Four ways Trudeau can build on Harper's foreign policy successes

As much as they differ, the Liberals and Conservatives also share similar views on policy. Accordingly, Canada’s new Prime Minister should embrace past successes, as well as failures.

By: /
November 4, 2015
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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) and Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau take part in a ceremony to commemorate the October 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canadian foreign policy is always going to be a political football. Despite being "aspirationally bipartisan," in the words of my pal and Fulbright researcher Leah Sarson, the nation's underlying security is nigh absolute, and that means more room for politics. 

Some distinguished scribes even argue that, owing to Canada's natural security advantages, Canadian foreign policy is largely “optional.” In the void space between our basic needs and our capacity for global engagement is a political — sometimes, openly partisan — process of becoming who we are: blessed peacemakers or liberal warriors or something in between. 

So it's ambitious to think Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will be able to rise above the temptation to make Canadian foreign policy an extension of Liberal politics. But just in case he really is interested in being "the prime minister of all Canadians," here are four suggestions for how he can acknowledge his Conservative predecessor's contributions, exercise some statesmanship, and depoliticize Canadian foreign policy — all while charting his own, new, foreign policy agenda.

1. Don’t slam Harper abroad

To signal the kind of grace and magnanimity the Conservatives too-often denied Canadians, Trudeau should conspicuously avoid condemning his predecessor's approach to foreign affairs while representing the nation abroad.  Partisan rhetoric like "Canada's back" is fine for post-election victory speeches — and that's where such sentiments should stay. Like the American political axiom that "politics should stop at the water's edge," Trudeau should make a point of refusing to criticise the outgoing government's record while overseas. It would signal a mature appreciation for the enormous challenge of managing a G7 nation's foreign policy, and signal stability between successive Canadian administrations. And it'd sure be classy.

2. Stay open for business

There's not much daylight between Conservative and Liberal approaches to free trade. Among all but the shrinking protectionist crowd, the debate is over: free trade is good. Trudeau seems ready to vigorously champion it. This is an important bipartisan consensus for the national interest. The question is, what's next? Trudeau should build on Harper's successes by getting the TPP and CETA ratified and by consistently seeking additional new deals. By keeping a robust free trade effort front and centre, not only can the Liberals help to strengthen the economy, but that constant advocacy can also help to entrench a culture of competition, dynamism, and innovation deeper in Canada's business community. As report after report indicates, we need it.

3. Fight terror with power, not (just) process

Harper established a consistent niche for Canada in broadly backed international anti-terror missions and humanitarian interventions. Some have called it a "six pack" strategy — contributing small numbers of Royal Canadian Air Force warplanes to various coalition missions. To critics it's tokenism, to supporters it's a matter of being a strong, reliable member of the liberal order. Trudeau should build on Harper's record of multilateral military deployments — which has earned Canada high praise from NATO — with an approach to parliamentary procedure that meets his high standards. The new PM opposed the anti-ISIL airstrikes partly by criticising the fuzziness of the mission's mandate, and that's good enough for an opposition leader. Now as PM, his job to get the process side right — timelines, commitment levels, mission parameters — while driving toward actual security results, like burying terrorists who have targeted Canada by name. Power, meet process.

4. Get a signature issue

Like President George W. Bush's PEPFAR initiative, Stephen Harper's signature issue of maternal, newborn, and childhood health has been exceptionally successful both in terms of its profile and its impact. These programs aren't perfect — Valerie Percival leveled some significant criticisms in a recent piece on this site — but they provide leaders with the opportunity to define their brand and do some good. Trudeau should replicate Harper's success. As a former teacher, Trudeau likely already knows of many educational initiatives and opportunities Canada could support in developing countries and through multilateral institutions. His familiarity and passion for the field could make him a powerful advocate.

A new voice, whatever the outcome

Justin Trudeau will find his own voice on foreign policy, and from there, so will his foreign and trade ministers and the government in general. As I've noted elsewhere, he's got two new, outstanding opportunities — on peacekeeping and at the Paris climate summit — to make a break from the Harper era while playing to his party's own strengths on foreign affairs. But he also has an opportunity to show some early statesmanship by taking it easy on the political triumphalism, embracing and enhancing his predecessor's contributions, and leading a process of depoliticising Canadian foreign policy, even if just a bit.

Call it a conservative's fantasy — maybe it is. But if Trudeau can strike a statesman's pose in rolling out his foreign affairs agenda, he will send some important signals to the world about Canadian political stability and the constancy of our global citizenship. Just as important: he'll send a fresh and welcome signal that the Government of Canada's enemies are not, ironically, the folks who sit two sword-lengths away.