Capricious, unstructured and even dangerous: That’s what American political thinker Walter Lippmann once wrote about the public’s views on foreign policy.
“The unhappy truth,” he wrote in 1955, “is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at critical junctures. [The people] have compelled governments to be too late with too little, too long with too much, too pacifist in peace or bellicose in war.”
Not very nice, Lippmann’s view, but he isn’t alone. Many politicians privately feel likewise. And no less than the Athenian democrats restricted participation in democracy to those who were adult, male and not a slave.
Lippmann, the Athenians and the like-minded friends are wrong, however. The electorate is entirely capable of understanding foreign policy. A quick glance at social media these days will make clear that foreign policy can and does frequently capture the attention of regular folks.
On Facebook, for instance, photographs of pets and favourite meals have given way to angry posts about the war now raging in Gaza. On Twitter, armchair generals are doing likewise.
Some members of the commentariat, therefore, are suggesting that foreign policy, if done right, can be a sure-fire vote winner. Some are even opining that Stephen Harper’s path to re-election, and another majority, is to be seen as the foreign policy muse of the G8.
On the much-read National Newswatch Thursday morning, then, a column on Harper and foreign policy was the top headlined item. In it, the Public Policy Forum’s Dr. Don Lenihan wrote that Harper’s approach to foreign policy “just might pay off at the ballot box.”
Writes Lenihan, who is influential in Ottawa: “Harper has positioned himself as a champion of democracy and is using his place on the world stage to stand up to tyrants and terrorists.”
Politically, “[Harper’s foreign policy moves are] starting to look like a very smart. By contrast with Vladimir Putin or Hamas, Harper can’t help but look good. Standing up to them looks even better. While he’s been criticized for being too one-sided, and even of shooting from the lip, lots of people agree with his hard line.”
Indeed they do. This assistant to a former Liberal prime minister is one of them. Harper’s willingness to be tough with the likes of Putin and Hamas – in effect, punching above Canada’s foreign policy weight class – is something to be admired, whether you agree with him or not.
But will it pay electoral dividends? Can Harper actually win an election against the surging Trudeau Liberals with foreign policy?
Not a chance.
Ask George H. W. Bush. The 41st U.S. president was similarly preoccupied with foreign affairs. During his tenure, from 1988 to 1992, Bush was a blur of foreign policy movement – on Panama, on the Somali civil war, on the Gulf War, on the then-Soviet Union, on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Bush was the foreign policy president, to the point that Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey regularly lampooned him for it. “We’re on track,” said Carvey in one sketch, a dead ringer for Bush. “We’re getting the job done. Stay on course. A thousand points of light.”
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, had a different strategy. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Clinton’s war-room boss, James Carville, pithily wrote on a sign on the wall of the campaign headquarters in Little Rock.
And, as history records, Clinton won, Bush lost.
Foreign policy is important, sure. But if Harper seriously thinks it’s a way back to 24 Sussex, he should give George Bush Sr. a shout.
Or even Dana Carvey.