The foreign policy we deserve

David Mulroney is something of an expert in foreign policy. He was Ambassador of Canada to the People’s Republic of China from 2009 to 2012, prior to that he was assigned to the Privy Council Office as the Deputy Minister responsible for the Afghanistan Task Force and before that he was Associate Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and, concurrently, was the Prime Minister’s Personal Representative to the G8 Summit. Immediately prior to that, he served as Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada. He is, now, a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and president of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He has written an excellent article for the Globe and Mail that is headlined “Trudeau is delivering the foreign policy Canadians deserve.”

Mr Mulroney begins by saying that: “The best that can be said about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India is that it may prompt a review, if not a complete rethinking of a Canadian foreign policy that appears to be seriously off the rails. We have some hard lessons to learn … [and] … At the very least, the Prime Minister’s debacle in India should encourage smart people in Ottawa to zero in on what isn’t working.” That’s good thinking. At the end of every major campaign, an especially after campaigns in which things go awry, good military commanders convene a board of senior officers to consider “lessons learned,” in the hope that they will not make the same mistakes next time. Sadly, especially today, the lessons learned are all too quickly forgotten even if the analysis was rigorous enough in the first place.

Most worrying,” David Mulroney says, “is a fundamental and puzzling failure at the level of policy implementation, something that appears to be compounded by the Prime Minister’s own impetuosity. Flying to India before the big meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the bag, much like heading off to Beijing on a free-trade themed visit without any reasonable expectation that a deal was doable, exposes Mr. Trudeau to a degree of prolonged public skepticism that comes to define the visit itself.” In other words: Justin Trudeau goes off “half cocked” as we soldier say … not ready for action. That is, I suspect, in part because his team in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), was brilliant on the campaign trail in 2015 but is really unqualified to advise the leader of the government of the G7 nation; that poor quality of policy advice matters because Justin Trudeau was, and still is, to be sure, “just not ready” for the job he was handed. But his office campaign team wants to get and keep him in the public eye because that’s part of the 2019 campaign strategy … this time it failed because they really didn’t understand the business at hand.

Mr Mulroney deals briskly with the “Mr Dressup” thing, saying: “Ottawa’s obsession with exotic photo-ops is a less likely candidate for serious review, given its long and undistinguished lineage through such past devotees as Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien. But we can at least hope that the Trudeau version of this practice may get dialled down. Through his rapid succession of exotic costume changes, Mr. Trudeau managed to do to his own image what Alec Baldwin does, through similarly comic exaggeration, to Donald Trump’s on Saturday Night Live.” In fact, I think that even this PMO has learned that sometimes Justin Trudeau’s penchant for fancy dress can go too far.

Then he deals with a long-standing problem: ethnic votes. “Even harder to banish,” he says “will be our obsession with diaspora politics. No one is denying that we derive wonderful advantages from our multicultural society. But other multicultural countries, such as the United States, Australia and Britain, are far less inclined to view their international interests so completely through the prism of diaspora communities. We need to understand that Canada’s interests in India are not entirely the same as those of influential portions of the Indo-Canadian community or of the Sikh-Canadian subset of that community. Worse, our continuing insistence on the political importance of diaspora groups makes it more likely that their countries of origin – and this is particularly true of China and India – will be inclined to interfere in Canadian affairs.” It isn’t just India … I would assert, without too much fear of contradiction, that the votes of the large Ukrainian-Canadian community counted for as much as all other concerns combined in the spring of 2015 when Prime Minister Harper sent 200 Canadian soldiers to Ukraine to support that country which is still battling Russian aggression. The Indo-Canadian problem is acute right now because India, understandably, is very, very sensitive to the Sikh separatist threat – thousands of Indians have died in inter-communal violence since the rise of the Khalistan independence movement in the 1970s; it is a bigger and more serious problem than Quebec separatism was, for Canada, in the 1960s and ’70s. Successive Canadian governments kept a healthy distance between themselves and the Sikh extremists until 2017 when Prime Minister Trudeau crossed a line and attended a pro-Khalistan event in Toronto; that was a major strategic blunder.

But India is not just any country, as Mr Mulroney explains: “India isn’t our friend. It is a rising regional power beset with a range of domestic problems, including serious human rights issues. It takes a prickly approach to global issues that is often at odds with traditional Canadian policies in areas ranging from trade policy to nuclear disarmament … [and, he says] … The Indian diplomats I worked with could be wonderfully pleasant after the official day was done. But, for the most part, they brought a formidably ruthless precision to their pursuit of India’s interests in the world. While they might ultimately agree to grant Canada a concession, this was always a product of hard and often heated negotiations. They never conceded a point because they liked us or because we are home to a large Indo-Canadian community.” Further, he adds that “My experience with Chinese diplomats was entirely similar.” Although never at the same level as Mr Mulroney, I worked in the international arena as a senior officer, especially in one sector (global radio-communications which included arranging for the expansion of mobile communications in the 1990s. My Chinese and Indian colleagues were, indeed, fine men and women but they, just like me, were there ~ Geneva, a lot, but everywhere from Washington, London, Canberra and Tokyo to Beijing ~ defending their interests. “friendship,” even long-standing alliances didn’t count for anything. Billions of dollars were at stake, profits and losses would hinge on how we ~ engineers and lawyers and businessmen and soldiers from dozens of countries ~ managed to slice up the radio spectrum to allow these new services to thrive. The Chinese and Indian delegates were just as professional, just as technically qualified, just as hard-nosed as the Americans, Brits and Canadians.

Long before the election of U.S. President Donald Trump,” David Mulroney says, “it should have been clear to us that the world is changing in ways that do not align with traditional Canadian views, interests and values. If we’re smart, the rise of countries like China and India can certainly contribute to our prosperity, and with hard work, we should be able to find common cause on important issues such as global warming … [but, he adds] … the rise of these assertive and ambitious Asian powers will almost certainly challenge global and regional security. Both will also continue to reject traditional Canadian notions about global governance and human rights, and neither will be particularly squeamish about interfering in Canadian affairs.Sunny ways, feminism and being green don’t count for much; they are very certainly not a sound foundation upon which to build a foreign policy. We have to start thinking about our vital interests in the world ~ about what they are and about how we can and will protect and promote them: that’s the basis of a grand strategy. It was also the kind of thinking that Stephen Harper hated: he wanted to deal with issues incrementally, linking them together, sometimes, into a coherent web but never allowing them to become too important in and of themselves. That was bad enough but I’m persuaded that Justin Trudeau doesn’t think about those “big ideas” at all … because, I fear, they are, simply, quite beyond his comprehension.

In Mr Mulroney’s concluding have words: “The Trump era should convince us that we can no longer rely entirely on the protective cover of a globally engaged America. We need to be smart and hard-nosed when it comes to promoting and defending our own interests. Photo ops and costume changes won’t cut it any more.” Bingo! Give that man the prize!

Going back to the beginning, David Mulroney said: “the Prime Minister’s debacle in India should encourage smart people in Ottawa to zero in on what isn’t working.” In my opinion, two things are not working in Ottawa:

  1. The Prime Minister’s Office; and
  2. The Department of Global Affairs.

I have alluded, several times in the past, to the problems in the PMO: it is still, after two years in office, a campaign team; it is focused on the 2019 election, not on governing Canada and, to make matters worse, it appears to have intruded too much into the Privy Council Office’s domains. I believe that, at the very least, one or both of Gerald Butts and/or Katie Telford must go. I suggest they should both go, now, in early 2018, to the Liberal Party’s central office (350 Albert Street, Suite 920, Ottawa, ON, K1P 6M8, in case they don’t know the way) to form the core of the 2019 campaign team.

Now, some random thoughts on the bigger problem. The problems in the oh so pretentiously named Global Affairs Department predate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; in fact they began under his father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who, for reasons known only to him, set about “reforming” the old Department of External Affairs and, in the process, stripped it of much of its power and prestige. I heard rumours that Pierre Trudeau had passed the old foreign service exams but had a very hard time at the interview stage ~ the Department, in the 1950s was very much a bastion of WASP, Oxbridge, elitism. There were few French- Canadians and they were, generally, kept in second class posts. Trudeau did join the Privy Council Office (1949 to 51) when Norman Robertson was the Clerk, but then returned to Quebec and settled into left-wing politics and activism. In any event, when he became prime minister it appeared to many, me included, that External Affairs was one of his primary targets for Francization using the impetus of Prime Minister Pearson’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the powers of the new  Official Languages Act, when many thought that, because of its importance and power it might be last. The entrenched Oxbridge establishment resisted, but not for too long and not too strongly. Anyway, the “old guard,” those who had presided over the so-called “golden age” of Canadian diplomacy, in the 1940s and ’50s, were gone and the world was changing rapidly and Canadians were not much bothered with foreign affairs. Pierre Trudeau’s new foreign policy ~ set forth in the 1970 White Paper ‘A Foreign Policy for Canadians was a radical departure from the St Laurent-Diefenbaker-Pearson model of leadership … it was, essentially, isolationist and focused on social and environmental issues.

In my opinion, the PMO, which began its rapid growth in both size and power under Pierre Trudeau, needs to be scaled back in size, scope and reach. It is a necessary thing, indeed an important thing which needs to be there to keep the political imperatives coequally ‘top of mind’ with the policy imperatives which are ought to be the exclusive domain of the professional, non-partisan,  but highly politically sensitive Privy Council Office (PCO). Future prime ministers should make it clear, to the country, that the Clerk of the Privy Council is the most important non-elected person in Ottawa, not the PM’s Chief of Staff of Director of Communications.

Reforming the Department of Global Affairs is a much more complex and contentious issue. It’s not about who is there it is all about what the people there do. In my opinion a smaller, better focused, elite Department is better, for Canada, than a big sprawling one. I well recall, in the 1960s, when the people in ‘External’ were known to be Canada’s “best and brightest” (along with those in the PCO, of course) … by the 1990s and early 2000s it was pretty clear that Finance and Treasury Board had become the departments to which the best and brightest gravitated because that was where the really big, important decisions were being made and that was where the best senior officials were in leadership (and mentoring) roles.

The foreign affairs department is a place where we need exceptionally bright, talented civil servants ~ people who are very well educated, preferably with at least one degree from a foreign university ~ yes those Oxbridge degrees were good to have ~ and at least one language beyond English and French. It needs to be better focused and, at the risk of intruding too deeply into the complex craft of cabinet making in Ottawa, it needs to be relieved of the trade portfolio which should go to a bigger, better more powerful ministry of Industry, Trade and Commerce, or something like that. The foreign minister needs to be concerned with both the broad strokes of policy and the intricate political details of policies towards individual states and alliances, but, at the same time, freed from the technical details of trade disputes and negotiations and even the tariffs on chickpeas. That Prime Minister Trudeau took his foreign minister to India was a good thing, that he made a trip where trade and tariffs should have been a major issue and left his trade minister behind shows what the trip was really about.

Our current foreign policy seems to be focused on cosying up to China, often at the expense of our established strategic and economic relationships with America, the ASEAN nations, Australia, Britain, the European Union, India and Japan. I, personally, still favour, despite the warnings of experts, the notion of integrating China into the modern world by enhancing trade and diplomatic relations, but not at the risk of damaging other, equally or more important relationships. Many (actually most) of our American, Australian, Indian and other friends all have serious reservations about what Xi Jinping is trying to do and how he is trying to do it. That, worries about China’s influence in Canada, was one of the recent irritants in the Indo-Canadian relationship ~ not as serious as the Sikh separatism issue, but still a worry for the Indians. Some informed observers believe that Canada needs to pursue better relations with China, including a free(er) trade deal, as its highest priority foreign policy goal in the Trump era.

I agree that we, as a small but important partner in “the West” and, potentially, a leader (again) amongst the middle powers, want and need to have good, friendly relations with the superpowers, America and China, and to the extent possible, Putin makes it very, very hard, with the great powers ~ Britain, the European Union members, especially France, Italy and Germany, Japan and Russia ~ too. But I think the bedrock of our foreign quote-we-have-no-eternal-allies-and-we-have-not-perpetual-enemies-our-interests-are-eternal-henry-john-temple-52-93-52policy needs to be the Anglosphere, despite America’s current flirtation with isolationism or, at least America-firstism. No country, the great British statesman Lord Palmerston said, has permanent friends or permanent enemies, but they do have long term (nearly permanent) interests and those need to be protected and promoted in the world. Canada’s enduring vital interests I have said many times can be somewhat simplified as being Peace and Prosperity and they should be at the heart of our foreign policy. We want our diplomats to work, hard, at preserving and maintaining global peace and security ~ and that means ensuring that they always have access to a capable, combat ready, efficient and effective military force that can project our power, unilaterally in some case but most often with allies, anywhere in the world. Our diplomats ~ both the ones from the foreign ministry and the ones from the Industry, Trade and Commerce department ~ should also be working to promote free(er) trade amongst nations that are willing to reciprocate.

I do not believe thatPrime Minister Justin Trudeau is giving us the foreign policy we deserve ~ unless we all deserve to be punished because almost 40% of us voted for him ~ I suspect he is giving us the one that his campaign team wants because they think it will garner votes in 2019.

The foreign policy we deserve is one that is principled and pragmatic … it should hark back to the one that Louis St Laurent gave us in the late 1940s when he ushered in the “golden age” of Canada in the world. It’s time for Conservatives to seal some of the visionary policies of one of Canada’s greatest ever Liberal prime ministers and of Britains greatest ever Tory-Whig-Liberal foreign minister.



Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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