When will Canada see Trudeau's promised foreign policy wins?

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When will Canada see Trudeau's promised foreign policy wins?

OpinionWhen will Canada see Trudeau's promised foreign policy wins?We're now 14 months out from the next federal election, and the Trudeau government has yet to secure a major win for Canada on the world stage.

It didn't have to be this way. There would have been no shame in Trudeau shifting in response to Trump

"Canada is back," Trudeau mugged for the world's cameras at the signing of the Paris Accord in 2015. "We're Canadian," Trudeau told the U.N. General Assembly the following year, "and we're here to help." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

We're now 14 months out from the next federal election, and the Trudeau government has yet to secure a major win for Canada on the world stage.

Sure , there's been lots of talk about progressive ideals and the empowerment of women, but precious little evidence those ideals are taking root around the world with Canada's help. It's a poor return considering the global rapture that greeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election.

"Canada is back," Trudeau mugged for the world's cameras at the signing of the Paris Accord on climate change, the month after his win over Stephen Harper. "We're Canadian," Trudeau told the U.N. General Assembly the following year, "and we're here to help." But help how, doing what? The vague Liberal platform promises on "leadership in the world" have vanished like weak farts in a strong breeze.

Yes, the Liberals have kept Canada's free trade deals with Europe (CETA) and ten other Pacific nations (CPTPP) on the rails after some serious wobbles, but the vision and most of the work there was done under the previous Conservative government. In fact, it was Trudeau's mistimed intervention at the 2017 APEC Summit that held up the revised Pacific trade accord. And now the Italians are even grumbling about CETA.

More of the same

True, Canada does have its smaller-than-expected peacekeeping mission to Mali, a beefed-up NATO mission to the Baltics and a reprofiled force in Iraq. But these are initiatives that fall into the bucket of "par for Canada's course" â€" not transformative or imaginative foreign policy.

It turns out that unshackling the Global Affairs bureaucracy doesn't give Canada all that much pull. At least not when it isn't given anything more than a slogan as guidance. It's been so poor, only a fool would now bet on Canada receiving the temporary U.N. Security Council seat for which it has been campaigning. Perhaps that's why the government has stopped yapping about it.

The one true moment of diplomatic derring-do under the current government was the recent evacuation of the White Helmets from Syria, a stirring moment of diplomacy for which Canada should be proud.

But contrast these achievements with Harper's full-court press on free trade (where he signed several new and improved agreements), multi-billion dollar maternal health initiative, G-20 leadership during the global economic crisis and success in getting Russian President Vladimir Putin tossed from the G-8, and the Trudeau return looks even smaller still.

Trudeau seemed to think his considerable charm and celebrity could mollify Trump in the early days of his presidency. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

And while it's true Trudeau's hope for leaving a big mark on the world stage died the day Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, Trudeau's government has shown little flexibility in i ts approach to foreign policy in response to his election. The Liberals still conduct foreign policy as if Barack Obama were president, or as if Hillary Clinton had taken his place. If only. Unfortunately, the U.S. is no longer a reliable backer of Canadian goal; now it's more often a roadblock, especially in the bilateral relationship.

Like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trudeau seemed to think his considerable charm and celebrity could mollify Trump in the early days of his presidency. Emboldened by a good first meeting and the praise of the world's press, Trudeau then came to the NAFTA table armed with his fabled progressive chapters. Whatever their prospects then, nobody much rates their chance for inclusion now.

Pivoting to circumstance

It didn't have to be this way. There would have been no shame in Trudeau shifting in response to Trump. A bit of support for the attempts by the U.S. to peg China ba ck through World Trade Organization reform, or an openness to nuking supply management (a move that some party will eventually figure out is a massive win for 99 per cent of Canadians) might have taken some heat out of the bilateral relationship. All leaders pivot according to circumstance; no leader's foreign policy survives contact with the world.

Harper was not, for example, particularly eager to get involved in Libya or Mali, but when the U.S., Britain and France came calling in turn asking for support, Harper put Canada's (limited) military assets on the table because he deemed being a reliable friend in a time of need good policy, even if it wasn't particularly popular at home. Nor, for that matter, was Harper ideologically sympatico with joining the G-20 in a massive bout of deficit spending during the recession. But he did it (and reaped the domestic benefit).

One suspects that popularity at home is the be-all and end-all of Trudeau's foreign policy. And while every Canadian government plays for votes at home from abroad, Trudeau's insight was to make foreign policy about progressive values â€" "Canada's values" â€" and not so much targeted plays to diaspora communities (India excepted). And if those values get up the nose of some dictator who complains, so much the better.

The deep-seated Canadian desire to be virtuous on the world stage â€" and be seen to be virtuous â€" is Trudeau's saving grace. That's why Trudeau won't bother fixing his ineffectual (results-wise) foreign policy ahead of next year's election. He'll stick with the high-minded rhetoric.

Adapting to Trump now, when the president's future seems so uncertain, especially in light of the recent court travails of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, isn't a risk worth taking. Changing after the midterms would make more sense, but even then, there isn't much time left to produce a result ahe ad of October 2019.

Better, then, to continue on, and hope Canadian voters stick to their habit of awarding an "A" for effort (and intention) on foreign policy, and not for achievement.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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