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Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has coined a new term, “responsible conviction,” to argue that Liberal foreign policy will be based on ethics animated by the need for responsible results.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

When it comes to foreign policy, Conservatives did realpolitik for a fantasy world, and Liberals prefer fantasy policies for the real world.

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion set out to describe the difference – or at least to set out a principle that will guide him in managing foreign policy, Justin Trudeau-style.

In the end, he got stuck in a familiar place: the murky corner where principles meet national interests.

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He coined a new term, "responsible conviction," to argue that Liberal foreign policy will be based on ethics animated by the need for responsible results. He used it to justify going ahead with the $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia signed by the Conservatives, but also to justify re-establishing relations with Iran and Russia.

Mr. Dion was trying to square some difficult circles. That's not new: Conservatives did that with foreign policy, too. What's interesting is that Liberals approach it in a different way.

Stephen Harper, let's recall, came to office with a disdain for what he viewed as naive, multilateralist, peacenik Liberal policies that didn't clearly distinguish between allies and foes or understand that real foreign policy is done in the hard coin of economic and military power.

But that came with an abrupt moral streak, too. The Conservative government cut off ties to Iran. It gave Russia the cold shoulder – even desk officers in the Foreign Affairs Department wouldn't take a meeting with junior diplomats from the Russian embassy. If countries behaved badly, Mr. Harper would cut them off.

The problem is, that didn't fit the real world. Canada doesn't have a surplus of hard power. Mr. Harper became frustrated that Canada's role in Afghanistan didn't lead to more influence. And talking to countries whose policies you oppose is often key to diplomacy – you can't do much of it in many parts of the world if you won't talk to Russia and Iran. Mr. Harper named an Ambassador for Religious Freedom to make a show of pressing countries with poor records, but they refused to see him.

So, Mr. Dion said Tuesday, the Liberals will change things. The Office of Religious Freedom will be closed. Canada will talk to Iran and Russia again. "Our world is highly imperfect, and to improve it we must engage in it with our eyes open, not withdraw from it," he said.

He's right. Boycott diplomacy only works once, as a bold statement. The silent treatment is useless over time. In the real world, diplomacy is necessary. Mr. Dion was at pains to argue that doesn't mean the Liberals are moral relativists. They'll just be less dogmatic, he insisted. Don't call us honest brokers, but "fair-minded and determined peace-builders." If the Liberals want to shed some old tropes, that's fine.

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But they have their own trouble with reality. It's a complex world with shades of grey, they admit, but they sometimes reach for rainbow policies.

Mr. Dion said the Liberal government agreed with Conservative goals in fighting the Islamic State, but not their methods, believing an increased training mission is more effective than air strikes. But that's a retroactive rationalization. Mr. Trudeau initially opposed bombing to portray himself as less militaristic than Mr. Harper, and later built a new mission to align with the real world.

Mr. Trudeau promised to increase Canada's role in United Nations peacekeeping – which could be useful in the real world. But neither Mr. Trudeau nor Mr. Dion has provided Canadians with a realistic image of the complex risks, and shooting, of modern peacekeeping, speaking of it instead as though it is a non-military vocation for the military.

Then there's the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Conservatives were keen to boost the Saudis, whom they saw as better than regional rivals Iran, but the Liberals have more qualms about the Saudi human-rights record. Both ended up in the same place: It would be irresponsible to cancel the deal and let the jobs go elsewhere, Mr. Dion said.

It wasn't an easy conundrum. And Mr. Dion was trying to come up with a new map for the places where principles meet interests. But there's nothing new there. What has changed is that the Liberals come to those places from a different direction.

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