Harper More Rude Than Righteous
Date: Wednesday, November 22 2006
by Michael Nickerson
About the only thing worse than a drunken lout dancing with your lampshade, is a moralizing boor who insists on turning a social gathering into his own private pulpit.
Those possessed of righteous zeal have a knack for causing dinner guests to run for the coat check. They also have a flair for sending diplomats to the local pharmacy for tranquilizers, and by all accounts, driving up sales of Xanax was about the only contribution Stephen Harper made during his recent sojourn to Asia.
Citing the need to “advance Canadian interests,” and not sell out human rights to the “almighty dollar,” Harper decided that the best approach for a neophyte world leader trying to engage China’s President, Hu Jintao, for the first time, was to throw manners to the wind, hoping he’d be impressed. Setting a publicly confrontational and uncompromising tone that resulted in Hu limiting their meeting to little more than 15 minutes of chit chat, Harper elicited not so much a concession as the diplomatic equivalent of a four-letter word and a slap in the face.
The reaction in Canada has been one of stark-raving fear that Harper has managed to flush Canada’s economic interests down the toilet. The Prime Minister, perhaps a little too smugly, points to the fact that we’re one of China’s best customers, so no need to worry, for as Peter Mackay says, “they need us.” While this has a certain amount of soothing sanity to it, it also assumes that despite growing economies in India and the Pacific Rim, and the voracious appetite for cheap goods in the US, China’s prized customer from the Great White North can’t be easily replaced or safely ignored.
But according to Harper, economic concerns are secondary, his prime interest being the plight of one Huseyin Celil, loving Canadian family man by anyone’s measure, save for the Chinese government and the all-too-helpful authorities in Uzbekistan who deported him to China to stand trial for terrorism. Harper was duty bound, to hear him tell it, to publicly and bluntly call the Chinese to task, yet it’s hard to fathom how publicly embarrassing the leaders of a world superpower, engaging in what Michael Ignatieff phrased as “megaphone diplomacy,” achieved anything other than causing an already reserved regime to dig in its heels, lest it be one-upped by a middle power with poor manners.
Of course, it all makes more sense if one stops thinking of Harper’s new “frank,” “direct,” and by many people’s measure, rude and ill-considered, approach to foreign relations as a tactic intended to actually advance Canada’s interests in the world at large, and instead view it more as an approach to advancing Conservative electoral interests here at home.
Take Harper’s ineffectual comments during this summer’s Israeli conflict with Hezbollah, remarks that did little to advance any Canadian interests in the region, but did advance Conservative standing amongst a core community of Israeli supporters here at home. So too does tough talk with China achieve nothing other than strengthening Conservative support amongst domestic Chinese and the Falun Gong community, a notably conservative and politically active group that seems increasingly to be bending this nation’s Conservative ear.
Whether such tactics will ultimately play out to Conservative advantage is anybody’s guess, but those truly concerned about human rights should be wary of black-and-white diplomacy that is neither effective (exhibit A: the Bush administration), nor even handed. For Harper is selective in what rights he will fight for. A Canadian citizen charged with terrorism in a foreign land, with no access to consular support? Tell that to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen languishing in Guantánamo Bay, without due process or consular support. How about a group being systematically killed by the reigning government? The troubles of the Falun Gong deserve tough talk; the plight of black Sudanese less so. And you can bet Lebanese-Canadians were moved to patriotic tears by Harper’s “frank” response last July.
Former British MP George Galloway, considered by some to be a fearless advocate of diplomacy, and by others a left-leaning wing nut with diplomacy issues of his own, rightly pointed out during his recent trip to Canada that “the whole point of politics is to talk to each other, even if you hate each other.” It is a lesson that Harper has yet to learn. As the world all too painfully knows, feeling righteous and acting rude didn’t work for the world’s leading superpower, and it won’t work for the middling one next door.
In short, Mr. Harper, learn some manners, you’ll get more done.