Drawing from his experience as the former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper shared his past encounters with former American Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, foreign policy views and dished life advice to Cornellians on Thursday.
An economist by training, Harper previously served as the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015 and has served as chairman of the International Democrat Union since February of 2018. He recently released a book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, where he discusses the implications of President Trump’s election.
Reflecting on his time as the head of Canadian government, Harper stated that he had “good relationships” with both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whom he described as “two different people with very different personalities and agendas.”
“George W. Bush is extremely outgoing and gregarious. He is a very open personality,” Harper said. “Barack Obama is a very elegant, gracious individual, but he is not a gregarious kind of guy. He is much more cautious and formal in the way he interfaces with people.”
Although Bush and Obama each held their own stylistic approaches to governance, Harper said he was able to form political relationships with both of them. When dealing with matters of global or foreign policy, bipartisan differences, according to Harper, were not so important as Canada and the United States hold many shared values.
“I attended international summits with leaders all over the world,” Harper said. “I was never at a forum with either George W. Bush or Barack Obama where the president of the United States was not one of — if not the best — informed and most articulate person in the room. I was really honored to serve with both of them and consider both of them friends.”
Aside from his relationships with Bush and Obama, Harper also discussed Canada’s current and future relations with countries such as China and Cuba.
Harper said that, although China has come a long way from where it was 40 years ago, it prioritizes economic prosperity over human rights. Still Harper advocates for economic relations with China.
“[China] is trying to prove that there is no connection between prosperity, security and democracy — the opposite of what the United States, Canada and western countries believe in,” Harper said.
After shifting out of the Castro regime, which lasted over 30 years, Cuba is finally seeing new leadership under technocrat Miguel Díaz-Canel. Harper, who said that he “was not as warm” with the Cuban government as some of his “liberal predecessors” were, is fairly optimistic that this new leadership — accompanied by de-escalating tensions within the island nation — will help the government transition into one that aligns directly with the modern world.
“As Prime Minister … I don’t think we should turn a blind eye to the suppression of human rights in Cuba, which are very real and large scale,” Harper said. “All of the information that I have suggests to me that the Cuban government is kind of at its end — the people of Cuba are really ready for change.”
At the end of his talk, when asked if there was any general piece of advice he would like to share with Cornell students, Harper responded with his own experience growing up.
Raised by parents who lived through World War II, Harper said that he and his peers were expected to pick a career and stick with it for life. Contrary to those expectations, the former Prime Minister spent his college days not knowing exactly what career he wanted and took the liberty to explore various different subjects.
“When I was your age, I had no intention of being a politician, let alone the Prime Minister,” Harper said. “I think that way of living is the only way to do it now, so, my advice is to find things you are passionate about and pursue them. If you are passionate, you will work hard and be successful.”