OTTAWA—For two hours they talked, an unlikely pair in a hotel bar in Japan.
One night after G20 meetings in Osaka, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sat down over beers with a world leader whom aides say he greatly admires: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
At a time when government leaders in the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and beyond, are upending or defying rules-based international relations, Merkel remains a champion of multilateralism and the global institutions that support peace, security and liberal democracy — all touchstones of Trudeau’s foreign policy.
So perhaps Trudeau was channelling Merkel in his big foreign policy speech Aug. 24 in Montreal when he curiously quoted other world leaders and experts who counselled him that “the world has changed, and quickly.”
“2019 looks very different than 2015,” he said.
That’s an understatement.
Canada’s own Global Affairs bureaucracy did not foresee the election of the “America First” President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on power, Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, the Brexit vote, the poisoning of former agents on British soil or the brazen and brutal murder of a Saudi journalist in an embassy in Istanbul.
Yet, foreign policy isn’t usually seen as a vote-driver in Canada.
An Angus Reid Institute survey of 2,000 people last week said only 31 per cent of uncommitted voters cited Canada’s role on the world stage as among their top priority issues. When asked to pick just one priority, the number dropped to 1 per cent who said it mattered most.
“At this stage in the campaign, foreign policy and Canada’s place on the world stage is not the issue that it was four years ago,” says Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.
But that could change.
Kurl and others say global politics is unquestionably a factor when voters look at party leaders to take their measure in order to decide who can be trusted to reflect, give voice to, and stand up for Canadian interests. Politicians know it too and use foreign policy as a way of communicating leadership to a domestic audience.
So just what are the Liberals telegraphing in 2019? And what’s the counternarrative by his opponents?
For Trudeau, it’s a way to show he embraces collaborative leadership not the politics of division. Andrew Scheer uses it as a wedge to portray Trudeau as weak or naive, whether it’s caving to Trump or failing to stand up to China.
Surprisingly, while Trudeau says the world has changed, his prescription for confronting many of its challenges have not.
There are hints he will have more to say during the campaign, but Trudeau’s Montreal speech underscored that his priorities remain fighting global warming, promoting liberalized international trade agreements that include “progressive” protections for labour, environment, gender and Indigenous rights, and making middle class growth an “international priority.”
Trudeau insists addressing the economic anxieties of the middle class around the world is the antidote to destructive waves of populism sweeping many countries, and that playing by international rules is the only way to do that. It is a more sweeping vision than Trudeau outlined in a June 2015 foreign policy speech ahead of the last election, when he was trailing third in the polls.
Actually, it has distinct echoes of a 2017 speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to the Commons which outlined the Liberal vision of Canada’s place in a world and offered a substantive but subtle rebuttal to Trumpism and the U.S. president’s go-it-alone approach.
Trudeau is blunter. He directly targeted conservative politicians in Canada and around the world who he said deny “the existential threat” of climate change and oppose his efforts to secure “progressive” gains in new trade deals like NAFTA.
Trudeau’s government ultimately signed trade deals with Europe and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that were initiated under Stephen Harper, and did end up incorporating some progressive elements, but the NAFTA deal is widely seen as the major foreign policy success of his term in power.
David MacNaughton, Trudeau’s former ambassador to Washington and a key player that helped nailed the deal, says “My own personal view is we ended up significantly better than I thought we would at the beginning.”
And despite the criticism by Conservatives like Scheer and Stephen Harper, MacNaughton and Trudeau insist it will be those progressive elements that will ultimately help get the deal through a Democrat majority Congress.
In 2015, Trudeau used his foreign policy address to mainly attack Harper’s divisive and “hyper partisan” approach to diplomacy. He pledged to improve Canada-U.S. relations. That was before Trump.
The Liberal 2015 platform later fleshed out that thin speech, with promises to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees, to extend Canadian international aid money to cover abortion services for women in poor countries, to beef up UN peacekeeping missions (a vow far more modest in the execution), and more money for the military so Canada could step up to its international security obligations.
Trudeau also famously promised to explore deeper trade relations with India and China.
Those last two are certain to haunt Trudeau in this campaign.
Scheer has used the disastrous photo-ops of the 2018 India trip as proof Trudeau is a lightweight on the world stage. And Scheer says the detention of two Canadians in China after the RCMP arrested a Chinese Huawei executive on a U.S. extradition request in Vancouver shows Trudeau’s “naive” efforts to “appease” China have failed.
Scheer is where Trudeau was, trying to contrast the Liberal leader with what a Conservative-led government would deliver: namely a more muscular presence on the world stage.
He pledges a get-tough approach to China, saying he’d sue China at the WTO for blocking Canadian canola, end Ottawa’s $200 million investment in a Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (that all our allies except the U.S. have supported), and ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G wireless network. He wants to join the U.S. in a continental missile defence system.
But while Conservatives slammed Trudeau for his “virtue signalling” pursuit of gender and Indigenous rights guarantees, Scheer says the party will nevertheless support the newly renegotiated NAFTA when it comes for a ratification vote in Parliament.
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Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and a former Trudeau adviser on foreign policy, says when it comes to differences between Conservatives and Liberals on a wide range of trade, defence and security matters, there is less than meets the eye.
Both say they will aim to shore up Canada’s international alliances, diversify trade, and identify their solutions as pragmatic, but no party is articulating an isolationist position, for example a Brexit approach, he notes.
And all illustrate a “deep-seated openness to the world” and a desire to engage the world that has become central to Canada’s identity.
So far, Paris says, Scheer seems more open than Harper to international alliances. Scheer said he’d look to boost ties with Canada’s “Five Eyes” partners – the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand – and with other “confident” and “like-minded nations” in Asia and Africa and South America.
Along with China, Paris says, the Scheer-led Conservatives will undoubtedly highlight different stances on Israel, Iran, climate change and religious freedom.
Shuvaloy Majumdar, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former foreign policy adviser in the Harper government, says the parties’ foreign policies are shaped in part based on their appeals to different domestic constituencies, but also based on “differing philosophies with generally similar outcomes.”
He says Canadians in an insecure and seemingly unstable world “expect their leaders to conduct themselves with dignity, professionalism and good judgment. I think they also expect results — on keeping Canada safe and maintaining our sovereignty, on advancing our prosperity as a nation, and on promoting co-operation around our shared values with others.”
So Majumdar says voters may be turned off by Trudeau’s India visit, his “celebrity-diplomacy,” and performance on issues ranging from Trump, to Iran, to climate change, and China- “the biggest foreign policy issue.” In contrast, he says, “Andrew Scheer has articulated a pragmatic and predictable foreign policy.”
As for the New Democrats, there are few signs of what leader Jagmeet Singh would prioritize beyond a list of vague pledges to support nuclear disarmament, to recommit to peacekeeping, and to “make sure that Canadian-made weapons are not fuelling conflict and human rights abuses abroad.”
There is a bold pledge — one the Green party also makes — to boost international development aid to 0.7 per cent of Canada’s gross national income — a promise the Liberals long ago abandoned, and Canada — with spending last year that amounted to 0.28 per cent of GNI — doesn’t come close to.
As for the Greens, party leader Elizabeth May has outlined few commitments. The Green platform pledges to roll back a foreign investment agreement with China, to oppose trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, already signed and ratified by Parliament, and to shift away from NATO military contributions to UN peacekeeping.
But when it comes to pledges to promote gender equality and the health and education of girls abroad, to mitigate the effects of climate change in low-income countries, and more support for peacekeeping troops, the Liberals may have already outflanked the NDP and the Greens at least in the minds of progressive voters.
Overall, Paris says Trudeau’s approach to foreign policy is that of an internationalist laced with pragmatism.
“That is typical of his ideology and his philosophy as it’s expressed in doctrine, but it’s also just who he is… and what he thinks Canada is.”
Janice Stein, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, puts it more vividly.
“If you ask me what the Liberal platform on foreign policy is, it’s ‘in a world of carnivores we can believe we can survive as a vegetarian.’”
The Liberals are “deeply” and “passionately committed” to a liberal international rules-based order. But Stein says that is under assault from every direction. And whether we can survive is “a very large question.” Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have much leverage against bullies like China or Russia.
“If the leaders were being ruthlessly honest with us they would say this is a very dark period. This is a world in which there is less scope for Canada for the last 60 or 70 years. Now, in the run up to an election no political leader of any party that I know of is going to be saying that to the public, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to. And I don’t.
“So we’re having a kind of shadow debate. What will any government who’s elected face on Oct. 22nd? A world run by thugs.”