FYI: I am blogging on Canada-related issues at the Cana-blog. It basically satiates my desire to engage with Canadian issues without boring Duck readers to death about our various neuroses from North of the 49th Parallel. Do check it out though, eh?

Last year I blogged about the UK General Election as a “Johnny Foreigner”. I thought it would be a very dull affair, but it ended up being pretty interesting with the first televised election debates, “Cleggmania” and the subsequent coalition discussions. What didn’t the election have? Foreign policy.

In fact the only foreign policy-related items that really featured at all were brief disagreements over relations with Europe (more about the transfer of Westminster powers), climate change and a really, really dispiriting debate on immigration (especially if you are said Johnny Foreigner).

Depressing immigration debates aside, this makes sense. The UK was hit hard by the recession and the debate was largely about the economy. Foreign policy, seldom a popular topic in elections anyway, was even less important. It’s the kind of thing that won’t help you win an election – only lose one.

Lo and behold, it’s 2011 and Canada finds itself in a national election. And what’s not on the agenda? Foreign policy. Why? The economy. And healthcare (which always ranks as important in Canadian elections).

Foreign policy has not and will not play a large role – even if Canada is in Afghanistan and helping to lead the NATO mission in Libya. (Although, to be fair, Carl Meyer at Embassy Magazine has a good article on the ways that foreign policy may feature in the election.) In this sense, there is a certain amount in common with the UK 2010 General Election – at least in terms of the downplaying of foreign policy issues to domestic ones.

But is this something that us IR-wonks should learn to live with? Is there anything we can learn from the UK experience?

In short: yes. After the UK foreign-policy-free election, the coalition has made major and significant policy decisions which affect foreign relations. Some of the significant ones include:

There was no debate on any of these issues. For Afghanistan, all that the leaders spoke of was their trips there and meeting the troops. It could not be said that there was a major debate about the scale, scope and vision of the mission. So should there have been a debate on the UK’s foreign policy priorities and its role in the world? And why wasn’t there one?

There are a number of factors which may have prevented a foreign policy debate.

First, quite frankly, it may have been something that the political parties just didn’t want to confront. It’s not an easy question and, as argued above, it was simply not a priority for them or the voters. Additionally politicians may want to avoid saying anything inflammatory about allies or policies during the election which may come back to haunt them later.

Second, in the parliamentary system, where cabinet ministers sit in the legislature (and owe their position more to patronage and party balancing than expertise), there were not necessarily any obvious foreign policy spokespersons. Certainly there were politicians with interest (such as Rory Stewart). But while positions are fluid and unclear, it’s not obvious that there were any obvious persons to debate the issue.

Third, foreign policy events are unpredictable. While some things are constant – NATO, the EU, relations with the United States – no one could have possibly predicted the uprisings in the Middle East or the fact that NATO would be bombing Libya as some kind of R2P operation. So, for example, while Bush and Condoleezza Rice wrote about not using the 82nd Airborne for nation building in 2000, he ended up spending most of his presidency doing just that. Events may distort or even dictate policies – and this is why they are not carefully outlined (other than broad, vague ideas at best) in elections.

Finally, foreign policy is just something that politicians feel that international affairs are best debated in Parliament rather than on the campaign trail. (Although the debates may sometimes be lacking as well.)

But there is a lesson here for Canada (and other democracies) that tend to not debate foreign policy in elections: governments are going to have to deal with foreign events, and without some kind of guidance, or debate or understanding of what our interests are and what our priorities should be, then there can be major surprises later on.

Even if it must take place in terms of vague generalities, a foreign policy debate is worth having. It is worth knowing where political parties stand on R2P, development, the United Nations (and UN Security Council) international organizations, etc. Broader ideas and goals should be outlined even if, inevitably, events cause change and reversal later on. While I do not anticipate huge cuts to Canadian defence spending nor a major change on our alliance policies, it would be nice to know what the Conservative (UK and Canadian) line on “the Responsibility to Protect” is – since we seem to be doing a lot of it lately.

EDIT: James Joyner has a great post on the US take on this at Outside the Beltway.

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