Commentary from Colin Robertson

How Canada must navigate the new normal of global relationships

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
June 5, 2017

What does “Canada is back” really mean? Some answers will come this week in Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s foreign policy speech and in the release, overdue, of the Defence Policy Review.

Success will hinge on answering three questions:

• What are the priorities?

• How much new money will be invested?

• What are the means to achieve them?

From day one, the Trudeau government vigorously re-embraced multilateralism, declaring that Canada would seek a seat on the UN Security Council.

But a council seat is a means, not an end. Will Ms. Freeland spell out our electoral platform and tell us what we want to achieve? And what is happening with peace operations? Are we going to Mali?

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump has shaken the rules-based liberal international system in the same fashion that the tumbling of the Berlin Wall presaged the end of the Soviet Union.

It is too soon to tell whether President Trump’s changes will endure but, for now, as guardian of the order that it created the United States has gone AWOL.

Middle powers such as Canada need to step up to save our global operating system.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, we should focus on the practical side of climate mitigation through, for example, the open sharing of technological innovation achieved by Canada’s oil sands companies, coupled with more science diplomacy. Evidence-based research still matters.

The Trudeau Government has rightly made the U.S. relationship its top priority, shifting cabinet officers, connecting with the new administration, reaching out to Congress and, in its outreach into Trump territory, bringing in premiers and business to make the case for Canada. Our livelihood – and the government’s own re-election – depends on managing this relationship.

In response to Mr. Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” policies, Justin Trudeau is going full bore into trade diversification. His father did the same after Richard Nixon imposed a U.S. import surcharge in 1971. Pierre Trudeau’s third-option strategy was aimed, with limited success, at closer links with Europe and Japan.

Ms. Freeland brought home the Canada-Europe trade agreement. International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne is helping to resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is leading talks with China. In renegotiating NAFTA, we are working with Mexico, our third-largest trading partner. Continental ties are also deepening through the Pacific Alliance.

We are good at trade policy. Now we need to invest more in trade development. We also need the infrastructure, especially pipelines, that get our resources to market.

Ms. Freeland is sure to mention the progressive trade agenda in her policy speech. It will take real form, with the addition of a chapter on gender to the Canada-Chile free-trade agreement, as part of the announcements during this week’s visit of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

It is a smart initiative. Women are steadily increasing their place in global business. Women are very good entrepreneurs when given the opportunity, as micro-financing has demonstrated in Asia and Africa.

A progressive trade agenda must also address trade adjustment.

Canada’s social safety net – medicare, pensions and unemployment insurance – helps shield us from the populism that propelled Mr. Trump to power but, as we witness in Europe, it does not guarantee immunity.

Addressing inequality would be a useful theme for Canada to champion as we host next year’s G7 summit and, in the meantime, we should make it a focus for collective attention in multilateral forums such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labour Organization.

The Trudeau government has sustained our commitment to collective security, with a brigade headed to Latvia and a sustained naval presence in the Arabian Gulf. But there is a readiness gap as we await new warships and fighter jets. When it comes to defence, money matters.

Successive Canadian governments have skimped and we stand accused, with some justice, of “freeloading”. We should set as goals of good international citizenship a contribution of 2 per cent of GDP to defence spending – the NATO norm – and 0.7 per cent of GDP for development – the Pearson Commission standard. If the United Kingdom can manage it, so can Canada

Canadian foreign policy, like all middle powers, is inevitably reactive. Choices must be weighed against interests, values and resources. With effort and money, we can make a difference in the niches. This week will give us a better sense of the Trudeau niches.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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