Trudeau’s foreign policy failure … and another prescription for saving the liberal order

The Globe and Mail‘s award-winning international affairs correspondent Doug Saunders, someone with whom I (almost equally) often disagree and agree, has penned an insightful piece in the Good Grey Globe in which he says that “Suddenly, Canada finds itself almost alone in the world, with a Liberal government realizing that its optimistic foreign policy no longer entirely makes sense … [but, he concludes] … Even if the current crisis in liberal democracy proves temporary and short-lived, we know that it can recur – and likely will. If the institutions of 1945 no longer work and the doctrines of 2015 have failed to have an effect, we should develop new ones that will keep Canada connected to the better parts of the world for the rest of the century.

Canada’s problem, over the past four years, can be summed up in two illustrations by the Globe and Mail‘s editorial cartoonist David Parkins:

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 06.46.47
Then … October 2015 … “Canada is back!” and “Sunny ways!” and:
Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 06.47.16
Now, 2019: Canada is alone and, thanks to Trudeau’s bungling, friendless in the world.

Mr Saunders says that we had a “Trudeau doctrine,” but he explains that while Justin Trudeau said, in June of 2015, that ““Canada has always understood that being fully and firmly committed internationally is important not only to our own success but also to the success of others” … [he adds, however, that] … If there was ever such a thing as a “Trudeau Doctrine,” it is basically what he expressed in that sentence … [because] … Foreign relations were far from his biggest concern at the time, and this shift probably sounded relatively easy, given that the Liberals could feel certain they’d have the eager co-operation of the United States and the international institutions the Americans dominated.” He then cites Professor Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa, who served as Mr Trudeau’s foreign policy adviser in 2015 and 2016, who said: “I think he [Trudeau] believed that the approach that Harper had taken was making it harder for Canada to secure its interests …[and] … He had an approach that he felt was more consistent with Canadian values – that is, multilateralism as a means to an end. I would characterize it as a kind of pragmatic internationalism definitely informed by small-l liberal values.” On paper,” Doug Saunders says, “it bore a resemblance to Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s approach to the world, using trade-driven realism and moralistic idealism as mutually supportive facets of the same diplomatic actions.” The key in 2015, of course, was that it was not Stephen Harper’s approach.

After the Second World War,” Mr Saunders writes, “Canada gained a few more foreign-policy outlets. Canada played a large role in creating the institutions that governed the postwar peace: the United Nations and its various organizations; NATO; the global trade body that became the World Trade Organization; the Bretton Woods institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Canada was decisive in the international agreement that authorized the future creation of the twin states of Israel and Palestine, giving it a role in the Middle East that expanded with its creation of the institution of peacekeeping after the Suez Crisis in 1956 … [but this really is a silly statement, albeit one that too many Canadians believe to be true. Canada didn’t create the “institution of peacekeeping” in 1956. It was already there, in the United Nation’s case since Ralph Bunch (USA) and Sir Brian Urquhart (UK) created it in 1948 and it had been around since, at least, Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech in 1918, but it is now part of the Laurentian Elite‘s quite dishonest revisions of Mike Pearson’s sterling legacy as a diplomat and politician] …  And, starting in the 1950s, Canada became a player and a spender in the new field of foreign aid and development. Under both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, Canada used those tools to play a small but well-regarded place in the liberal-democratic order – and to slowly but profitably build its trade and economic relations.

But, Doug Saunders says, along came Stephen Harper, and he  “tried to make a dramatic break from those traditions. He was, in foreign policy, almost a pure idealist. Guided by a desire to project conservative principles, his government shunned and snubbed China and Russia, embraced Saudi Arabia, encouraged the breaking down of relations with Iran, praised Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron and gave a very cold shoulder to Mr. Obama after he failed to champion the Keystone XL pipeline. He avoided (and sometimes quit) international organizations and treaties in a principled rejection of traditions built on simply “going along to get along.”” Mr Saunders explains that “Most of these positions made sense to the Tories for the same reason that Mr. Trudeau’s overtures toward China and India later made sense to Liberals: because the stakes were fairly low and because those gestures appealed to his party’s core supporters. In his later years in office, Mr. Harper retreated to a more conventionally pragmatic approach to many files, especially China … [but] … Mr. Trudeau’s initial proposal, at face value, was to find a way to engage with any country, no matter how disagreeable its government might be to Canadians, in order to get the best deal and to use this co-operation with wide and divergent blocs of countries to benefit Canada’s economic, social and environmental interests. As for the United States, he was proud, he said that June, to be in a party that “has worked well with presidents of both parties to advance our shared interests,” and it would work with whatever president came along – a promise that would be severely tested.

Donald J Trump is sui generis, and I am not sure that Stephen Harper or anyone else, not even Louis St Laurent, could have done a lot better than Justin Trudeau did at finding ways to work with him, or around him. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte rather famously told Trump he was wrong about steel and aluminium tariffs but the stakes are lower for the Netherlands than they are for Canada and President Trump just brushed him aside. President Trump’s reactions to Justin Trudeau‘s “Canada will not be pushed around” remark, about a year ago, after the G7 summit in Charlevoix, was more illustrative of the problem Canada faces with a mercurial and thin-skinned American chief executive. The PM’s remarks, although poorly phrased ~ something we’ve come to expect from Justin Trudeau who is not good at extemporaneous, unscripted comments ~  was about the minimum that any Canadian prime minister could say under the circumstances. The President’s reaction was, shall we say, unprecedented.

The problem is, Mr Saunders says, and again, I agree, that while “Four years ago, the [so called] Trudeau Doctrineseemed to many informed observers to be reasonable and attainable … [because] … It was, at the very least, a way for Canada to expand its sphere of trade and political partnerships around the world, making it less dependent on traditional partners by building on the existing circle of open-minded democracies … [but] … What was less apparent in 2015 was the extent to which the entire Trudeau Doctrine was premised on having the co-operation of the United States. Without a U.S. president seeking similar goals, without a circle of open-minded democracies, Mr. Trudeau’s combination of pragmatic hardball and moral influence would go nowhere.” Four years ago I thought Hillary Clinton was the most 237-2374109_trump-wearing-maga-hatlikely choice to be USPresident and while I despised her I believed she was the more reasonable and rational choice than the bombastic, boorish, bullying Donald J Trump. I was wrong and now we can all see the impact on almost every country’s foreign policy because almost every country in the world planned on having a US president with goals that were, in some way, similar to those of Presidents Obama, Bush (43), Clinton, Bush (41), Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman and Roosevelt. That’s a longish list, but what’s important is to understand that Richard Nixon and George W Bush are far, far more like FDR and Barack Obama than any of them are like Donald Trump. As I said, above, Mr Trumps is sui generis.

In 2016 the American electorate had a different view than it had for most of the previous century,  and the world’s leaders, great and small, including Xi Jinping, Lee Hsien Loong, Vladimir Putin, Scott Morrison, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Shinzō Abe, Mark Rutte, Narendra Modi and Justin Trudeau, must adapt and recast their countries’ foreign, economic-trade and defence policies to suit.

Mr Saunders explains that the prospects of free(er) trade between Canada and China, one of the centrepieces of Prime Minister Trudeau’s “doctrine” began to collapse when “in September, 2016, when Premier Li Keqiang travelled to Ottawa to initiate exploratory talks (that is, talks about the possibility of talks) and made it known that a precondition for any free-trade initiative would be an extradition treaty with Canada. Given China’s support for capital punishment and lack of due process in its judicial system – and the revelation that Beijing is imprisoning a million people in its Xinjiang region simply because of their ethnicity – there was no chance of any Western government signing an extradition pact” … [but, he says] … the ultimate near-total breakdown in relations between China and Canada was not the result of any decision made in Beijing or Ottawa. It was a direct product of the defining event of Mr. Trudeau’s term: the election of Donald Trump at the end of 2016 … [which presaged] … The descent of the U.S. executive into extreme nationalism empowered a host of other counties, from Hungary to Turkey to India, that were slipping out of the liberal-democratic fray and lent credibility to intolerant parties in dozens of others … [and] … The sudden disappearance of the United States from virtually every important international file put a huge obstacle in the way of every Trudeau Doctrine plank. The Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – both crucial to the Trudeau notion of multilateralism – would continue to exist, but the withdrawal of the United States from both pacts made them far less significant and made Canada’s voice less weighty … [and, further afield] … Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the six-country nuclear-peace deal with Iran, and the evident inability of his administration to launch a credible Middle East peace process, meant Ottawa could find no useful role in the region. Mr. Trudeau’s promise to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran would go unfulfilled because Tehran had been goaded into hostility … [and] … In fact, Canada’s place in the Middle East was dramatically reshaped by Mr. Trump’s presence. The breakdown in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia was triggered by Riyadh in a grotesquely outsize response to a carefully drafted Canadian message on social media calling on Screen Shot 2019-04-24 at 12.30.09the kingdom to release a number of women it had imprisoned and tortured for requesting equal rights … [which, no matter how “carefully crafted] was, in fact, just useless, partisan, virtue signalling by Canada’s stunningly inept foreign minister and is something which has no place in the foreign relations of real, grownup countries] … That would not have been the response if the United States had sided with Canada in its condemnation of Riyadh’s treatment of activists. But Mr. Trump stood behind the Saudis, later even avoiding serious criticism of them for murdering and dismembering a Washington Post journalist in Istanbul. As a result, Canada became an easy target.

It is hard to find a file in Mr. Trudeau’s portfolio of diplomatic initiatives that was not ravaged, frozen or silenced by the election of Mr. Trump,” Doug Saunders writes, but he says, although I beg to differ, that “Mr. Trudeau and his government showed impressive discipline and resolve in holding Canada-U.S. relations together under Mr. Trump. That became a military-like campaign encompassing everything from the Prime Minister mastering handshake techniques to the recruitment of hundreds of political allies from across the ideological and partisan spectrum to defend North American free trade. The management of the President and the successful negotiation of the new NAFTA were the outstanding successes of the Trudeau government – but they were purely defensive moves intended to secure the status quo rather than build anything new. In the end, the election of Mr. Trump was the single event that rendered the Trudeau Doctrine meaningless.

Unlike me, Mr Saunders has a favourable view of what Ms Freeland has tried, is trying to do. I share, with Erin O’Toole, the view that, ““For the first time in the history of our nation, we have a Prime Minister who put his own brand and his own electoral prospects ahead of the national interest when it comes to foreign policy … [and] … OTooleErin_CPCIt’s very much an image-based approach, premised on maintaining their bona fides with their progressive voter base.” Doug Saunders suggests that “If his party wins the election, however, Mr. O’Toole’s objectives are modest. He says he and party Leader Andrew Scheer would “do some strategic re-engagement” with countries he feels have fallen out of favour with Canada – Japan, India, Australia – in other words, countries with broadly conservative governments. He would follow Mr. Trump’s lead in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that pleases ideological conservatives and harms the cause of Mideast peace but does not have major consequences for Canada. But he otherwise largely appears to agree with the Liberals that Mr. Trump is much more a problem to be managed than an ally to be sought … [but, Mr Saunders concludes, and here I do agree with him, that] … Both of Canada’s major parties, in other words, find themselves stuck without allies or any larger way out of the crisis of liberal democracy – a crisis that should have been visible before 2015 but didn’t become fully apparent until it exploded.

Doug Saunders, like Eugene Lang and others, has some prescriptions. He says that Dr Janice Stein, with whom he co-authored The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (2007) “argues that Canada is now almost totally isolated within a tiny circle of pluralist liberal democracies … [and] … feels the country needs to drop any pretense of idealism and signalling of Canadian virtues. “Canadian policy has to be interests-based,” she says. “All it can do now is protect our national interests” .. [but, Mr Saunders says that] … “national interests” doesn’t mean what it used to. Ensuring Canada’s physical and economic security is no longer a matter of supporting existing alliances; it requires a lot more effort and spending a lot more money … [see Mr Lang (link above, on “securing” the defence budget, and] … This insecure, unstable new world requires new approaches to Canada’s international relations.”

He offers three ideas as a starting point, postelection, for either the Conservative or the Liberal party:

  • Team up with the survivors. Last year, the American political scientists Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay proposed the creation of a “Committee to Save the World Order,” described as a new emergency “Group of Nine” organization consisting of the leaders and senior ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and Canada, which together hold the majority of the world’s economic power and the second-largest military force … [I commented on that several months] ago] … These countries would assemble regularly to “supply the leadership that the Trump administration will not” and would “maintain the rules-based order” in the absence of U.S. presence and “take on greater global responsibilities” in economic co-operation, military co-operation and maintaining peaceful relations between the powers. It would be fragile: Italy and Britain are both teetering on the edge of nationalist isolationism (although other countries might fall back into the liberal-democratic club and join). But it is meant to be temporary, based on the assumption that Mr. Trump’s demagoguery is a passing phenomenon rather than a new normal … [and] … that coalition [might be, Mr Saunders says is] becoming a reality: At a Group of Seven meeting in Dinard, France, in April, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Japan and Canada announced they would launch a new “Alliance for Multilateralism” at this September’s United Nations General Assembly. As well as the “G9,” the group hopes to include Argentina, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway and South Africa, and it notably excludes the United States, Hungary, Turkey, Russia and other countries that have slid into “illiberal democracy.” Those countries are the problem to be solved … [and] … Likewise, last year saw the launch of the Ottawa Group, an alliance of 12 democracies plus the European Union – again deliberately excluding the United States – that work together to improve global trade rules … [but, he says, and I agree] … As symbolically valuable as these coalitions may be … [aren’t they most likely to be just coordinated virtue signalling?] … a formal organization isn’t going to be an instant solution to creeping authoritarianism. But a central plank in any Canadian government’s foreign policy should be working closely with fellow liberal democracies, and especially those that embrace pluralism and open trade, to invest in making their system the norm and helping countries free themselves from nationalism and extremism.” But, see my comments, from a week or so ago, on Professor Roland Paris similar ideas;
  • Skip the governments, go to the people. One way, Doug Saunders says, to ‘team up with the (liberal-democratic) survivors’ “is to establish direct diplomatic and political relations with the public majorities and democratic forces in countries whose governments have slid into dark places – if necessary, entirely bypassing governments that have gone beyond the pale. This is controversial and risky, but it’s not unprecedented. In Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, in Venezuela starting in 2015 and in Myanmar during the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority after 2016, Canada found quiet ways to provide support to mass public movements that have credible claims to democratic authority over their countries’ less-legitimate governments … [and] … In 2017, Canada played an important role in creating a more formal and public version of this sort of assistance by helping shape and play host to the Lima Group, an alliance of 14 countries from the Americas and the Caribbean (it also deliberately excludes the United States) formed to respond to the seizure of dictatorial power by strongman president Nicolas Maduro and to recognize the legitimacy of the opposition-led parliamentary government … [and, he says that this] … Lima Group – which supports the legitimacy of Venezuela’s democratic majority, provides aid to a people starved by their government and seeks a peaceful transition back to democracy – is a model for future democracy-based initiatives in a world threatened by illiberal nationalism … [and he suggests that] … This is a particularly valuable form of diplomatic relations for Canada, both because it’s broadly supported by both parties and because it plays to Canada’s strengths. As a country of diasporas, Canada has two million citizens with family ties to China, 1.4 million with ties to Ukraine, half a million with ties to Russia and another two million with ties to the Indian subcontinent … [which is a very valid point, but he adds, and I agree, that] … Both Conservative and Liberal governments have generally got this relationship backward: They’ve pursued friendly photo-op relationships with these countries’ leaders, no matter how distasteful they may be, in hopes of gaining votes from ethnic communities. Instead, Canada could reverse the equation by drawing upon the cultural knowledge and connections of Canadian citizens and their families to help change the leadership of homelands that have gone terribly wrong … [but, he says] … We have learned, in recent years, that the only effective way to reach out to totalitarian-leaning countries such as China is not through government-to-government links but through citizen-to-citizen links. Making those links a permanent part of foreign relations, especially during political crises, would be a winning approach for either party.” I have very serious misgivings about the risks of such “direct diplomacy.” It smacks of interfering, overtly, in the internal affairs of others … which is something we would not welcome if the tables were turned; and
  • Beef up at home. Most of the foreign-policy frustrations experienced by Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Harper and their predecessors are reducible to a single fact: Canada, despite being a highly successful medium-sized country, lacks the clout in economic output, military resources, fiscal base, infrastructure or size and scope of public and private institutions to make a decisive difference without the assistance of other, larger countries … [I agree, 100% with that statement, and I also agree that] … Canada, unlike the United States or China or India, cannot go it alone. Nor would it want to – a retreat into economic or political nationalism or isolationism is not an idea in the Canadian mainstream … [but, he says] … circumstances are forcing Canada to rely far more heavily on its own resources. The dramatic decline of economic globalization after 2008, and the trade punishments meted out by China and the United States in recent years, have shown us weaknesses in our domestic markets. The inability of Ottawa to handle more than two major international Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 06.43.33crises at a time has shown how thin and underresourced our government departments are. And Mr. Trump’s threats to NATO and other international military alliances, and our inability to maintain more than a token peacekeeping role, have shown that we need to devote more to defence (and end the inefficient practice of procuring ships and vehicles from domestic suppliers). We need to build up our cities and infrastructure, our universities and institutions, our population and knowledge centres, to make Canada a place that can lead rather than merely join … [and, he says, and again I agree that] … Even if the current crisis in liberal democracy proves temporary and short-lived, we know that it can recur – and likely will. If the institutions of 1945 no longer work and the doctrines of 2015 have failed to have an effect, we should develop new ones that will keep Canada connected to the better parts of the world for the rest of the century.

I agree with Doug Saunders about the sources of Canada’s current weakness. He neglected to mention the root cause: Pierre Trudeau explicitly rejected, in the late 1960s, the “St Laurent Doctrine” and replaced it with a social ‘culture of entitlement’ which meant that our place in the world had to be sacrificed on the altar of a reinforced social safety net. I agree that Donald J Trump is the key to our and the West’s current angst and confusion, not Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Arab terrorists, all of whom are easier to understand, but I would argue that we would be much better placed to cope with president trump and the 21st century had we not abandoned our role as a leading middle power circa 1970. I have reservations about all three of Mr Saunder’s prescriptions:

  • I’m not sure another G-N, not even a “committee to save the world” is a really good idea;
  • I am nervous about interfering in the internal affairs of other countries ~ think about “do unto others” and all that; and
  • I really doubt that Canadians are ready to spend what’s needed on our defence and, I suspect, they will not be until it is (almost) too late.

Like Mr Saunders, Mr Lang and Professor Paris, I, too, want to save the liberal world order and Canada’s place in it; I’m just not sure that any of the proposed solutions offered by Doug Saunders, by Eugene Lang or even by Professor Roland Paris are going to be enough. I think we need less formality and fewer organizations in international actions and a lot more ad hocery.  I hope that we will have new, adult leadership here in Canada in the fall of 2019 and I hope that a new, grownup prime minister will begin, quickly, to mend relations with Australia, India, Japan and the Philippines and other Asian nations, to shore up our relations with Europe and, especially, with Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and UK. I also hope Canada will open new, more productive dialogues with Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America and with Iran, Russia and China, also. I am convinced that Professor Stein is correct and we must have an “interests-based,” even a selfish suite of foreign, defence, immigration and trade policies. We should not go about looking for enemies, but we must understand that we have precious few friends and, for now, we cannot count on America to be one of them. America, Australia and Britain, China, Denmark and India, Japan, Mexico and the Philippines, and Singapore and Senegal, too, will all act in pursuit of their own interests; Canada needs to be willing and able to do the same and to work with them, even with Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia when our interests converge and, politely, stand aside when they diverge. The G7 and G20 and a proposed new G9 are all harmless, but also, largely useless, talking shops. Both diplomacy and foreign affairs must be conducted on a case-by-case, country-by-country, issue-by-issue and interest-by-interest basis and diplomacy and foreign affairs can only be conducted with positive effect when Canada is respected for both its examples and values (soft power) and for its hard, economic and military power, too.

Thus, the first step in doing our part to “save the world” is probably the one that most Canadians will have near the bottom of their priority list: rebuilding Canada’s military ~ which must start, after a lot of the fat has been trimmed from a morbidly obese military command and control (C²) superstructure, with steadily growing the defence budget … and that cannot happen until the economy is firing on all cylinders, including energy exports to the world.

3 thoughts on “Trudeau’s foreign policy failure … and another prescription for saving the liberal order

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