A foreign policy report card for Justin Trudeau, one year on

From improved relations with the U.S. to the “black eye” the Saudi arms deal represents, we take a comprehensive look at the Trudeau government’s foreign policy challenges and successes over the past 12 months.

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October 19, 2016
Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in the lobby of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

During the 2015 federal election campaign, on the eve of the Munk Debate on Canadian foreign policy, a Foreign Affairs briefing document was leaked to The Globe and Mail. It decried the loss of Canada’s “traditional place at some multilateral tables” and warned that “Canada may not be a ‘partner of first choice’ for foreign countries.”

The assessment echoed what many Canadians, from university campuses to the upper echelons of the foreign service, felt was a result of almost a decade of government led by Stephen Harper, resulting in the “quasi-destruction of the instruments of our foreign policy,” as one former ambassador described in an interview for this piece. 

Many attributed the changing perception of Canada to Harper's tilt towards more muscular rhetoric abroad without any real increase in defence spending, control over and cuts to the foreign service, the alienation of key allies and disdain for international forums like the United Nations and the Commonwealth.

The unease of Canadians with this disengagement was part of what propelled Justin Trudeau to victory at the polls 12 months ago on Oct. 19, 2015. The Liberal leader came to power promising to restore Canada to its rightful place in a historical continuity that flows through Lester B. Pearson to Jean Chrétien. In his mandate letter, Trudeau instructed his new minister of foreign affairs, Stéphane Dion, to “restore constructive Canadian leadership in the world and to…support the deeply held Canadian desire to make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world.” In other words, as Canadians have now heard countless times, to bring Canada “back.”

One year on from the election, how has Canadian foreign policy changed under Trudeau? 

A welcome change in tone

Academics, former politicians and members of the public service interviewed by OpenCanada agree: the optics are good.

“The greatest difference to me is absolutely tone,” says Stephanie Carvin, assistant professor of international relations at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “I would call it ‘joyful multilateralism.’ It’s the absolute joy you see when [Trudeau’s team] goes to the UN. It’s where Canada belongs; it’s being treated as a homecoming of sorts.”

Indeed, whether or not you regard ‘showing up’ as a major foreign policy achievement, Trudeau’s visits have been universally well-received on the international stage, taken as a harbinger of the re-engagement to come. Over the last year, Trudeau undertook an autumnal whirlwind tour that included the G20 and Commonwealth summits; led a large, bi-partisan delegation to the Paris climate summit in November; showed off his new ‘bromance’ with U.S. President Barack Obama on a by-all-accounts successful state visit to the United States in March; and hosted the Three Amigos Summit with Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in June. There were active signals from G7 partners that they were pleased with what Trudeau said and did at this year’s summit in Japan. And of course, there’s the government’s renewed interest in the UN: Trudeau gave his first major speech to the General Assembly in September, which followed his announcement in March of Canada’s bid for a 2021 seat on the UN Security Council.

Additionally, in a move well-received in diplomatic circles, Trudeau loosened the Harper government’s controls on ambassadors and high commissioners, signaling a “new era” in Canadian international engagement.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on his official plane to attend the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit meetings in Washington, March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Tackling a long to-do list

Of course, actively attending international events and striking a rosier tone is just a start.

David Welch, Centre for International Governance Innovation senior fellow and chair of global security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, gives Trudeau a “B+ to A-” grade for his first year foreign policy. “The down payment has been paid on a number of important things…[but] most people would say, and I would agree, that there is a long to-do list. Progress is being made, but progress is never as fast as people hope and expect.”

“If I was to give a gold star anywhere to Canadian foreign policy, it’s definitely the relationship with the U.S.,” says Carvin. “We were in a situation in the middle of 2014 where Keystone was denied, there was no bilateral relationship whatsoever, there was no Three Amigos meeting, there was no agreement on climate, and the Trudeau government has managed to do a complete 180 on that.”

"If I was to give a gold star... it’s definitely the relationship with the U.S."

An improvement in relations with our southern neighbour was first on the list of Trudeau’s priorities for Global Affairs Canada, and Carvin believes the mending of that relationship helped ease the fallout from another fulfilled promise: the withdrawal of Canadian bombers in the mission against ISIS.  

 On top of that, in the last 12 months, the Trudeau government has welcomed more than 30,000 Syrian refugees and committed $2.65 billion to help developing countries tackle climate change. It also announced that Canada will lead a NATO battle group to Latvia as part of an effort to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe; will commit $450 million and up to 600 troops to as-yet-unspecified UN peacekeeping missions; and will lift the visa requirement for Mexican visitors to Canada beginning December 1. 

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with U.S. President Barack Obama during the closing session of the Nuclear Security Summit, focusing on the Counter-ISIL campaign, in Washington April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Muddled communications

Along with concrete policy decisions, foreign affairs enthusiasts have been assessing the overall strategy of the government, and how its aims and goals are being communicated. On this, the marks are more mixed. “You do get the impression,” one Canadian historian admitted in an interview, “that on some matters of foreign policy, it’s the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” 

The Trudeau government’s biggest foreign policy failure thus far, several experts agree, was the handling of the $15 billion Saudi arms deal. The contract was made under Harper but, despite many calls for its cancellation, the Trudeau government has presented it as a done deal. While there are two sides to the issue – on the one hand, such a lucrative deal means well-paying jobs for Canadians; on the other, Saudi Arabia has an abysmal human rights record and is likely to use the armoured vehicles in ways beyond Canada’s control – what has troubled some is that the government has shown support for both sides. 

Dion’s decision to go ahead with the deal was “a huge black eye for Canada,” says Welch. “It’s clearly in violation of our international legal obligations, and the fact that the government seems bent both on going ahead with the sale and to not fully articulating a justification for it really does undermine our moral authority.” 

Carvin agrees: “It was a dog’s breakfast. They basically misled everyone. If they had just come out and said, yes, this is something that we’re doing, and this is why…there’s a logic they could have at least put forward. Instead, by denying, they made their problems 800 times worse. This is where that kind of failure of coherent strategy or narrative has been so detrimental.”

The Saudi arms issue wasn’t the only instance in which Dion, an experienced minister, appeared to be out of kilter with other government officials. In December, Dion told reporters that Canada’s bombing mission against ISIS would end “in a matter of weeks, not months,” while in a radio interview Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan suggested no date had been set. (Canada’s CF-18s officially stopped bombing mid-February.)

Even more awkward was a recent testy exchange between Dion and The Globe and Mail, in which he denied that negotiations were underway over an extradition treaty with China – despite the government having already announced on its website a “high-level dialogue” with China for the purpose of starting discussions on an extradition treaty.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with U.S. President Barack Obama during the closing session of the Nuclear Security Summit, focusing on the Counter-ISIL campaign, in Washington April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A department still reeling

Former ambassador to Guatemala and El Salvador Daniel Livermore, who spent over three decades in Canada’s public service, says these instances demonstrate the need for more strategic thinking across government when it comes to foreign affairs. They also speak to a greater problem: the “decimation” of Global Affairs and its predecessor departments, as several interview subjects described it.

“[Dion] inherited a department which has been consolidated and understaffed,” Welch explains. “Of course, the mere election of Trudeau as prime minister did give a bump to the morale in the department, but the to-do list is long, and [Dion] just doesn’t have a whole lot of ground troops with which to do it. The recruitment dried up for so long, and so many people left…I think the will is there and he’s managed to appoint some good people in good positions to provide new ideas, fresh advice, but it just takes forever for things to get done because there’s such a backlog.”

Livermore says this lack of structure – weak deputy ministers, the public service not playing a strong enough role – leads to confused messaging on issues like the extradition treaty with China. “Typically, what would’ve happened would be that you would’ve had a Cabinet document titled ‘Extradition treaty with China,’” he explains, “and it would contain ‘what are Canadians going to think of this,’ as part of the pros and cons. And then you would have an approach: you say because we want a better relationship with China and because this is on the Chinese wish list, we agree to negotiate an extradition treaty, but we have to be very careful and here’s why…But if you don’t have a decision-making process like this, you’re all over the map. The government doesn’t actually know what it decided.”

"What is it that you would have liked to have accomplished, that is useful for Canada?"

Despite the government’s evident desire to re-engage in multilateralism and the importance it has placed on improving relations with the U.S., Carvin, too, would like to see a more specific foreign policy strategy put forward by the Trudeau government. 

“What do you want Canada to achieve in the world? What are your goals for Canada?” she asks. “The Security Council seat is a really good example of this, [they’ve] articulated this as a goal, but a UN Security Council seat isn’t a goal, it’s a means to achieve a goal. You need to seek some ends. What is it, at the end of four years, five years in power, that you would have liked to have accomplished, that is useful for Canada?”

While Dion did attempt to brand Canada’s foreign policy earlier this year, quoting German philosopher Max Weber and invoking the notion of “responsible conviction,” Carvin feels his language was too lofty to explain why the government is doing what it’s doing in international affairs at any given moment. “I’m from Oshawa,” she laughs. “You don’t use Max Weber to sell foreign policy to Oshawa.” 

The challenges ahead

Trudeau’s foreign policy over his first year, then, can be summed up as: a very good start, with room for improvement on the overall communications front. But as Trudeau’s former senior foreign policy advisor Roland Paris told an audience at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs on Oct. 7, “The more formidable tasks lie ahead, if we think about our foreign policy as a means both to secure our long-term national interests and also to carve out a real leadership role for Canada in some key global issues that matter to us, and to other societies as well.”

Across the board, Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is cited as Trudeau’s major challenge for the near future. The sun has nearly set on the Obama years, and even if, as hoped by most in Canada, the next administration is led by Hillary Clinton, “we should not expect her to be a ‘friend’ to Canada,” says Paris. “She will be friendly, but she will also be pursuing American interests aggressively. And she will define those interests partly in terms of the domestic political pressures that she’s facing at home. We’ve already seen her back away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she has ramped up her criticism of NAFTA.” 

"Clinton will be friendly, but she will also be pursuing American interests aggressively."

The rise of China as an economic powerhouse is a close second on the list of foreign policy issues that are expected to challenge Trudeau in the months and years to come. Navigating Canada’s relationship with China will involve balancing political, economic and security questions (What does Canada do if and when the Chinese assert their jurisdiction in the South China Sea? Does Canada want a free trade agreement with China?) in a way that is consistent with our values and interests.   

Paris thought Trudeau’s recent trip to China was “encouraging in the sense that he was able to articulate a sharper message about human rights and rule of law, in public, in China, than most other Western leaders have done, yet at the same time he was able to move forward an economic discussion, ultimately resolve a dispute over a particular export, canola, and gain the release of a Canadian who shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place. He’s just going to have to do that again and again and again.”

Other challenges include Canada’s relationship with Russia, with particular regards to our territory in the Arctic. Trudeau will need to sell to Canadians the idea of simultaneously cooperating with Russia on Northern issues while taking a hard line against its annexation of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine. On the Middle East, Paris acknowledges that “Canada can’t do much in Syria,” and should focus on leading efforts to help neighbouring countries and displaced people. Sanctions have been lifted on Iran, but the Trudeau government will need to deftly manage Canada’s relationship with a regime still designated a state sponsor of terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Trudeau will follow in the vein of Harper’s staunch support of Israel. A number of controversial votes on issues affecting Israel are bound to come up in the UN, and the government will have to decide which way it wants to go. On climate change, Trudeau will have to juggle international commitments with domestic political and economic concerns. And Canadians are still waiting for a number of decisions around the interrelated areas of peacekeeping, defence and development. 

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Transforming star power into influence

“Famous American politician Tip O'Neill said ‘all politics is local,’ but international politics is very personal,” John English, biographer of Pierre Trudeau and a former member of parliament, mused recently. When it comes to the importance of establishing personal relationships with leaders abroad, Trudeau gets top marks. Many may scoff at the selfies and the Vogue photoshoot, but Trudeau is going to need this kind of international currency when confronting the foreign policy challenges surely headed his way.

“The point is that when other people, including other leaders, want to meet with him, want to be seen with him, want to hear from him, that is an instrument of influence,” Paris says. On the U.S. file, for example, “no other Canadian leader probably in history, including his own father, enjoyed the platform that [Trudeau] does now in the United States.” 

Daniel Livermore goes further, saying that while being on friendly terms with a wide number of countries and having international reach “is a good thing in itself, it really becomes tangible whenever you’ve got a problem” – especially since in so many ways ‘foreign policy’ ends up being the art of responding to events that no one could predict. 

“There was no reason in the world for us to have any relationship with Mali, other than Mali was a member of La Francophonie and it was less developed, so it qualified for money, so we had an aid program there,” Livermore says. “[Canadian diplomat] Bob Fowler gets kidnapped – we’re able to establish quick and cooperative relationships to get that kidnapping solved because we’ve got the aid program there. No one planned that, no one said, oh, in 20 years someone’s going to get kidnapped. You have to be anticipatory. And does it cost anything? It hardly costs anything.”