ABOVE: Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with The West Block’s Tom Clark at the Canadian War Cemetery in Bény-sur-Mer, France.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says when it comes to foreign policy he’s not concerned about where other countries stand on any given issue.
“We’re not afraid to take stands that then put us offside others, from time to time,” Harper said in an exclusive interview on The West Block with Tom Clark. “We do that because we believe that we’re working not just for Canadians but for broader objectives that we share with our fellow human beings.”
Speaking about the security situation in Ukraine, Harper reflected on the roots of his own foreign policy doctrine and the lessons he takes from his father’s generation.
“I think that generation had two views that we always should keep in mind,” he said. “One is first of all that war is a terrible thing and we should do everything in our power to avoid it. But the other thing that generation grew up with was not to turn a blind eye to potential threats.”
History shows the resulting catastrophe when world leaders look the other way, said Harper.
“I think there were many people in that era felt that as bad as World War II had been, the worst war in history … That a lot of it could have been avoided had people been aware of the threat of Hitler and his ilk in the 1930’s,” he said. “And people deliberately turned a blind eye to that partly as a consequence of the terrible carnage of World War I. People didn’t want to repeat it.”
“Our foreign policy obviously incorporates those kinds of lessons.”
That could explain Harper’s approach to Vladimir Putin.
WATCH: Harper increasingly alone in resolve to isolate Putin says former ambassador
“The prime minister is in a minority of one in the G7 in terms of shunning Vladimir Putin,” said Christopher Westdal, Canada’s former ambassador to both Russia and Ukraine.
Harper’s distance from other G7 leaders became clearer during an official D-Day luncheon in France on Friday when the leaders of the UK, France, Germany and the US met with Putin. While President Obama only spoke with Putin for five minutes, encounters with the other leaders were more formal and lasted longer.
Harper staunchly refused to do the same, instead characterizing Putin as an “extreme nationalist” and an “imperialist.”
“This is an individual who clearly believes that if he’s able, he has the right and ability, to invade another country, to alter borders through military force,” Harper said.
However, in his interview with Clark, Harper did pull back from previous comparisons he had made between Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Second World War in March.
“We’re not at Hitleresque proportions but this is really disconcerting,” he said. “This is a major power threatening global peace and security in this way and I don’t think it’s to be taken lightly.”
According to Westdal, that comment was a welcome change in tone. “I think that had been a reckless mistake to evoke Adolf Hitler in the context of judging Vladimir Putin and I think noteworthy that that has in effect been retracted.”
Nevertheless, Westdal said Ottawa is still a long way from good relations with Moscow.
“We’ve burned our bridges with Russia, we’ve cut our relations to a minimum.”
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play, supportive of President (Petro) Poroshenko given his daunting agenda”, Westdal added. “And I was pleased to see that the prime minister alone among G7 leaders went to the inauguration of President Poroshenko. So we do have a role to play with those with whom we have credibility.”
Harper went to Kyiv directly from the ceremonies in Normandy, to attend Ukraine President Poroshenko’s swearing-in ceremony. Harper was the first world leader to meet with the newly inaugurated president.
Harper suggested Ukraine and other Eastern European countries can count on Canada’s continued support.
Harper: looking at permanent military presence in Eastern Europe
Our East European allies “are quite frankly, beside themselves and obviously very, very worried,” Harper said.
Asked by Clark whether Canada would permanently station troops in Eastern Europe, he said it’s something the government is considering.
“We’re dialoguing with the Poles and others about what we can do as NATO allies to provide reassurance on an ongoing basis,” Harper said. “That will be something we’re examining now with those allies and obviously something we’ll discuss in Wales in September when NATO meets.”
Canada currently has troops stationed in Poland, six CF-18 fighter jets and their crew stationed in Romania, additional staff officers in Brussels, and a warship in the Mediterranean.
READ MORE: Canada sending more troops to Europe
Ottawa hasn’t released the cost of the current mission in Europe, but in light of the Russia-Ukraine tensions, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has again called on NATO allies to bring their defence spending up to two per cent of each country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Canada’s current defence spending sits at one per cent of GDP.
Asked whether Canada would increase spending, Harper suggested that wasn’t in the cards.
“I always say Tom, whether it’s military spending or development assistance or just social spending in Canada, we don’t measure things in dollars, we measure things in specifically what it is we want to do and what it is we want to achieve. And so we’ll look at it in that context.”
– With files from The Canadian Press
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