A foreign policy midterm reality check for Canada

Has the current government accomplished any of the goals set out in the foreign minister’s mandate letter? Bruce Mabley argues there is much work to be done. 

By: /
November 24, 2017
TRudeau Asia
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

As we pass the midterm of the Trudeau government, many observers have attempted to draw up a kind of report card of the performance of different departments of the Liberal government elected in the fall of 2015.  

The one that interests many watchers of Canadian foreign policy most is Global Affairs. Let us not forget that the Liberals were elected with a majority government, a fact that should improve the chances of accomplishing their objectives.

It should also be noted that the Liberals themselves have decided to offer up a formula to evaluate their own performance, with the government’s “Mandate Letter Tracker.”  

This is a bit like asking the fox about the state of the chicken coop that he visited the night before.

To the extent that promises made by the Liberals on foreign policy are embodied in the prime minister’s mandate letter to the minister of foreign affairs, we can use the letter as a litmus test to identify the election promises and priority areas that have been addressed successfully — and those which have not. 

First and foremost, one finds a clear mandate to “deepen” relations with the United States and strengthen NAFTA. This is the chief objective named in the letter issued on February 1.

Although there is always hope that NAFTA negotiations can eventually make progress, no breakthrough has yet to be made. It is clear that the election of an economic protectionist in the White House has rendered this objective elusive to say the least. I can think of no time in the history of Canada-US bilateral relations when the two countries were further apart. Guns, immigrants, environment, free trade — in almost every regard, Canadians harbour ideas fundamentally different from Americans.

This government imagines that there are two different countries within the United States — that there is polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Such an idea is not particularly useful for our international negotiation purposes. US nationalism trumps rule of law in international trade every time. To think otherwise is wishful and dangerously naïve thinking. This is a fundamental error of foreign policy that has already cost the Canadian economic and political fabric dearly. The desire to cater to the other side of the US has fragmented our foreign policy and weakened our trading strategy. Nowhere in the world can one observe another political state making such daring assumptions about their neighbours and basing their trade and prosperity strategy on that.

There may well be polarization between red and blue states in the US but that is certainly not the concern of Global Affairs and least of all the source of an ill-fated and fragmented NAFTA negotiating strategy. Entertaining naïve notions about the polarization of views south of our border is a Canadian failing and imputable to Liberal Party fantasies about our bilateral relations. It also reflects the truly insular nature of our body politic. We need to address this failing in a timely fashion.

"I can think of no time in the history of Canada-US bilateral relations when the two countries were further apart."

When it comes to the mandate letter’s items urging leadership, Trudeau speaks of a “whole-of-government” approach. The unfortunate aspect of this public relations term is that nowhere is it defined how Global Affairs is supposed to execute it. Word of mouth at the ministerial or bureaucratic levels is a poor substitute for a reform measure that would permit Global Affairs to play the role of a central agency in the Canadian government, much like the Treasury Board.

Such a measure would have a salutary impact on making Canada’s foreign policy more coherent and effective in addition to raising its visibility amongst the Canadian electorate. It would surely assist in managing a campaign to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Without such measures, Canadian foreign policy will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair vulnerable to cursory analysis by the political hucksters of the day.

Global Affairs is also supposed to take the lead on global security issues, which, according to the mandate letter, means ensuring border security while facilitating mobility. However, the first objective — improved relations with the US — is having a negative impact on the ability of Canada to control its borders. The Trump administration has eliminated much of the Obama largesse with regard to giving migrants temporary stay within the country. As a consequence, Canada is facing mounting pressure at the border with mainly economic migrants coming in from the US. This “made in the USA” policy is a net cost to Canada at all three levels of government. To be sure, US President Donald Trump would be loath to reimburse us. The damage done to the lawful immigration system is tremendous, as prospective immigrants to Canada watch those entering the country at unofficial border crossings being processed by hesitant and uninformed border authorities.

The fight against terrorism is also a Global Affairs lead objective. The war against ISIS appears to be going well, except that Canada’s training and arming of the Kurdish Peshmerga is now backfiring. In Iraq, at Kirkuk, the Canadian contingent is at cross purposes with the Iraqi government, who has its own axe to grind with the Kurds over ownership and management of the oil reserves. Canadian moves in Iraq have also angered the Turks who interpret our forces as facilitating PKK attacks inside Turkey. In Afghanistan, the struggle against the Taliban continues, albeit in a ramped-down fashion. The refusal of the Liberals to open an investigation on the past treatment of Afghan detainees in Canadian Forces’ possession does little to warm the hearts of those Afghans who remain our friends there. In any case, the Taliban remain an undefeated enemy.

There are other items that have also received Global Affairs’ attention, such as energy security, climate change and peacekeeping. Apart from much talk and constant political spin, none of these appear to be close to fruition. Most of these items are under provincial jurisdiction, a fact not mentioned in the mandate letter. Provinces will determine the success of these items more than anything Global Affairs can do.

During Trudeau’s recent Asia visit, some progress appears to have been made on the Trans Pacific Partnership for free trade, albeit with some irksome logistical maneuvers that failed to endear the prime minister to his counterparts from Japan, the Philippines and Australia. Obtaining observer status at the East Asian Summit is a plus but interpreting this as a sign that “we’re back,” as the Canadian foreign minister has done, is blatant political exaggeration.

Observing is not the same as doing and far too often this has been our primary action during these first two years. The Trudeau government has blissfully ignored serious flash points around the world: Catalonia, Syria (taking in refugees does not constitute a policy), and the Arab-Israeli dispute (Canada’s votes on Arab-Israeli UN resolutions have not changed in any appreciable manner since the flagrant pro-Israeli policy of the Harper regime). One has only to read Trudeau’s lamentable speech to UN General Assembly this past fall to comprehend the foreign policy vacuum that the Liberals appear to have created.

A word needs to be said about the mandate letter itself. Nowhere can one find one single reference to youth and the importance of involving them in foreign affairs and the furtherance of Canadian values of rule of law, gender equality and democratic rule. There lacks mention of a project like the youth international internship program, which flourished during previous Liberal governments, the goal of which was increased youth employment and international competitiveness of Canadian business.

Following his Asia tour, Trump is now happily crowing about America being back and other half-baked maxims and musings. Elsewhere, someone may be opening a different fortune cookie in Canada and reading the same self-serving message. That, in my view, considering the state of unmet mandate letter goals, would be a mistake.