Five questions with... author of ‘Trudeau,’ John Ivison

As the federal election campaign officially kicks off, political columnist John Ivison discusses Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy hits and misses over the last four years.

By: /
September 13, 2019
John Ivison
John Ivison

As National Post columnist John Ivison writes in his new book, Trudeau: The education of a prime minister, the verdict is out on Justin Trudeau. “Canadians are divided by their chameleon prime minister,” he writes. Some “argue that he is more likely to be a transitional prime minister than one who will leave an indelible mark on Canada.” Others defend his innovative policies around gender equality and “inclusive growth.”

Trudeau’s time as leader is not yet over — while the October 21 election date is around the corner, Ivison says he expects him to win another term — and his legacy remains uncertain. But there is plenty to say on the prime minister already, especially when reflecting on the years since his election in 2015, from the curveball of Donald Trump to the events surrounding the SNC Lavalin scandal.

Ivison discussed the current government and his new book with OpenCanada — in particular, he assessed Chrystia Freeland’s performance as foreign minister and where foreign policy fits into elections in Canada.

1. In the book, you take us back to the last federal election and attribute Trudeau's win to a number of things, for example Canadians wanting a change from Stephen Harper and Trudeau’s communications strategy. Where do you think foreign policy fit in?

Foreign policy generally does not dictate who is going to be prime minister. I do think it was part of a larger ‘hope and change’ mix — that this was going to be the anti-Harper government — and I guess to [an] extent, the idea that ‘We’re going to be blue helmets, full-fledged members of the UN,’ all played into that narrative. I don't think people went into the polling booth and said, ‘Great, we're going to be back in the peacekeeping game, so I’m going to vote Liberal.’ I don’t think people think like that.

This is a very narrative-driven government — that whole idea that they were going to take action domestically on climate change to fulfill international commitments, that they were going to be involved in multilateral events around the world. It was quite a romantic vision of domestic policy and foreign policy.

[There is an] indivisibility of foreign policy and domestic policy — they were deliberately ambiguous when it came to appealing to… the Sikhs, the Tamils, the Ukrainians. The foreign policy was dictated by what it might take to win votes in Surrey, B.C., or in Brampton, or the west end of Toronto, where the Ukrainian community is pretty large. There’s no doubt in that regard, foreign policy was subservient to domestic policy and the whole idea that after the Harper years, they were going to turn back toward multilateralism and rebrand Canada as a more sympathetic, cooperative country.

2. Does what’s happening on the global stage impact the ability to assess Trudeau’s foreign policy strategy or effectiveness?

There’s a big criticism in the book that this government was very narrative-driven. It came in with a vision of what it wanted to do, and of course the world doesn't always conform with the way you see things or what you want to do, not least of which was the election of Donald Trump.

I think they've handled the Trump election pretty adroitly. I talked to one former ambassador who is pretty critical of most of what Trudeau's done in foreign policy but he said, ‘I'm careful not to carp about the swimming stroke of a guy caught in a white water cascade.’ They dealt pretty well with the white water cascade. I think [Trudeau] personally dealt pretty well. He almost had to be subservient to Trump in his presence, which I'm sure he didn't enjoy. But at the end of the day, he got a reasonable deal [with the new NAFTA]. They presented it as a great day for Canada when the deal was signed — I'm not sure it was a great day, we gave up some sovereignty — but it was an acceptable deal.

In other ways, though, they kind of are reaping what they sowed as far as relations with India and China. By playing politics with Sikh communities in Canada, they have alienated the Modi government in India, and by going to China and wagging their finger and saying, ‘We'll start negotiating a free trade deal with you, but only if you agree to sign on to our labour and environmental conditions.’ It did not go down well. I was on that trip and it was pretty humbling to be in the Great Hall of the People [China’s legislature building] and see the way the Chinese reacted to that. You don’t go to Beijing and wag your finger, you go Beijing and kowtow.

Trudeau in India
Justin Trudeau shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during his ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

3. You argue that the government miscalculated in thinking Canadians are more progressive than the reality. Does that include where Canadians stand when it comes to Canada’s place on the global stage? And what has this miscalculation cost the party?

People are generally less enthusiastic about this government than they were four years ago. That’s undeniable. Every polling statistic we have suggests that. I think they will end up being re-elected, and they may even end up winning a majority government, because they won’t be judged in isolation, they’ll be judged against their political peers.

But there's no doubt that there's disappointment with the way things have turned out and that includes not living up to promises on peacekeeping. I mean, the peacekeeping mission to Mali was done simply to check a box. It was done with no great enthusiasm and it took forever to agree to and we're already out. This was not what was advertised. I don’t want to repeat the Conservative election slogan, but we were [supposed to be] back on the world stage and everybody could have great faith that we were going to be this great beacon of liberalism.

"If this term will be remembered for anything, it will be for helping Canada dodge that existential bullet on NAFTA."

I was in Washington when the torch was passed by [Barack] Obama. Trump’s election kind of pulled the rug from under [Trudeau] in that regard. Nobody at the time envisioned that we were going to be at odds with India and China, or be at war with the US. I think that people wonder why Trudeau is wandering the world, trying to change it, when they would like to see him at home, changing their own personal circumstance.

The idea that foreign policy is off in a box somewhere, or even should be part of a separate debate, I'm not so sure that's the case. I think it's all part of a holistic view of Canada that the Liberals have, and oftentimes, reality falls short of the rhetoric.

4. Chrystia Freeland took over from Stéphane Dion as Canada’s foreign minister in January 2017, halfway through this term. What kind of asset has she been been to Trudeau?

They had to make the change with Dion. He would have been an absolute disaster with the US. Nothing against Dion, but he's not naturally diplomatic and he would have not been a great asset after Trump's election, so the change made sense. [Freeland] knew some of the players — Wilbur Ross, for example. I think she got more credit than she perhaps deserved when it came to NAFTA. She was hailed as the government's greatest asset and for getting that deal. That is not how I think it came down. I think that she and [Robert] Lighthizer fell out and that it was as much to do with people in the PMO, reaching out to people like Jared Kushner and to Lighthizer, than it was about her. She was a credible figure, she worked hard and she knew her files, no doubt.

On the Saudi thing [when a 2018 tweet from Freeland prompted retaliatory announcements from the Saudi kingdom], she did not need to send that tweet. It was too much, and it did not particularly help Samar Badawi [whose imprisonment Freeland spoke out against]. It predictably provoked an angered response from the Saudi crown prince. It looked good for Canada, for the natural Liberal constituency, but for realpolitik it was not helpful, as [former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak] said. But in other areas I think she's done good work. I think the Lima Group, for example, is a positive development, and I think that's something which people in the foreign policy world seem to give her great credit for.

5. What do you think this term is going to be remembered for, regardless of who wins on October 21?

I think it's not been a success, to be honest. The domestic focus [with which the government has framed its] the foreign policy has not helped. Are we going to win a seat in the UN Security Council as a result of what we've done in the last four years? I think we've alienated a lot of people [abroad]. ‘Progressive foreign policy’ did not help us at the TPP, it didn't help us with China, it seems to have fallen off the game plan to some extent.

If [this term] will be remembered for anything, it will be for helping Canada dodge that existential bullet on NAFTA. They deserve great credit for getting that deal. Striking a trade deal with a protectionist is obviously a tough thing to do. We gave up some things — as Trump's advisor said, ‘Canada gave very generously’ — but at the end of the day, a deal was done and we're not in a trade war, which would not have helped anybody. I had a chat with Brian Mulroney the other day, he sees things in a more historical context, and in his view, this was the single biggest success of this government.

[But otherwise], rhetoric is no substitute for reality. Trudeau went to Paris and talked about ‘Canada is back’ and ‘We're here to help’ and, in the end, it was pretty much glib sloganeering. When you look at what Canada is doing on climate change — the government has now come out and said we're not going to raise the carbon tax post-2022. All projections, even with the government’s own numbers, suggest we're not going to hit our Paris targets. So you can’t go out and present a government as holier than thou — then ... you're somewhat hypocritical.

I did a piece subsequent to the book where I talked to a number of former ambassadors. These are people with 20, 30 years in the public service, they’ve been all around the world, and they were almost unanimous that this government has been a disappointment when it comes to living up to its promises. As one former ambassador said to me, the Liberals seem to believe that foreign governments will buy their progressive talking points just as their political base does. He’d be embarrassed to be defending current policies. And the fact is that we've never before had strained relations with three of the world's strongest superpowers.

Trudeau [also] promised to revive the foreign service, but that did not happen. The actual institution of Canadian foreign policy has not been bolstered in the way that those people thought it was going to be. Was it because the institutions didn't deliver? Was it because it was easy to leave it as Harper had left it? Were there too many crises? That’s probably closer to the truth — there was just so much time spent on the US thing that everything else slipped.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.