Trudeau’s Liberals are faltering on foreign policy at the midway point of their mandate



by David Carment, Natalie Lamarche & William O’Connell

Ottawa Citizen
March 9, 2018

At the midpoint between its ascent to power and the next federal election, the Trudeau government gets an overall grade of B- on its foreign policy, having improved in some areas while underperforming in others.

The government’s actions and rhetoric have been inconsistent and, at times, contradictory, focused on messaging and advancing the Liberal brand more than fixing real problems.

These are the findings from our Foreign Policy Report Card, produced annually by the School of International Affairs and the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. 

On peacekeeping and defence procurement, for example, openness, transparency and accountability are nowhere to be seen. The government took more than two years to announce an open and fair competition to replace its CF-18s. The Liberals also kept Canadians in the dark for more than a year after announcing their peacekeeping plan, only to scale back on their commitment substantially.

Delivered a significant blow by U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade agenda, Liberal resources have mostly focused on renegotiating NAFTA and grappling with U.S. protectionism.

High on that agenda are efforts to convince Canadians that the Liberals do indeed have options should NAFTA fall through. What exactly that plan might be is anyone’s guess. CETA, signed into force more than a year ago, is not getting the attention it deserves and the newly rejigged TPP, now the CPTPP, is far from reality.

To be sure, the Liberals have handled the NAFTA renegotiation reasonably well, assembling a strong team of negotiators with bipartisan support. Their full-court press strategy of pitching the deal to state governments, individual representatives and industry leaders may bear results in the face of an unpredictable U.S. administration despite the friction produced by tariffs on steel and aluminum.

On environment, the government has succeeded in placing a price on carbon, a signature promise and long overdue policy that will help Canada achieve its Paris Agreement commitments.

The dismantling of the National Energy Board and the subsequent reform of the infrastructure approval process is likewise a welcome development for Canada’s energy policy, particularly its emphasis on improving consultations with Indigenous peoples.

On development, the Trudeau government introduced its much-anticipated Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). This gender-focused policy is innovative and interesting but lacks implementation strategies and the funding necessary to make it effective.

For a political party that promised to elevate Canada’s position in the world, the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has achieved remarkably little in international diplomacy.

In crucial areas such as climate change and strengthening international institutions, the government has underperformed or stalled.

No longer are the Liberals committed to a seat on the UN Security Council as promised. Gaffes in Danang, Beijing and Delhi have damaged our image abroad. During his visit to India, Trudeau made the mistake of including a convicted Sikh extremist on his guest list. A more egregious error was his unseemly and very public effort to offload responsibility for that to the Indian government and expose his national security adviser in the process.

Canada’s foreign policy appears caught in the U.S. slipstream from which imminent escape appears unlikely. The sad reality is that, despite all the rhetoric, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are as hawkish as their predecessors — “Harper Lite” as we described the government’s foreign policy last year.

In fact, following the U.S. example, the Liberals intend to put Venezuela, Iran and North Korea at the top of the G7 Agenda, when Canada plays host later this spring, even though many of the countries who are most affected by those conflicts are not part of the G7. Few international issues these days can be properly solved without G20 members such as Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

The Liberals under Justin Trudeau have elevated “identity politics” to a foreign policy art form. Just as Stephen Harper’s pandering to diaspora groups propelled his Conservatives to consecutive majority wins, the Liberals are staking their claim to gender equality and its feminist foreign policy agenda. Some have suggested the Liberals would prefer to encourage more women to work than let in more immigrants.

Nevertheless, Trudeau intends to champion his government’s feminist foreign policy at
the G7, where it is likely to find both support from the Germans and pushback from the
U.S., specifically on reproductive-health rights, including contraception, sex education and legal abortion.

Canada has much to offer in concrete practical terms, especially to those countries that are
torn by conflict and struggling to embrace liberal values and make democracy work.

Under the previous Liberal government, Canada made concerted efforts to export its own unique brand of democracy and federalism, its cultural and linguistic values and its legal and judicial systems. When it comes to making a difference these days, apart from a largely ineffective progressive trade agenda and some military training in a handful of countries, Canada is missing in action.

David Carment, Nabil Bhatia, Natalie Lamarche and William O’Connell are with the School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

Image credit: Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS

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