by David Carment (et al.)

Ottawa Citizen
March 10, 2017

As all new governments learn quickly, it is far easier to make promises than to keep them. Unanticipated challenges and unforeseen circumstances can derail even the most modest of campaign platforms, requiring leaders to choose between what stays, and what goes. After campaigning on a commitment to reinvigorate Canadian foreign policy and multilateral engagement, the Trudeau Liberals have found themselves in a precarious position.  

Since taking office more than a year and a half ago, the government has fallen off pace, reversed direction in some areas and stalled on others. These are the findings of our most recent Report Card of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy agenda. The Report Card evaluates the government on three criteria: progress in meeting election promises, overall performance and accountability.

The Report card gives the Trudeau government a B- overall. In 2017, the Liberal shine has clearly worn off. No A grades were assigned, not even to the much-promised file of climate change and the environment.

There is little doubt the government’s overall performance has declined. A year ago, experts at Carleton University were optimistic that campaign pledges would translate into tangible action, moving Canada closer to its historic role as a deeply engaged and influential middle power. But now, Canada’s leaders find themselves scrambling in response to Donald Trump’s “new style” transaction-based American foreign policy agenda.

Progress has been made in some areas, building on the efforts of the previous government. The successful ratification of CETA will grant Canada preferential trade access to 28 European countries, lessening the disappointment of the terminal Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. This agreement is especially important given the uncertain consequences of a foreseeable renegotiation of NAFTA.

Although paling in comparison to the number of refugees European countries have accepted, the Trudeau government met its goal of resettling 39,000 Syrian refugees as of January 2017. Furthermore, the Liberal government has maintained a commitment and focus on reproductive, maternal and newborn child health.

Despite these achievements, in many areas, the rhetoric has not matched reality. The Trudeau government was elected not just on promises of expanded trade, but on promises to rejuvenate multilateralism, secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), support UN peacekeeping, stabilize a decline in commitments to the International Criminal Court and be a leader in the global climate change agenda. On national security, assurances to repeal the problematic elements of the Anti-Terrorism Act remain unaddressed and no amendments proposed or delivered.

Closer to home, Trudeau promised public engagement in the foreign policy process as part of an open and accountable election platform. What we have seen is much tighter, increasingly restrained and controlled messaging more akin to the previous Harper government.

Indeed, the government’s approach on portfolios such as climate change and the environment are muddled and, at times, contradictory. The signing of a pan-Canadian framework to combat climate change preceded the government’s approval of the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline, raising serious questions about Canada’s claim to climate change leadership. The Trudeau government’s rhetoric of fighting climate change is somewhat inconsistent with its promotion of oilsands exports and these two objectives are palpably contradictory.

On defence, the earmarking of resources for international peacekeeping operations has given way to mission ambiguity and uncertainty. In Iraq, despite the claim that Canada’s combat role has ended, reality on the ground suggests otherwise. Canadian forces have participated in direct firefights with Daesh (ISIL), becoming more engaged on the front lines over the past year. The promise to conduct an open and fair competition for a new, permanent replacement for the CF-18 remains stalled and uncertain.

Considering that the Liberals committed to openness, transparency and accountability, holding the government to its election promises, particularly in light of recent developments, entails, now more than ever, rigorous and continuous evaluation. The release of the federal budget on March 22 will surely clarify the government’s commitments to keeping its promises.

The report card was produced by Carleton University’s Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (CFPJ), in partnership with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) and iAffairs Canada. You can view it here

Image: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

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