In The Media

Foreign woes haunt Trudeau at Home After Debacle in New Delhi

by Josh Wingrove & Iain Marlow (feat. Jocelyn Coulon)

March 16, 2018

(Bloomberg) -- Justin Trudeau’s latest trip abroad was unraveling even before an attempted murderer entered the fray.

The appearance of Sikh separatist Jaspal Atwal at a Trudeau reception in Mumbai was the nadir. The Canadian prime minister had already puzzled Indians by preaching liberal values in English and French. Canada and India bickered over Atwal, capping a visit derided as thin on business and heavy on photo ops in over-the-top local attire.

“It has been one of the worst planned and executed visits that I have seen,” said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “He was more intent on projecting his own sense of Canadian values.”

High hopes for Trudeau on the world stage have faded amid stumbles where style has at times trumped substance. At stake is the country’s bid for a United Nations Security Council seat and its efforts to expand ties with Asia as Donald Trump upends Canada’s most important trade relationship.

The controversy has followed Trudeau home, with his support slumping to the lowest since his Liberal Party took power in 2015. The prime minister’s sunny persona and “progressive” agenda, which shot him to global rockstar status in an era of populist backlash, have found few takers abroad and are starting to wear thin on the domestic front.

China -- the nation’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S. -- also balked at Trudeau’s push to adopt provisions on trade like labor, gender and environmental guarantees, but he has brushed off the criticism. “We’re going to continue to work hard and look for opportunities for Canadians to benefit in Asia and elsewhere around the world,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview Wednesday.

Trudeau zigzagged India in a trip mostly aimed at his country’s large Indo-Canadian diaspora, concentrated in vote-rich Toronto and Vancouver suburbs. He met Prime Minister Narendra Modi only near the end of the visit.

Enter Atwal, a Canadian jailed in 1987 for trying to assassinate a visiting Indian cabinet minister. He once advocated for an independent Sikh state -- a cause toward which some think Canada remains too sympathetic -- and sought an invitation to a Trudeau reception from a Liberal lawmaker, Randeep Sarai.

Atwal went and the controversy exploded. Sarai quit one of his posts with the party. One Canadian official told reporters, on condition of anonymity, that factions within Modi’s government may have facilitated Atwal’s presence in a bid to embarrass Trudeau. The official hasn’t been identified, though Conservative lawmakers said in Parliament it was national security adviser Daniel Jean. Trudeau backed the official; India bristled and called the comments baseless.

The standoff continues. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, recalling a meeting with her Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj, again floated the idea. “I started off the meeting by saying to her that it had been an honest mistake,” Freeland told CTV this month. “I also said to her that it was noteworthy that Mr. Atwal had been able to travel to India.”

Hiccups Abroad

The debacle stands in contrast to Emmanuel Macron’s brief visit this month, which netted deals totaling 13 billion euros ($16 billion) versus Trudeau’s C$1 billion ($767 million), though France’s links to India run deeper than Canada’s. Modi met Macron on the tarmac and hugged him. The French president pledged to strengthen defense and energy ties, capping his visit with a boat ride on the Ganges alongside Modi.

It’s not Trudeau’s first hiccup abroad. He riled allies by playing hardball on a Pacific trade deal and failed to launch free-trade talks with China during his visit to Beijing. He also waffled on a peacekeeping pledge, which was once a core policy.

Condemnation of the India trip has been near unanimous. One Western diplomat in India, speaking on condition of anonymity, said their country was studying it as a cautionary tale. “A shorter, more intense trip targeted on what we can buy or sell may have been more beneficial -- and also avoided the flurry of outfits,” said Jocelyn Coulon, a former adviser to Trudeau’s first foreign minister who is now a researcher at The Montreal Centre for International Studies.

Selfies and Socks

“We’ve been working under the somewhat lazy assumption that the prime minister’s charm is enough to carry the day,” David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said in an interview Thursday. Canada only brings its “diplomatic A-game” to Washington, not to Beijing and New Delhi, he added. “The India trip is, in my view, one of the most disastrous foreign policy initiatives we’ve seen in some time.”

In Canada’s last election, Trudeau was attacked by rivals as “just not ready” to govern, a shot at his inexperience and penchant for selfies and quirky socks. That image was stirred in India and polls show Trudeau’s support is slipping.

Abacus Data found 37 percent of Canadians said Trudeau represented Canada poorly on the world stage, up from 21 percent five months earlier. The same poll found the government’s approval rating had fallen to 42 percent, the lowest since October, while Trudeau lost his own net-positive approval for the first time since becoming prime minister. A polling aggregator run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said the Conservatives were narrowly ahead of Trudeau’s Liberals for the first time since the election.

Read more about the challenge Trudeau faces from a Sikh rival to his left

Atwal has sought to quell the outcry. Journalists packed a law office in downtown Vancouver to hear from him this month. “I am sorry for any embarrassment this matter has caused to Canada, India, my community and my family,” Atwal said, adding he has renounced “any form of terrorism” and no longer seeks an independent Sikh state.

Trudeau downplayed the fallout in Wednesday’s interview, saying Canada was pleased to eventually sign onto the Pacific trade pact after winning concessions, got “concrete” deals on pulses with India and is “moving forward in constructive ways” with China. He defended his push to make trade more “progressive,” saying the Canadian measures help ensure “the fears people have about globalization are actually allayed by demonstrating that growth can benefit everyone.”

Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor who once advised Trudeau on foreign policy, said the progressive push is worthwhile but also urged a rethink. “He’s right to be concerned about maintaining social license for free trade in Canada and elsewhere,” Paris said in an email. “That said, the Trudeau government needs to devote more strategic attention to Asia, given the region’s importance to Canada’s economic future.”

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