Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper with former U.S. president George W. Bush, back in 2006 when Mr. Harper had a decent excuse to visit the White House (Photo: Paul Morse, the White House).

Most observers of Canada-U.S. politics and the two countries’ unexpectedly fraught trade relationship would agree former prime minister Stephen Harper’s no-longer-secret visit to the White House on Tuesday is unlikely to do much good and has the potential to do harm.

What Mr. Harper, now just another private citizen in law if not in political influence, is trying to accomplish is difficult to say. For all we know, he’s just dropping over for covfefe with National Security Advisor John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s chief warmonger. The problem is, we have no idea. Neither does the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which was blindsided when U.S. officials inadvertently released the news.

John Adams, the second president of the United States (Illustration: Wikimedia).

It’s possible Mr. Harper himself has no idea. Divide and conquer tactics are not unknown to the Trump Administration, and if that’s what this is, Mr. Harper should know better than play into the president’s hands. Perhaps the romance of a White House visit just got the better of him.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine the hyper-partisan former head of Canada’s government is simply trying to assist the elected government of Canada to resolve the dispute the unpredictable and narcissistic president of the United States has thrust upon our two countries.

Given Mr. Harper’s history, and much of the current behaviour of the party he so recently led, it’s hard to believe he would put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of partisanship and the international neoliberal ideological movement his party is part of. The potential for partisan mischief with disastrous implications for Canada is real. Regardless, it’s not his call.

George Logan, the freelance diplomat after whom the U.S. Logan Act was named (Illustration: Public Domain).

Perhaps Mr. Harper imagines that his role as the leader of the International Democrat Union – which has been sarcastically referred to in this space as the Neoliberal Internationale, owing to the adoption of much of the methodology if not the motives of the international communist movement of yore – gives him a legitimate role in this situation.

It most certainly does not. Mr. Harper is so distrusted in some quarters in this country that his efforts are likely to be no less divisive than his time in office, which is obviously no help in a situation where national solidarity is a likely precondition of success.

If you believe this is a moment Canadians should stand together – which even the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Caucus seems to reluctantly accept as necessary – then Mr. Harper should cancel his trip. Would he do that? The answer to that question will tell us a lot.

Granted, a moment of national unity gives the Conservative Opposition led by the hapless Andrew Scheer not much to do to score points except lie about the prime ministerial swing set and make preposterous claims like Tory Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre’s pathetic argument that if Canada had a smaller deficit we could heap larger penalties on the heads of the Americans.

Regardless, it’s a well-established principle in diplomacy – the real kind, practiced by diplomats – that freelance negotiations of this sort have the effect of undermining any government’s position.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is supposed to be former Canadian PM Stephen Harper’s host at the White House on Tuesday, unauthorized by the Canadian Government (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

That is why in 1799, our neighbour to the south criminalized unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments, when a Quaker state legislator from Pennsylvania named George Logan sailed to France to try as a private citizen to end an undeclared war between France and the United States over the American failure to repay debts to France.

The efforts of the Philadelphia pacifist, a Democratic-Republican, seemed to work. This outraged the Federalists who controlled both houses of Congress. So, on Jan. 30, 1799, President John Adams signed the resulting bill into law.

The Logan Act, as it came to be known, says: Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

The interesting thing is that despite being little used, the Logan Act has remained on the books ever since – for the obvious reason that there is a real need to prevent such interventions, all the more so in the globalized world of the 21st Century. Its mere presence is a useful reminder of the necessity of a state’s government holding a monopoly on diplomacy.

It resurfaces from time to time over the years, often in political rhetoric, as in the recent case of one of President Trump’s flunkies who got a little too close to the government of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

It would seem such a formalized prohibition is now needed in Canadian law too, since certain of our well-placed citizens are obviously disinclined to govern themselves appropriately.

This might or might not require a constitutional test or two before the courts, but a prohibition on unauthorized freelance diplomacy would seem to meet the Charter’s test of a reasonable limit prescribed by law that can be justified in a free and democratic society.

We could even imitate our neighbours and call it the Harper Act. Then no one could argue Mr. Harper’s time in Canadian politics passed without a single improvement for the country!

Seriously, if Mr. Harper wants to serve his country in the conduct of foreign affairs, he needs to wait to wait until he is asked by the elected government of the day.

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  1. Maclean’s has a good article on this topic: “It’s NAFTA crunch-time, so why are we talking about Stephen Harper?” Basic conclusion of the article is the PMO is trying to deflect the media away from stories on the groping incident 18 years ago in BC by a much younger Justin Trudeau. Enjoy your day

  2. Harper owes Canadians an explanation as to why he’s meeting privately with the Americans. This smells like political subterfuge baked in conservative hijinks.

    The fact that neither the Americans nor Harper are revealing the meeting’s agenda says a lot about the intended purpose — likely off-the-book insider information. Harper’s legacy of 50 consecutive international merchandise trade deficits was due largely to his administration’s inept bargaining prowess, signing over 30 international free trade agreements that handicapped Canada’s economic growth during 10 years of Harperism. The Trudeau government should not be taking any advice on any trade file from a tarnished political freelancer like Stephen Harper.

  3. How do we know that it is freelanced?

    It could be that this is staged. There are, after all, numerous former Conservative consulting with, and working with the Canadian team. Do we really have an insight into the negotiations and the strategies, let alone all of the players?

    These trade negotiations are about Canada. People like Brian Mulroney and Rona Ambrose understand this. I believe that Stephen Harper does as well. Unfortunately others like Andrew Scheer seem to place scoring petty political points about the importance to Canada of being seen united on these trade negotiations.

  4. Yes, we need this, and I will be mentioning it to my MP. Such a law might have also prevented the Kent-Rempel treasonous side show of running off to the U.S. to badmouth the Canadian government, and Andrew Scheer swanning about the U.K. talking about a post-Brexit trade deal as if he were the PM.

  5. You have explained the reasons for the Logan Act well. Right now, Mr. Harper is elected by no one, so he has absolutely no authority to speak for Canada in Washington. In fact the Canadian government did not even seem to know about his visit to Washington until someone in the US accidentally told them. Mr. Harper is not an acquaintance with an existing relationship with the US President, unlike another former Prime Minister who is working with the Canadian government in dealing with Trump. Nor is he for instance a Canadian hockey player on a successful team that gets to visit the White House on a social basis, presumably in honour of their achievements – although a lot of athletes currently do not seem to consider going to the White House to be an honour. Perhaps Mr. Harper should have taken the hint from those athletes and resisted the urge of free agency diplomacy.

    I also had to laugh at Mr. Poilievre’s argument about Canada being in a position of weakness because of the size of our deficit. Of course he neglects to mention the US deficit is now much larger both on an actual and per person basis due to Trumps tax breaks to the rich. Therefore if you take his argument to its logical conclusion, it is really the US not Canada that is in the weaker position. Like Mr. Harper, it would be a good time for Mr. Poilievre to resist the urge to play politics with a serious national issue and stick to local things like swing sets. Mr. Mulroney seems to have figured out this is a time to behave like a statesman and I am also sure he realizes his image will be enhanced by his helpful approach to dealing with Canada – US relations. On the other hand Mr. Harper’s image might be diminished by his recent mysterious go it alone approach.

    It says a lot about the Logan act that while it was never rigorously enforced, it was also never repealed. I think US legislators both then and now understood the reason and purpose for it. I wonder if an outcome of the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians might be a broader understanding of the reasons for the act and therefore a stronger political will to put an end to free agent diplomacy in the US. If Canada puts in place a similar law, perhaps we can call it the Harper act. I suspect that is really not the legacy that our former Prime Minister wants at all.

    1. As an aside, I read somewhere that the PMO found out about this when some US State Dep’t official contacted them about “the Primie Minister’s upcoming visit”, when there was no visit scheduled. After some digging they realized that the American fellow was referring to the former PM. This illustrates that weird American practice of continuing to attach a title of office to a former office-holder even after their term is up. For example, ex-Presidents still get addressed as “Mr President” and referred to as “President so-and-so”, long after leaving office; similarly for former Ambassadors, Cabinet Secretaries and the like. That combines with that American conceit that other countries use similar protocols, without regard to differences in political culture; for example, an American is likely to address our PM as “Mr (or Madam) Prime Minister”, even though the correct form is simply “Prime Minister”, without the honorific “Mr or Mme”. Imagine, however, the outrage in the States, if our PM went to Washington and addressed their guy as “President” without the “Mr”… as in, “good morning, President”.

      Of course, while Harper, Chrétien, Mulroney, Martin, Clark, Turner and Campbell don’t get called Prime Minister anymore, they do still retain one title: the Right Honourable, or Rt. Hon. Privy Council appointments are for life.

  6. I like the idea that the Trump troupe accidentally contacted Harper because they are inept. But the logic of the Xian ultra right and the Republican Connection with Canada’s ultra right Con collective offers explanatory power. They have been meeting together for years. Chilling to see how the US right-wing theocratic interests and corporate power trump the elected leader of our country in the Harper Trump get together.

    1. Hard to have a nice day when our resident troll lays such a turd in the punchbowl. Harper is engaged in transparent electioneering, in cahoots with the Republicans and his Deform Party mentors. The outlines of the narrative they plan to spin can be seen in huge neon letters, reflected, like on a rainy chinatown street, in the muddy wits of the troll army on on Global News and the National Pest…and here, with the ugly lies of Farmer Brian. While the Prime Minister is tarred as a feminist cell phone user and “just not ready”, The Economist, PM-in-waiting, is soberly representing the real interests of Canada by meeting with the greats of global reaction. And they are doing it on broad daylight.

      If I were PM, I would cancel his passport.

  7. Why bother with the Logan act? Just do some research and find out when the last time someone was actually prosecuted. It is a nice thought but in practice it really does not exist.

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