It is widely recognized that the two main pillars of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy are the United States and Afghanistan.
Yet, with little warning, the prime minister announced at the G8 summit in early June that Canadian foreign policy is to have a renewed focus on the Americas. Rebutting critics at Heiligendamm who attacked the Conservatives' record on foreign aid to Africa, Harper stressed that there are another set of developmental challenges in Canada's own backyard that need to be addressed. How these words will be translated into deeds will be tested during Harper's visits to four Western Hemisphere countries this week.
Glimpses that the Americas was moving up on the government's agenda have been evident since early February from a close reading of speeches by Harper and other cabinet ministers, notably Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and International Trade Minister David Emerson. The appointment in late spring of a high-level government co-ordinator for Americas strategy in the two ministries, however, was the first concrete signal that the Conservatives were serious about prioritizing relations with Latin America.
Two days before Harper's announcement in Germany, International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner said in an interview that the government wanted to pay more attention to Latin America and the Caribbean and that work by the Canadian International Development Agency would be co-ordinated into the trade department's greater approach to the region.
From Harper's travel schedule, the new focus on the Americas seems to be an instrumental one. From an economic perspective, it makes sense for Harper to visit Chile, where Canadian companies have become heavy investors. From a development perspective, a visit to Haiti is a must. If talk about doing things in Canada's backyard is to be taken seriously, this is the prime test case.
There are pragmatic reasons for the choice of Colombia and Barbados as well. Canada is in the midst of efforts to work out a bilateral free trade deal with Colombia. And after years of relative neglect, it makes good sense to highlight the fact that the islands of the anglophone Caribbean constitute a natural neighbourhood for Canadian activity - economically, socially and diplomatically.
In terms of motivation, the big question is whether instrumentalism is the only factor driving Canada's approach to the Americas. Are there signs that some more ambitious strategy cutting across trade, development, corporate social responsibility and human rights issues is in the process of being crafted.
Any grand strategy would include democracy promotion, which has been a central tenet of all recent Canadian governments. Given Canada's significant involvement with the development of the Inter-American Democratic Charter within the Organization of American States this would seem to be a natural fit. Moreover, our much-heralded expertise in this area could be back in the spotlight via a potentially landmark report by the Senate committee on foreign affairs and international trade that is to be tabled this week.
Yet, so far, there are no traces of democracy promotion vernacular in the government's comments on the renewed emphasis on the region. This may seem the sensible approach as on the surface, it is a democratic hemisphere, with open elections in all countries except Cuba.
Yet, the modalities of democracy (and citizenship) remains enormously contested. Will Harper visit Colombia without a mention of para-military groups, narco-trafficking, and its relations with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez government? Can he go to Barbados, never mind, Haiti, without talking about the impact of gangs, drugs, and small arms on the state?
Does Canada have a geopolitical interest in trying to distance ourselves from U.S. policy in the hemisphere? Carlo Dade, the director of Canadian Foundation of the Americas has argued that Canada is in an opportune position to present itself as an alternative partner that understands the importance of strong civil society and public health care. Conversely, questions as to whether the Conservatives are indirectly assisting the American administration in its fight against Chavez Bolivarian socialism by taking the liberal economic model on tour are bound to be raised.
Turning from ends to means, the other big question is whether Harper's trip is a one-off event or the beginning of a sustained pattern of engagement. The answer here seems to depend on what tangible or symbolic deliverables are gained during his visit.
If the trip is deemed a success, look for this region to be ramped up with respect to the Conservatives' priorities. If the complexities of the region swamp the opportunities, it will be back to the main pillars as usual - the U.S. and Afghanistan.