Former PM Harper talks about the next president, Brexit and global political uncertainty

by Paul Wells

Well, look who’s talking. Mr. Optimist.

“I know we are all worried about what this means,” Stephen Harper said on Thursday in New Delhi. “I’m trying to look at the glass half full for a second.”

He always was a cheery sort. After his 2015 election defeat, Canada’s sixth-longest-serving prime minister took a long break from substantive public comment on current affairs. It took Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, to coax him into speaking at the second annual Raisina Dialogue, an attempt to put India onto the global circuit of foreign affairs talkfests.

The specific “this” whose meaning has us all worried, of course, is the imminent arrival of Donald Trump as the next tenant of the White House. Most of Harper’s comments were about Trump, in one way or another.

The broader “this” was the “unprecedented political uncertainty” that has swept the world since Harper’s own defeat, although he was careful not to list that event among the recent surprises.

What he did list was “the upset vote in the Brexit referendum,” Trump’s victory, “the continued rise of so-called populist movements across Europe” and the sudden fall of the presidents of Brazil and South Korea.

“There’s no better person to quote” on all of this chaos, Harper said, “than Mr. Donald Trump: ëWhat the hell is going on?'”

He’s had a lot of time to think about this stuff lately. “Wherever I went last year, I got asked about two things: Brexit and Trump,” Harper said. Both were condemned by all the experts and commentators. “Maybe they happened because they were condemned by all the experts and commentators. Does that sound strange?”

Actually, the thought has occurred.

Harper depicted a new rift, one that’s been much discussed lately.

This cleavage is “not traditional left-right, rich-poor or private-public.” Instead, on one side are “the elite, who believe in open borders … because they – we, in most of our daily lives – are the people who cross borders.”

On the other side, “the people who live within borders, on the ground, in the ëfly over’ regions.”

I was struck by Harper’s decision to position himself on the side of the cross-border elites. In the 2015 election, he often seemed to be working hard to shuck that identity, to decidedly mixed effect.

He certainly still has an eye out to the limits of elites’ ability to shape opinion. “The fact that all these major institutions, established interests, have a consensus on these things is increasingly irrelevant,” he said. “With modern technology, people who disagree with this consensus … can get their own information, develop their own views, define their own interests and network with others who feel the same – and ultimately support leadership from outside the system.”

Hence Trump. “A major source, for a time to come, of global uncertainty.” Despite the uncertainty, a couple of big guesses. First, Harper expects Trump to reverse “the cornerstone of seven decades of American foreign policy: the idea that America has an overarching responsibility for global affairs.”

Americans have been told two contradictory things by their leaders for decades, Harper said: That only the U.S. can lead, and that this is a multipolar world in which America can no longer lead. Deciding it’s time to choose, they’ve finally voted for the latter choice.

“Now, many people have long wanted this, including some here,” he told his international audience. “I would just caution you: You may not like this as much as you thought you would.”

It was here that Harper opted for the half-full glass. U.S. foreign policy may actually become more stable under Trump than under his predecessors, Harper said.

“I had a front-row seat for 10 years, up close, watching United States foreign policy swing back and forth – from overreaching global adventures to withering self-criticism and retreat.” From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, in other words.

Trump’s more “transactional” world could be “potentially much more predictable,” Harper said. But the half-full glass is also half empty. “We should be under no illusion. This is going to take us into a world we have not known for eight decades. A world devoid of one or two dominating powers. And the risks of that unknown are significant.”

It was a fascinating talk that touched on more than I’ve had room to canvass here. If you’re hoping he took a couple of swipes at Justin Trudeau, hope no more: Harper’s current line is that he is in no mood to criticize, or indeed to comment on, his successor’s actions.

But I was struck by the praise he offered his Indian hosts. “There is really nowhere in the world today where you get more consistent positive reports than this country,” he said. “This is the one place where virtually everyone sees an ambitious population and determined leadership moving in a clear direction.”

Some observers, domestic and foreign, have lately been making similar claims for Canada. Perhaps it is fair not to expect Stephen Harper to be among them.

Paul Wells’s column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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