Parties pitch Canadians on foreign policy ideas, but a grander strategy still missing

International issues were briefly mentioned during Monday's leaders' debate, and federal parties have outlined their foreign policy priorities, but at a time when much is at stake globally, a more meaningful approach is needed, writes Michael Petrou.

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October 9, 2019
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks as Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh look on during the federal leaders' debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada October 7, 2019. Justin Tang/Pool via REUTERS

A strange and emblematic thing happened in America on the day of the English-language leaders’ debate in Canada this week. United States President Donald Trump announced he would pull US troops out of northeastern Syria, where for years they have fought alongside the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the so-called Islamic State.

The announcement was strange because many of Trump’s allies and advisors oppose it. The move clears the way for a Turkish invasion of northern Syria that would target the SDF, whom the Turks regard as terrorists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to drive Kurdish militias from a “safe zone” on the border that he says will house Syrian refugees. Turkish air strikes began Wednesday.

The American withdrawal is immoral and strategically foolish. America’s other allies will rightfully conclude America’s friendship is not something on which they can count. Disorder in northern Syria would make a jihadist resurgence more likely. It’s unclear what might happen to the thousands of Islamic State fighters and supporters, including Canadians, whom the SDF currently detain.

The announcement is emblematic because it fits a pattern of behaviour for Trump. He scorns allies and shuns engagement with the world. This should matter to Canada. Indeed, the SDF are our allies, too. Canadian jets bombed Islamic State positions in cooperation with SDF fighters on the ground until 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put a stop to Canadian airstrikes. (Canadian surveillance planes continued to fly over Syria so that other countries could drop bombs instead of us.)

Now our Kurdish allies face attack at the hands of our Turkish NATO allies because they have been given a green light by our American allies. This is the sort of foreign policy mess you’d think might get discussed in a debate held by people hoping to be Canada’s prime minister. You’d be wrong — although, to be fair, very little relating to foreign policy was discussed during Monday’s debate at all.

This emptiness is reflected to varying degrees in the platforms of the four major national parties. The Liberal one is heavy on on-brand platitudes. “For more than 150 years, Canada and Canadians have made their mark on the world – showing courage and honour in the face of war, working hard to build lasting peace and prosperity for millions of people, and leading the way in fighting climate change,” it reads. Combating climate change is well and good. Linking Canada’s very modest efforts on that front to this country’s struggle in World War II, among other violent conflicts, is silly.

The Liberals pledge to establish a dedicated refugee stream to provide safe haven for at-risk human rights advocates, journalists and humanitarian workers. This is a good initiative. It’s also an easy and low-cost one. It would be more meaningful, but also more difficult, to curb engagement with countries such as Saudi Arabia and China that jail and murder journalists they don’t like. And yet Canada sells armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, and Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan shows up at a gala celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China — even as Beijing holds hostage two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in a diplomatic dispute.

“This is the sort of foreign policy mess you’d think might get discussed in a debate held by people hoping to be Canada’s prime minister.”

The Liberals also say they will prioritize education in international development assistance and will lead a campaign to ensure that children living in refugee or displacement camps are educated. A generation of Syrian refugee children have had their educations disrupted or stopped. This is a tragedy with long-term consequences, and an attempt to reverse it is welcome. It is worth noting that most Syrian refugees in the Middle East do not live in camps, and Canada’s funding and development plans must take that into account.

The key plank in the Conservative foreign policy platform is reducing Canada’s foreign aid spending by 25 percent. This is a small-minded sop to isolationists. There are a lot of things wrong with Canada’s international aid and development policy. That we spend too much on it isn’t one of them.

The Tories, like the Liberals, have scattered their foreign policy platform with partisan beacons to signal their ideological bona fides. They promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move Canada’s embassy there — for what purpose, and to what benefit for Canadians, Israelis and Palestinians, isn’t explained. They criticize the Liberal government for providing $110 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides education and health care to Palestinian refugees and their decedents in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Conservatives say it is corrupt, anti-Semitic, and has ties to Hamas, the terrorist organization which controls Gaza.

The Tories have promised to prioritize the health, education and safety of children, especially in conflict zones, in its international development policy. This is humane and reasonable.

They have also pledged to deepen ties with Canada’s traditional allies in NATO, NORAD and the “Five Eyes” intelligence group, and with other like-minded democracies such as Japan, Israel and India. And they promise to advocate for the “CANZUK alliance,” consisting of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Depending on how this policy gets fleshed out, it could be significant. America is leaving a vacuum in world leadership. Other countries, and other coalitions and alliances, need to fill it.

The New Democrats have promised to work toward a goal of contributing 0.7 percent of Canada’s gross national income to international development aid, which they will put toward improving global health and supporting the rights of women and girls. (Canada’s contributions in recent years have been around 0.28 percent.) They promise to recommit to peacekeeping but offer few details.

The Green Party’s platform recognizes the precariousness of global security, and emphasizes climate change as a reason for this. The Greens pledge to strengthen civil society and democratic institutions globally, and say they will prioritize international engagement. Like the NDP, they want to increase Canada’s development aid to 0.7 percent of the country’s national income.

There are praiseworthy items in all the parties’ platforms. What’s missing is a grand strategy. The rules-based order that has been central to Canada’s prosperity and security for 70 years is eroding because America is no longer its champion. So many of the challenges Canada will face — from Chinese belligerence, to refugees, to the security of our friends and allies bordering Russia — flow from this. If party leaders can’t address that reality in a more thoughtful way than they have done so far, Canada will be ill-prepared to face the future that’s coming.

What’s on offer? Foreign policy highlights from party platforms

The Liberal Party

“For more than 150 years, Canada and Canadians have made their mark on the world – showing courage and honour in the face of war, working hard to build lasting peace and prosperity for millions of people, and leading the way in fighting climate change. That didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort.

“We will build on these accomplishments and continue to move forward with a principled approach that puts democracy, human rights, international law, and environmental protection at the heart of foreign policy. We will:

  • establish the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government, which will lend expertise and help to people seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights and democracy, and deliver good governance;
  • provide international institutions like the International Criminal Court, the World Trade Organization, and others, with additional resources to better enforce international law;
  • introduce a permanent, dedicated refugee stream to provide safe haven for human rights advocates, journalists, and humanitarian workers at risk, with a target of helping resettle as many as 250 people a year;
  • take a leadership role in ensuring the ethical use of new technology, by developing and supporting international protocols to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems; and
  • build on the Magnitsky sanctions regime we have put in place, by developing a framework to transfer seized assets from those who commit grave human rights abuses to their victims, with appropriate judicial oversight.”
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The Conservative Party

“It’s time for a new government that will show strong leadership on the world stage, strengthen our alliances, and stand up for human rights. Only Andrew Scheer and Canada’s Conservatives are prepared to spend less money on foreign aid to wealthier countries and foreign dictatorships so that it can instead be used to protect the health of mothers and children, or provide new relief to Canadians so you can get ahead... An Andrew Scheer-led Conservative government will:

  • [cut] 25 percent of foreign aid spending.
  • withdraw Canada from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
  • prioritize the health, education, and safety of children in Canada’s international development policy and place a special emphasis on protecting children in conflict zones.
  • renew ties with Canada’s democratic alliances (NATO, NORAD, Five Eyes) while at the same time strengthen relations with like-minded countries like Japan, India, and Israel.
  • ensure that Canada is at the forefront of advocating for the CANZUK alliance.
  • advocate at the United Nations for Canadian leadership in a peacekeeping mission to secure Ukraine’s borders and expand Operation UNIFIER, Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine.
  • reopen the Office of Religious Freedom.
  • amend the Investment Canada Act to ensure that the takeover of any Canadian company by any foreign state-owned enterprise automatically triggers a national security review.
  • list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity under Canadian law.
  • enter discussions with the United States to join the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program.
  • select a new fighter jet to replace our CF-18s and have the new fleet enter service in 2025.”
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The New Democratic Party

“New Democrats believe that Canadian interests are best served by a strong and principled foreign policy based on human rights, multilateralism, and the best interests of global peace and security. We will stand up to Donald Trump and defend everyday people and Canadian values on the international stage... We will:

  • establish a clear and permanent path for resettlement of LGBTQI2S+ refugees in Canada to replace the current piecemeal approach that only deals with emergency cases as they arise.
  • support nuclear disarmament, recommit to peacekeeping, and make sure that Canadian-made weapons are not fuelling conflict and human rights abuses abroad.
  • work towards a just and lasting two-state solution between Israel and Palestine that respects human rights and international law.
  • [boost]Canada’s international development assistance, with the goal of contributing 0.7 percent of our Gross National Income to international aid.
  • hold Canadian companies to a high standard of corporate social responsibility at home and abroad – and ensure they meet it.
  • make sure that our troops have the equipment, training, and support they need to do the difficult and dangerous work we ask them to undertake.
  • ensure that funding supports our national defence and international commitments, with a renewed priority of advancing multilateral peacekeeping initiatives around the world.”
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The Green Party

“Not since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago has global security seemed so precarious. Contributing to this is the disruption being caused by climate change – referred to by military analysts as a threat multiplier. This will only worsen as the Earth heats up, including in Canada.

“The Green Party is committed to building and keeping peace, including post-conflict work to strengthen civil society and democratic institutions around the world. We are committed to expanding Canada’s peace-keeping role internationally. At the same time, we are fully aware of the dangers of militarism and the need to defend against it, both at home and on the global stage... A Green government will:

  • commit to provide overseas development assistance where it is needed.
  • increase our contribution to the Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility.
  • review federal policy to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • deploy the military to protect communities from extreme weather events.
  • cancel contracts providing armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.”
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