How has Canada’s Liberal government fared, 100 days in?

Benchmarking Team Trudeau’s foreign policy, from diplomacy to defence

By: , , /
January 29, 2016
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (bottom row, centre) poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa Nov. 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Before Canada’s recent federal election on Oct. 19, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made a number of wide-ranging and bold foreign policy commitments, from pulling Canada’s bombers out of the war against ISIS to mitigating climate change. Others were more ambiguous, such as making foreign aid and peacekeeping contributions.

However, so far — around 100 days since its election victory — Trudeau’s government has had little time to focus on its promises as its international engagement has been largely determined by external forces, including global summits, human rights issues, and concerns around half-passed legislation. 

To begin to assess whether the government is positioning itself to live up to its foreign policy commitments, the School of International Affairs at Carleton University, in partnership with the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, is releasing a Foreign Policy Report Card. As the first of several to come over the next four years, it evaluates the government’s first 100 days in office, which is traditionally accepted as the point at which it gets its footing. The full results, including letter grades, of this first report card is now available online. (Meanwhile, a day-long event in Ottawa Feb. 1 discussed the topic further.)

By establishing a set of foreign policy benchmarks with respect to areas such as diplomacy, development, climate change and the environment, trade, defence, and security, we can evaluate the government’s performance over time. This allows us to be better poised to assess its overall promise to be more accountable, open and publicly engaged.

Diplomacy: For those Canadians who place a great deal of emphasis on how Canada is perceived in international affairs, Trudeau can only improve on his predecessor’s record. If anything Trudeau has been a refreshing and prolific practitioner of international diplomacy, even relying on old-school, backroom dialogue to sell Canada on the world stage. The number of summits and meetings in which he and his ministers have participated since coming to power is dizzying. Whereas the Conservative government was roundly criticized for its lecture-and-leave approach, Trudeau’s strategy appears more committed to listening to and empowering others. The decision to change the name of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to Global Affairs Canada reflects a long-standing desire on the part of Liberal governments to ensure breadth in Canadian interests abroad. Trudeau is committed to putting Canada back on the world stage, vowing to “unleash” his diplomats by giving them greater freedoms to represent Canadian interests without being hemmed in by his own office. There is no better indication of the importance this government attached to diplomacy than its resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran.

Development: Turning to development and foreign aid, there is little reason to believe the government will deviate in the short run from prior commitments to promote economic growth and poverty reduction abroad. Initiatives such as Maternal Newborn and Child Health are ongoing and important. However, the government is unclear about how to work on, in and with the world’s most fragile states where the biggest development challenges remain and which require long-term comprehensive strategies and multilateral commitments. Other questions remain as well, such as how Canada will renew its investments in Africa and how it will grapple with the looming problems of climate change, which is impacting on conflict and refugee flows. Funding commitments in these two areas were announced several months ago, but the details have yet to be worked out.

Energy: There is no doubt that climate change and the environment have captured the interest of the Canadian public in part because Environment Minister Catherine McKenna appears poised to reinvigorate the process of global engagement. The Liberals are now committed to supporting Energy East, putting Alberta firmly on their side in spite of the resistance from their Liberal political base in Quebec. The Liberals also said specifically that they supported the Keystone XL Pipeline, but not Northern Gateway. However, the caveat is a push for a more stringent pipeline approval process as well as engagement with indigenous peoples. For now, however, there remains room for progress — lofty rhetoric notwithstanding.

Trade: The Liberals’ international trade agenda was inherited from the previous government, which prioritized it heavily. The Conservatives successfully negotiated several free trade agreements that culminated with the finalization of the controversial TPP. Notwithstanding the fact that the fate of the major agreement with the European Union – CETA – remains uncertain, there have been few real economic gains from some of these bilateral trade deals. However, they do appear to have the effect of making the world think of Canada as a place to invest in and improving economic conditions for developing countries with which we have struck such deals (such as Ukraine and Honduras).

Defence: When it comes to defence, some might suggest that Canada’s international reputation is in jeopardy. Canada’s non-invitation to meet with allied defence ministers in Paris as part of an anti-ISIS coalition may be evidence of this (although the government has confirmed Foreign Minister Stephane Dion will attend the next one in Rome). Trudeau is clearly interested in charting a course distinct from his predecessor when it comes to Canada’s war-fighting commitments. That is both refreshing and unclear. Should Canada pull its CF-18s from Iraq? Training and logistical support will be our primary contributions to the war against ISIS. This is backed by many who supported the Liberal government in the last election. Historically Liberal governments have read off defence policy priorities from the kinds of domestic support they will engender. This government will likely be no different. Whether it puts Canada in a better place with our allies though remains to be determined. Defence has rarely been a Liberal government’s strong suit so Trudeau’s current position may well be the best we can hope for.

Security: The government came to power with a firm commitment to amend Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism legislation. C-51, a sweeping act introduced by the Conservatives in the last year of their mandate, has been widely criticized as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, the Liberals have proposed a revised legislation, even imposing a sunset clause that would see a three-year review of the entire act. Another key feature of the replacement legislation is expected to be the creation of a multi-party, joint House of Commons-Senate committee, sworn to secrecy and reporting to the prime minister, and through him to Parliament. It would have a full-time staff, access to the necessary secret information, and be tasked with strategic oversight of every government department and agency with national security responsibilities. In the way that Trudeau is adding even greater complexity to a needlessly complicated law, his government’s message on security is a muddled one.

The next 100 days, and beyond

Although there has been no real effort to take up the onerous task of conducting a foreign policy review, it stands to reason that such a process will incorporate a public diplomacy component. In fact, if Trudeau is to pursue his big-tent strategy of engaging those who backed his party during the election, then public diplomacy will be crucial to his government’s success. There is no doubt that Canadians have high hopes for a government committed to democratic renewal, but the challenges the government faces are significant.

The government will have to work to deepen public engagement in informing foreign policy at a time of political turbulence and economic upheaval, chart a course for Canada in the world that balances the need for inclusive economic growth while ensuring diversity can flourish, and give full expression to Canada’s core values by renewing our commitments to international intuitions and norms that have previously given Canada strength, resilience and credibility on the world stage.