Canadian foreign policy at mid-term: reset or recycled?



by Daryl Copeland

August 6, 2017

Almost two months ago, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a parliamentary address which set out her thinking on Canada’s place in the world.

Her remarks, while unanticipated, were generally well-received, and the minister has enjoyed something of a cake-walk through the doldrums of summer in the aftermath. On deeper reflection, however, there are compelling reasons to conclude Freeland got off too lightly.

Not unlike the popular perception of Canada’s recovering, if not exactly resurgent global position, her declaration deserves rather more critical scrutiny than it has been accorded to date.

The nature and provenance of her speech raises important questions related to both administrative process and governance.

For starters, what exactly is the relationship between this very short take and a more long-term and comprehensive foreign policy review which might mirror in substantive detail and scope the defence and development reports released just prior to the minister’s speech?

If there is a longer document upon which the summary was predicated, it has yet to surface.

I suspect that if such a paper exists – at best an open question – it will have been prepared internally, perhaps solely within the confines of her office and likely without the benefit of outside consultations.

What can be said of the content of Freeland’s address?

Overall, it pales in scope and sophistication relative to the Liberal’s integrated International Policy Statement of 2005.

Instead, she has offered a decidedly hawkish, defence-centric and U.S.-oriented appreciation of Canada’s international prospects, replete with disturbing echoes of the warrior-nation wannabe associated with the Conservative era.

Small wonder that the speech has been so well received in Washington and by the bullets and bombs set at NATO.

The piece is strong on world order, the rule of law, feminism, multilateralism and the transformation of the global operating environment.

Lip service is paid to building relations with the EU and to the global issues agenda, but little was included by way of detail or direction.

Most glaringly, no reference was made to the need for intensified international collaboration or to the imperative of reconstructing the entire Canadian diplomatic ecosystem, both of which are prerequisites to effective action on transnational problems.

Freeland tried to establish some distance in dealing with “The Donald” and the government has been doing a fine job of managing that crucial relationship.

That said, she did not question the priority status still accorded by Washington to terrorism, religious extremism and political violence.

While these issues cannot be ignored, they are best understood as the symptoms of more fundamental problems: underdevelopment, insecurity, inequality and other defining elements of globalization’s underside.

The text is notable mainly for what is missing.

Among those key points: the abject lack of a commitment to re-investing in diplomacy or diplomatic capacity; the absence of an international science policy (Naylor Report refers); and silence on the need to address the vexing constellation of issues which imperil the planet and human survival.

When it comes to the new threat set, climate change is but the tip of this iceberg.

Diminishing biodiversity, management of the global commons, resource scarcity, drought and desertification, food and water insecurity and environmental collapse represent just a few of the global challenges for which there are no military solutions. Inattention to this complex and sprawling agenda is difficult to justify.

So, too, is the invisibility of any insights into the government’s thinking on:

  • UN Security Council electoral strategy
  • Peacekeeping prospects
  • Attainment of UN sustainable development goals
  • Asia-Pacific engagement
  • Science diplomacy
  • Arctic sovereignty
  • Indigenous contributions
  • Investigation of possible war crimes associated with the treatment of Afghan detainees

These matters, which bear heavily on the potential for a return to innovative Canadian leadership, are nowhere in sight.

In sum, I assess this review to be unbalanced, incomplete and narrow gauge. It’s very much the product of the minister’s cheerleading for hard power and in large part disconnected from the thinking at Global Affairs Canada and bureaucratic process more generally.

If Canada is “stepping up”, then what exactly will we be doing beyond posing in an international beauty contest? Where are the concrete objectives, the ideas for new diplomatic initiative? Simply refraining from treating foreign policy decisions as wedges to be inserted in the calculation of domestic political gain – a Harper hallmark – and keeping bread on the table will not be enough.

Yes, the brand is stronger, but this is due more to Justin Trudeau’s celebrity than enlightened policy or the demonstrable diplomacy of the deed.

Renewed popularity and a positive pre-disposition do not in themselves translate into influence or outcomes.

Therefore, the question must be: For how much longer can this country be expected to enjoy the free ride?

To carry the case that Canada is “back” and to move convincingly beyond a repackaging job which amounts to little more than “Harper-lite”, Canada’s international policy will need more coherence, content and resources.

At mid-term, there has been scant sign of any of that.

Image credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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