September 28, 2015 / 11:10 AM / 2 years ago

Canada election could shift foreign policy back to multilateralism

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas Mulcair (L-R) join hands before the Munk leaders' debate on Canada's foreign policy in Toronto, Canada September 28, 2015.Mark Blinch

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dramatically changed Canada's position in the world, moving away from multilateralism to a more muscular stance, but an election could bring a new approach critics hope will win more friends abroad.

The ruling Conservatives say they've taken the moral high ground in their nine years in power, shunning messy diplomatic compromises while resolutely backing allies such as Israel and Ukraine and contributing to the fight against Islamic State.

But many diplomats and Canadian experts say Ottawa has marginalized itself by a combination of extreme positions and miscalculations.

"There is a real desperate plea from our allies for Canada to get back in the game ... Canada does some things really well and we just aren't doing them any more," said Paul Dewar, foreign affairs spokesman for the New Democrats, referring to peacekeeping missions, helping to enforce the Iran nuclear deal and broader global arms control efforts.

Harper's Conservatives are in a tight three-way race with the center-left New Democrats and Liberals ahead of an Oct 19 election. All three leaders are due to take part in a foreign policy debate on Monday.

Since taking office in 2006, Harper has distanced Canada from the United Nations - once the centerpiece of its diplomacy - preferring what he calls a principled approach to the need to "please every dictator with a vote".

Shifting Canada's focus from peacekeeping to the military, Harper sent troops to Afghanistan and signed up for the mission against Islamic State, commitments warmly welcomed by allies such as Britain and the United States.

But Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, says Harper hasn't advanced Canada's interests by ignoring the world body.

Previous prime ministers, he said, understood that an international system with respected rules "is vastly more in our interest than a kind of a law of the jungle because ... we're one of the smaller cats."

Under Harper, Canada failed to gain a seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2010 - in part because of his unilateral approach - and irritated many by pulling out of the Kyoto climate change treaty in 2011.

Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson said Harper's steadfast support for Israel and strong criticism of Russia over Ukraine has won respect.

"I think people recognize that we stand for freedom, democracy, human rights ... I'm invigorated by peoples' support and admiration of Canada," he said in a phone interview.

But the pro-Israel stance has alienated some in the Middle East and many voters. If Harper loses power, the mission against Islamic State will be scaled down and possibly scrapped, since the New Democrats and Liberals have major doubts about it.

Under Harper, trade ties have also been uneven. His cool relationship with President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman have not helped Ottawa's attempts to persuade Washington to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take Alberta oil to U.S. refineries.

His ties with China have also been bumpy, after he first shunned Beijing over human rights concerns and then - under pressure from Canadian firms - sought to boost business.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Christian Plumb

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