Canada’s lack of a Foreign Policy

Zi-Ann Lum, writing in the Huffington Post, quotes former Canadian Security Intelligence Service chief (and also former Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet and National Screen Shot 2019-11-30 at 19.31.05Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and Deputy Minister of National Defence) Dick Fadden who said that “recent Conservative and Liberal governments have “failed abominably” on foreign policy work with China.” He said that ““Mr. Harper’s government, Mr. Trudeau’s government both tried very hard to articulate a Canadian policy and they both failed abominably because there was no consensus in cabinet at all … [and that’s because] … there’s no consensus in Canada about the policies.

That, I suspect, is the key to our incoherence about China and several other key policy issues. Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is divided, just as was Stephen Harper’s cabinet and Jean Chrétien’s, too, because ministers represent departments (Foreign Affairs, Industry, Defence, Finance, etc) in which the most senior officials have divergent views, which, very often their ministers (quite correctly) bring to the table, and/or ministers represent different socio-political factions in Canada that have equally divergent views.

Ms Lum writes that “Fadden said Canada doesn’t have close relations with countries that don’t share similar principles, suggesting that strategic diplomacy could make the country less isolated … [because] … Our values are not always shared by the rest of the planet … [and] … We have a bad habit of simply assuming that we are correct and everybody else is wrong.”” This assumption that only we, Canadians, are wise and virtuous has been a feature, and not a pleasant one, of Canadian diplomacy and foreign relations since the late 1940s. As the great American statesman “Dean Acheson once acidly quippedCanadians discussing foreign affairs reminded him of listening to the “stern daughter of the voice of God.” Canadians, he implied, were pious moralists, ready to give free and often unwanted advice, based on the assumption that Canadians possessed a rare insight into good and proper conduct.

Mr Fadden said that not much has changed, Zi-Ann Lum reports, adding that “in the three years since he retired, conversations he’s had around the world about Canada have reflected little praise for Canadian diplomacy. “We have a reputation of lecturing the planet. And that’s not enough. Telling people they’re not doing things properly is not good enough.” Now we call it virtue signalling, and it seems, to me, to be almost the mainstay of the Justin Trudeau-Chrystia Freeland school of diplomacy.

Bob Rae, former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who was on the same panel at the Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership in Ottawa, last week, agreed. “Canada needs to engage with the world by contributing more resources or risk not being taken seriously,” he said, “suggesting there’s little value in being the “best sermonizers in the world.”

Mr Rae added, and I agree, that the government can be excused for not having a coherent position on Hong Kong. Canada does have vital interests in the region and while many Canadians sympathize, very correctly, with the aspirations of the people of the Hong Kong the Chinese government and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly dismissed international opposition to its handling of the situation as unwelcome foreign interference in China’s internal affairs ~ and China is clearly able and willing to retaliate. Hong Kong is another complication in an already badly strained Sino-Canadian relationship and it’s not a sin that, especially in an election year, Canadian politicians and senior officials have been slow to enunciate a clear Canadian policy.

Making strategic policy is not simple. In fact, it is hard, detailed work that requires discussion and compromise which implies a willingness on the part of leaders to listen and even to change their minds. Donald Trump shows us the perils of not being both diligent and open to new ideas. But, and this is arguably true since the Pierre Trudeau era ~ with two notable exceptions, both in the Mulroney years: 

  • mulroney_brian_luncheonTaking a firm, principled stand against Apartheid in South Africa, which was a holdover from the Diefenbaker era, even when that put us ‘offside’ from our most important allies; and
  • Reviving the old Laurier-Liberal idea of free trade.

There were many things that history might find regrettable about the Mulroney years but I doubt that it will fault him for having a principled and coherent foreign policy.

That all changed with Jean Chrétien, who was almost a neo-mercantilist, and for whom principle could never stand in the way of profit.

In the modern (Chrétien-Martin-Harper-Trudeau) era, Conservatives have been, broadly, anti-China, sometimes for reasons that are less than coherent or principled, and Liberals have been too prepared to “go along to get along” with China. This is because both parties reflect the incoherent views of the whole country. But political leaders shouldn’t (mustn’t) just reflect the views of their voters ~ that sort of populism is nonsensical ~ they must, as Edmund Burke said, bring his or her “unbiased opinionmature judgment … [and] … enlightened conscience” to bear on each issue. But I’m afraid that too many (most?) modern Canadian political tacticians hold all those things in scant regard.

In the 2020s Canadians must listen to a few clear voices who will tell them that China is a competitor in many “markets” including in the marketplace of ideas, ideals, institutions and values. The current Chinese leadership is overtly hostile to Weterm liberal-democratic values and is not unwilling to punish any country with which it disagrees. It is protectionist, relatively rich and growing in military, political and economic power, but, still, somewhat cautious, and Xi Jinping’s China seems to be able to separate its own short-term political interests from its firm, long term, strategic goals. China, as Kevin Rudd reminded us just a few days agois contemptuous of weakness and prevarication,” which explains why it is so obviously contemptuous of Justin Trudeau’s Canadian government.

It is a fact that the Sino-Canadian relationship is “unbalanced:” China is a great power, Canada is not; China is an autocracy, Canada is a democracy; and so on but, as Kevin Rudd said (link just above) “China too has net strengths and weaknesses of which … [our] …  strategists should be aware in framing our own strategy … [and we] … should be equally aware of our own strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”” Canadian strategists need to educate Canadians about China so that a solid, informed majority will want a coherent and principled policy ~ one that puts our national vital interests first:


Our policy towards China needs to be just one part of a coherent, principled foreign policy which Canadians understand and, broadly, support, and that, in turn, needs to be part of a Canadian grand strategy that aims to secure a place, as Paul Martin suggested, “of pride and influence in the world” ~ that, of course, was a place we enjoyed under St Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson, all of whom were acutely aware of the many and varied (and very divergent) views about Canada in the world that existed then and persist today in Canada’s many and varied communities.

Bismarck famously taught that people with weak stomachs should not watch sausages or policies being made ~ the two processes are, similarly, unpalatable. Officials need to set trudeauchicago-e1518051554787out options for political leaders to consider and then politicians need to lead. Some are, very obviously, uncomfortable in leading, perhaps even intellectually and morally unable to lead. It is, then, up to the cabinet, as a whole, to select the best options for Canada’s long term, strategic interests (rather than for near term “virtue signalling” to socio-political “communities”) and “sell” them to the prime minister. That job might be easier if the deputy prime minister did not, as she all too obviously does, share the same intellectually and morally fuzzy views as her boss. Canadian political leaders must, as Dick Fadden says, build “a consensus in Canada about the policies” that will guide our relationships with China, America, Russia, Europe, the Arabs and, and, and … to do that our “political leaders” must, first and foremost, lead. That means we need new, real leadership, first.


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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