances over the years have either resonated deeply with his political base or made for great outreach efforts.
But in a way, even despite the domestic political gains, Harper’s deeply held foreign-policy convictions mark him as a man of a bygone era, of a time when America sought to make the world safe for democracy by any means necessary, was itself up for the challenge, and just wanted a bit of help pulling it off.
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy of “not doing stupid shit” has no doubt been an enormous disappointment for a believer like Harper, but even that sad portrait of American leadership is more symptom than source of Harper’s stark ideological isolation on the world stage.
The neoconservative zenith flowing from 9/11 was part of a unique historical inflection point, which Harper’s class of Anglosphere interventionists sought to seize for freedom. The unipolar moment and the searing horror of global terrorism gave a fleeting air of viability to their grand project and deepest instincts.
First as prime-minister-in-waiting and then as head of a G-7 nation and key U.S. ally, Harper is once and always among its alumni. Of them, only he remains. Only he carries on with the project to end “tyranny in our world.” Only he refuses to believe that the era making such a campaign possible — if only in theory — has passed.
The Republican presidential primary is yielding its perennial crop of brash-talkers, but that’s little consolation to one of the West’s longest-serving statesmen. Let’s say that Canada’s 22nd prime minister is reelected in October and an ideological fellow traveler becomes president of the United States in 2016 (Lindsey Graham, perhaps, would make for a good ally to the Canadian Conservative). That would be pleasant for Harper but also irrelevant. He’s chosen his fight — the one he’s been waging since he wrote those words for the Wall Street Journal nearly 13 years ago — and been named in the rolls of another generation’s visionaries, for good or ill.
The Right Honourable Stephen J. Harper is the last of that generation, the sole Bush-era hawk yet soaring the Western skies. If Canadians clip his wings on Oct. 19, the foreign-policy project that defined the first decade of the 21st century will finally, quietly, come to a close.
Photo credit: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images