When Parliament resumed sitting on September 18, the two most contentious issues facing the Conservative government were gun control and Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

There was a time not too long ago when ‘Afghanistan’ was either an early choice in the old word game ‘geography’ or a metaphor for so-far-away-it-doesn’t-matter.

And yet the government’s decision last May to call for a vote in Parliament to sustain the Afghanistan mission for at least three more years was symbolic of the ‘new’ foreign policy that the ‘new Canadian government’ has adopted since taking office last January.

Although it was the Liberal government of Paul Martin that made the decision to move Canadian troops from the relative safety of Kabul to the tumultuous south, the Tories have since re-endorsed the mission and strengthened it with additional troops and heavy weapons. Prime Minister Harper has been positively unwavering in his personal commitment, though more Canadian soldiers seem to be dying there with dreadful regularity.

The Conservative government was clearly ready to put a different spin on Canadian foreign policy almost as soon as it was elected. The Prime Minister’s first foreign trip was to Kandahar, to show the troops there and to show Canadians that the new government fully endorsed the mission. Other steps in marking out a new foreign policy vision for Canada have been equally calculated and no less dramatic.

The government not only made a massive new investment in the Canadian Forces, but it purchased the kind of equipment – heavy, medium and in-theatre lift – that will be necessary for the rejuvenation of a CF capacity to send expeditionary forces overseas.

The government supported Israel’s response to Hezbollah killing and kidnapping Israeli troops in mid-July and refused either to condemn Israel or call for an immediate ceasefire, which would have frozen the situation on the ground much to Hezbollah’s advantage.

Mr. Harper himself made the specific point of telling his G8 partners in St. Petersburg last July that Canada was aspiring to ‘superpower’ status as an international energy provider and sought to play a larger role in world affairs than it had done in many years. Indeed, although the Canadian press barely noticed, Foreign Minister Peter McKay attended the Rome summit – called to deal with the Israel-Lebanon war – and a Canadian representative was invited to join the group of Pacific Rim countries concerned with North Korean nuclear and missile test activity.

Although the Harper government has not as yet articulated an overall philosophy to encompass it’s foreign and defence policies, a number of key points have emerged over the past nine months that have marked a significant evolution.

A foreign policy is emerging that is less likely to be as nuanced as that of the previous government, more NATO and US oriented, less inclined to address the export of Canadian values and more directed to serving Canadian interests. Those interests are perceived as lying solidly with a defence of globalization, liberal democracy, the western-industrialized goals of freer trade, and a freer flow of people and ideas across international boundaries. The government seems more determined to make foreign policy decisions on their own merits, less inclined to avoid alienating interest groups at home, and determined to be seen taking principled stands, no matter how popular those stands may be.

However popular or effective these new directions are, there can be little doubt that they are new. Hence, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute’s annual conference this month in Ottawa poses the question: Just how good are these developments? How good has the Tory record on foreign policy been? What sort of a report card should Canadians issue about Conservative foreign and defence policy? The conference will be the first public evaluation of the Conservative government’s foreign policy record.

Dr. David Bercuson is director of programs for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, as well as director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. A member of the Advisory Council on National Security, his latest book, co-authored with Holger Herwig, is One Christmas in Washington: Roosevelt and Churchill forge the Grand Alliance.