Popular criticism of Liberal foreign policy focuses on the government’s hypocrisy that its actions do not live up to Trudeau’s hyperbolic rhetoric. Pundits regularly draw attention to the lack of consistency and superficiality in Trudeau the man. Collectively, they cast doubt on his ability to achieve his post-election promise of bringing Canada back onto the world stage.
More importantly, these criticisms draw attention to Trudeau’s precarious hold on the foreign policy agenda, if not leadership of the Liberal Party, while simultaneously giving credence and weight to more hawkish, “small c” conservative cabinet members who are ready to take a more prominent leadership role within the party.
Indeed, over the past four years the Liberal government has demonstrated a willingness to operate from several different truths simultaneously, allowing them to make questionable choices inconsistent with Trudeau’s campaign’s vision. Thus far they have avoided the destructive power of moral ambiguity brought about through palpably contradictory policies.
Chief among these contradictions are a controversial and unfulfilled climate change agenda coupled with a pro-pipeline energy policy; punishing some countries for human rights violations on the one hand, while selling arms to odious regimes on the other; promoting a feminist development assistance program while not investing in foreign aid; and working with allies who undermine regional stability through unilateral sanctions and military intervention while claiming leadership in strengthening the rule of law.
This shift to a contradictory agenda coincides with the removal of former Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in 2016 and the insertion of Chrystia Freeland in his place. Under Freeland’s tenure, Canada has drifted so far from Trudeau’s optimistic 2015 campaign that Liberal foreign policy is virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative’s: take a hard line on Russia and Iran, undermine the Venezuelan government, and do not negotiate with China. For Freeland the U.S. is the “indispensable power” without which Canada would apparently be lost.
For her efforts, Minister Freeland receives tributes from U.S.-based think tanks. This kind of grooming is troubling given that American elites don’t seem to appreciate the fact that Canada is a sovereign nation with interests distinct from their own. Yet efforts to exercise that sovereignty are undermined by the fact Freeland has only limited access to Russia due to her persona non grata status. While many allies have expressed concern over the Trump Administration’s approach to Iran, Freeland has stayed quiet.
Meanwhile, 2015 campaign promises languish on the sidelines. Increasing Canada’s commitment to the UN specifically and strengthening international institutions generally remain unmet challenges. To fill the void, former Prime Ministers Mulroney and Chrétien have emerged as guiding voices for Canada, variously speaking about making good with China, finding a way to work with Russia on the Arctic and Eastern Europe, and carefully calibrating Canadian interests and values vis-à-vis the U.S., working co-operatively when it matters and standing up when needed.
Trudeau’s disinterest in foreign policy, as documented by former foreign policy adviser Jocelyn Coulon, reverses a long-standing trend of Prime Ministerial leadership on foreign policy. Trudeau has handed over responsibility for foreign policy to Chrystia Freeland, who appears happy to continue where Stephen Harper’s Conservatives left off. Unfortunately apart from a few impromptu ad hoc efforts to build like-minded coalitions, Canada continues to watch on the sidelines as the international liberal order, on which Liberals staked their political reputation, slowly withers away.
In its place, we see the U.S. unilaterally deploy and threaten sanctions against friend and foe alike: Iran in the former instance, Germany in the latter. The Trump administration is even keen to sanction the International Criminal Court, an institution the Liberals were instrumental in creating.
Our government remains silent and fearful of what might happen should we speak out or take action. Indeed, U.S. trade adviser Peter Navarro quipped that no country would impose retaliatory sanctions on the U.S. because its market is too large and too important. This bold claim based on U.S. exceptionalism cries out to be tested, if not by Canada, then surely by rising powers and like-minded coalitions.
A world order in which our main trading partner believes it cannot be disciplined for acting outside the rule of law is a world in which Canada cannot survive. As a trading nation, Canada depends on a predictable, rules-based system. Far from being the “indispensable nation,” the United States in the Trump era is fast becoming a country with the potential to become both unpredictable and unreliable.
Going into an election, Liberal foreign policy is an unstable balance between contradicting visions. The 2019 election outcome will determine which vision wins out. But whose foreign policy will it be? Justin Trudeau’s yet to be realized idea of bringing Canada back, or Chrystia Freeland’s conservative agenda?
David Carment is CGAI Fellow and editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. Richard Nimijean is a member of the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. They are co-editors of the recently published book, Canada, Nation Branding and Domestic Politics.