Our recent Canadian Foreign Policy Journal article, “Foreign Policy Beliefs and Support for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party,” presents evidence that might make idealists grimace but in the end reveal some heartening findings.  At home and abroad, Canadians are viewed as a people who have what we call a “compassionate interventionist” outlook on international affairs.  However, an examination of specialised questions placed on surveys fielded shortly before and after Canada’s 2011 federal election uncovers considerable heterogeneity in the distribution of  the public’s foreign policy attitudes.
In a nation that frequently claims to have invented modern peacekeeping, close to 4 in 10 Canadians believe that the nation is doing too much in this area.  Almost half of the respondents in this representative sample want to see less spent on foreign aid.  Elements of the public also demonstrate a willingness to see the nation take an assertive posture when it comes to using the military abroad.  Again, 4 in 10 respondents agreed with the Royal Air Force’s sorties over Libya and the same number disagreed with Canada’s decision to withdraw from the Afghanistan theatre at the close of 2011.
Although Canadians are not as uniformly idealist in their foreign policy outlooks as often is assumed, the diversity of opinions towards Canada’s role in the world is healthy for the polity.  Foreign policy attitudes are not randomly dispersed but, like beliefs about domestic issues, are tied to party and candidate loyalties.  Conservatives and those supportive of Prime Minister Harper are more willing to see Canada strengthen and deploy its military abroad, and they are much more sceptical about engagement in what often is seen as the softer side of foreign relations—spending money on foreign aid or protecting human rights.
The challenge for Canadian domestic politics comes not from the public, but from elites who, election campaign after election campaign, fail to initiate a healthy discussion as to Canada’s role in the world.  Our analyses show that the public holds rational and coherent attitudes towards foreign affairs, suggesting that the potential for a serious conversation between elites and those they govern is possible if politicians choose to engage the masses on this topic.
– Dr. Thomas Scotto

Dr. Thomas Scotto is Professor of Government at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Making Political Choices: Canada and the United States (University of Toronto Press) and editor of The Canadian Election Studies (UBC Press). His current research focuses on comparing mass attitudes on matters of foreign policy in the G7 nations.
Do you agree with Dr. Scotto? Do you have any views regarding “Foreign Policy Beliefs and Support for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party” or a related topic? Feel free and leave a comment below!

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