OTTAWA - Stephen Harper was again hurtling across the Atlantic Tuesday, but this time he had to pack his wallet along with his bullhorn.
Facing calls from NATO allies to boost defence spending and not merely yell louder and longer than other leaders as the world’s atrocities and crises multiply, Harper will have to be a bit more nimble than he has had to be at recent international meetings.
For once, domestic concerns — an election year balanced budget— and international pressure will collide.
At home, the prime minister appears to be trying to do something highly unconventional, building electoral support by pushing his international credentials.
In 2014, Harper has travelled from Israel to Ukraine (twice), from France to Belgium from The Netherlands to the U.K., with a trip to China looming.
As a member of key international alliances, he is expected at meetings such as this week’s NATO summit in Wales.
But, by extension, Harper, with an eye to the next election, is also inviting Canadian voters to visualize his two opponents on the same stage.
Harper and all world leaders are governing in dangerous and frightening times.
They are dealing with Russian incursions in Ukraine, endless despair and death in Syria and war in the Middle East. The Islamic State again displayed its ruthless brutality Tuesday and homegrown terrorism concerns us all.
Harper is now a senior statesman in the G7 and NATO, and certainly one of the most vocal, even if he has the luxury of distance from imminent threats and economic repercussions that European leaders do not enjoy.
He has forged a key relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel and his experience gives him gravity in some of the world’s most exclusive clubs.
These appearances will show up in campaign footage as a counterpoint to the limited international experience of Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau.
Harper, himself, was portrayed by the Liberals as a global babe in the woods as opposition leader.
It may not appear too difficult to shake some hands, sit at a meeting and show up at the group photo (although Harper missed the 2009 G20 family photo because he was in the bathroom).
Opposition leaders have often embarked on foreign tours to show a grasp of foreign policy which would make them look like prime ministers-in-waiting.
Reform leader Preston Manning, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and Harper himself travelled to Washington while in opposition. When Mulcair did the same, Conservatives attacked him as a job killing enemy agent because the NDP leader did not cheerlead for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Joe Clark, who ultimately became one of Canada’s most effective foreign ministers, stumbled on an infamous pre-election trip as Progressive Conservative leader. He and his entourage missed a flight, lost their luggage and while inspecting a military honour guard, Clark nearly backed into a soldier’s bayonet, leading to breathless suggestions he was nearly beheaded.
Still, Clark won that election in 1979 and almost immediately sparked an international incident with his pledge to move the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In recent months, Harper has dispatched six CF-18s to Eastern Europe and he is expected to join other NATO leaders in backing a quick-strike force to deal with Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
Harper also dispatched two Canadian military cargo planes to ferry weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to help counter the ruthless advance of Islamic militants and he has slapped sanctions on Putin.
He is playing with a limited hand, but that doesn’t mean Canadian prime ministers can’t take global leadership roles.
Brian Mulroney was at the forefront of the international crusade to rid South Africa of apartheid, Lester Pearson, as foreign affairs minister, won a Nobel Peace Prize and Jean Chrétien emerged as a leading critic of George W. Bush by refusing to join his coalition in Iraq.
Harper pushed us deeper into Afghanistan and although Canadians fought with distinction and valour, the history of that intervention cannot yet be written.
Apparent victories can be fleeting. Harper celebrated the “great military success” of Canada’s role in a NATO-led mission in Libya in 2011, but today that country is unravelling in the face of fierce fighting by rival factions.
That leaves Harper with no defining accomplishment on his foreign policy ledger, but lots of tough talk.
His team is hoping a foreign policy advertised as firm and principled will lead to votes by anxious Canadians watching dangerous times unfold.
The odds are long. They will have to upend the old adage that there are no votes in foreign aid or international summits.