A tale of two elections: UK, Canada and lacklustre foreign policy

By Zachary Wolfraim:

David Cameron in conversation with US President Barack Obama and Canadian PM Stephen Harper, 25 June 2010. Crown copyright (CC 2.0).
David Cameron in conversation with US President Barack Obama and Canadian PM Stephen Harper, 25 June 2010. Crown copyright (CC 2.0)

A Conservative Prime Minister is fighting against a left-wing opponent about which the electorate has continued doubts. At the same time this Prime Minister is faced with challenges from within his own party: attempting to prevent the right-wing elements from pulling away from the moderate image he has sought to project. Despite weathering what seems to be the worst of the 2008 financial crisis, he continues to face the repercussions of the crisis alongside Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East and broader socioeconomic issues such as rising economic inequality, all the while faced with US leadership that has adopted a relatively passive foreign policy.

The above description fits Conservative Prime Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Both David Cameron in the UK and Stephen Harper in Canada are fighting to retain control of Parliament and their position in it. In both countries the governments have made significant attempts to shrink the role of the state and, in Canada’s case, an effort to redefine its national worldview. The result of these elections could see a departure from the ‘austerity’ leadership that has characterised both countries since the 2008 financial crisis. This would alter the dynamics of the transatlantic sphere and, vitally, each country’s relationship with the USA.

While many of the specifics vary, both men are faced by restless electorates who are increasingly willing to examine alternative options, be they as extreme as Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party or, in Canada, as mainstream as Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Either way, the political landscape seems likely to shift.

In terms of the UK election’s international dynamics it seems clear that regardless of who wins, addressing British voters’ apprehension towards immigration from the EU is a chief concern. Should the UK’s relationship with the EU chill further, it will have serious consequences: the US has voiced a clear preference for the UK to stay in the EU. The impending US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could alter the dynamics of the way in which US businesses view the utility of the UK as a European entry point, particularly if Britain were shut out of this agreement by leaving the EU. The US leadership desires a stable Eurozone, but it also wants a close ally with influence in the heart of Brussels.

On the Canadian side, it remains hard to discern the various parties’ stances on foreign policy, but if trends continue as they have under the Harper government, Canada’s international voice and standing will continue to diminish. Both Harper and Cameron have stepped back from seeking to lead on foreign policy initiatives and seem content to follow the US’ reluctant leadership, as they did in tackling ISIS/L and Russia.

Pressures at the US domestic level, including budgetary restraints, an intransigent Republican presence in Congress, and a lack of overarching strategic vision, are to blame for a relatively diminished American role in international affairs. During this time, Canada-US relations can best be described as transactional and tepid, due in no small part to the mismatched personalities and ideologies of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama.

Conversely, while the US-UK relationship has been positive under Cameron, the possibility of a European referendum or another Scottish referendum means that the UK is no longer the predictable pillar of support for US relations with Europe. Moreover, neither Harper nor Cameron have been very proactive with their foreign policy initiatives meaning that foreign policy leadership is left in the hands of a passive US administration seeking to ‘lead from behind’, the consequences of which have become apparent as crises continue throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

So both Canada and the UK under their Conservative leaders have stepped back from taking the lead in global affairs at a time when the US has also stepped back. This has been a mistake. There are no other countries as capable of putting constructive pressure on the US leadership as Canada and the UK. The ‘special relationship’ between these three north Atlantic members of the anglosphere has been invoked time and again to justify support for military actions under US leadership, such as Iraq in 2003 (and at present), Libya in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2001. Given the current state of international affairs, a British or Canadian leader with a clearer foreign policy vision could constructively influence US foreign policy towards certain strategic ends.

Indeed, in this election cycle the main UK parties have scarcely gone into depth on foreign policy and, while in Canada the election is not slated until later this year, opposition parties have focused largely on domestic issues.

Whoever ends up in 10 Downing Street or 24 Sussex Drive needs to be ready to be more proactive on issues of foreign policy. Both countries claim a ‘special relationship’ with the US; however, thus far neither Canada nor the UK has used this to substantially exercise influence in the Obama White House. This is symptomatic of a failure of foreign policy vision on the part of both Conservative leaders.

Whoever is elected this year will need to think critically about the nature of their relationship with the USA. By doing so, they will have an opportunity to help shape the nature of future US foreign policy initiatives. If they fail to do so, they risk leaving themselves at the mercy of international events and, ultimately, to be swept along with whatever future actions the US administration undertakes.

Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy in relation to NATO operations. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

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