CDA Institute guest contributor Kim Richard Nossal, professor of political studies at Queen’s University, looks at how the new Liberal government approaches foreign policy and non-partisanship. This is Part 1 of a two-part series. canada-is-back-trudeau-and-foreign-policy-part-1
The day after the election, Justin Trudeau wasted no time in declaring an end to the Harper Conservative era in Canadian foreign policy. “To this country’s friends all around the world,” he said at a Liberal rally on 20 October, “many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians: We’re back.” He was to repeat that “Canada is back” on a number of occasions in the weeks afterward.
It was a pithy, but loaded, phrase. It was designed to signal an end to Canada’s antipathy towards the United Nations, so much in evidence between 2006 and 2015; there would be no more disparaging the UN as a “gabfest for dictators.” No longer would the government in Ottawa conduct foreign policy by insult. No longer would it “lecture and leave,” in Joe Clark’s memorable phrase. It signaled an end to what Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail so accurately called “bullhorn diplomacy.” It also signaled a better relationship with the United States: no longer would a Canadian prime minister bluntly tell the president that Canada just won’t take no for an answer.
Finally, the phrase was intended to signal an end to the relentless cynicism in foreign policy that was so much a mark of the Harper Conservatives, reflected in the Conservative efforts to politicize almost every foreign policy issue in an undisguised and unapologetic attempt to maximize their electoral support—and to maximize the skewering of the opposition parties.
Since the election, we have seen a marked change in both approach and tone. Certainly Trudeau’s approach to participation in the United Nations climate change conference of the parties – COP21 – in Paris in November was indicative of the immediate change in approach. During the Harper years, the government would routinely exclude the opposition from Canadian delegations to global climate change conferences; but then, just to rub it in, the Conservative front bench would take particular delight in criticizing the opposition for not attending these conferences. Indeed, when Peter Kent, the Conservative environment minister, did this in December 2011, attacking NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not going to COP17 in Durban, an infuriated Trudeau, then an ordinary Liberal back-bencher, openly lost his temper in the House of Commons.
Once he was prime minister, however, Trudeau chose not to play tit for tat with the Conservative opposition. Instead, he invited the opposition parties to join him as part of the delegation to Paris. Trudeau even tweeted a picture of himself surrounded by premiers and three opposition MPs – the Conservative environment critic Ed Fast, Green leader Elizabeth May, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair – and a message that would have been unthinkable before 19 October 2015: “To fight climate change, we’re all in this together.”
The same non-partisanship was evident some days later at Toronto airport, when the prime minister welcomed the first planeload of Syrian refugees to Canada. Once again, he invited the opposition to join him, for this was intended to be a Canadian welcome, not a partisan affair from which the opposition would be ruthlessly excluded so that the governing party could capture maximum credit.
Ironically, the non-partisanship that has been on display since 4 November is not a “return” to an earlier era at all. To be sure, Trudeau certainly introduced a major departure from the hyper-partisanship of the Harper Conservative years. But the inclusiveness of the Trudeau government is actually a new phenomenon in Canadian politics. While no Canadian government in recent history had been as partisan as the Harper Conservatives were between 2006 and 2015, none had been particularly non-partisan. Harper’s predecessors – Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin – did not routinely or automatically involve the opposition in national events or commemorations in a spirit on non-partisanship.
But in other ways, Canada under Trudeau fils is indeed “back.” For example, Canada’s tone at the Paris conference was so cooperative and constructive that Canada was widely praised, and the minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, was named as one of the conference’s 15 facilitators. On other global issues, the tone of Canada’s pronouncements has been more measured, less self-congratulatory, less shrill, and less confrontational. Trudeau’s choice of two political appointees to senior ambassadorial posts – David MacNaughton, chairman of Strategy Corp., as Canada’s ambassador in the U.S. and Marc-André Blanchard, CEO of McCarthy Tétrault, as Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations – signals that he will be putting an emphasis on improving relations with both the US and the UN.
But Trudeau has also signaled that he wants Canada’s foreign policy establishment to play a greater role in policy. Not only has he already given the minister of foreign affairs, Stéphane Dion, like his other ministers, greater autonomy, but he has also given Canadian diplomats abroad permission once again to do their job and speak openly. The wildly enthusiastic welcome that public servants in Global Affairs Canada gave Trudeau and members of his cabinet when they had a meeting in the Lester B. Pearson Building on 6 November was seen by some as an unfortunate display of exuberance for the new government. But it was an entirely understandable response to the previous nine years, when the foreign affairs department had been so despised and undermined by “the Centre” and so many senior diplomats had had to endure the rude treatment that had been so often visited on them by the “kids in short pants” in Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office.
In short, what we have seen is a change in both the approach and the tone of Canadian foreign policy. And while no one would suggest that we are going to see a simplistic return to Canada’s “traditional” approaches to foreign policy, there is little doubt that some of the signature approaches of the Harper Conservatives to foreign policy have been abandoned; instead, this government has signaled that it intends to be smarter about how to advance Canadian interests.
Kim Richard Nossal is a professor in the Department of Political Studies and the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University. His latest book, co-authored with Stéphane Roussel and Stéphane Paquin, is The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy, 4th edition, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in November 2015. (Image courtesy of The Canadian Press.)