Skip to main content
john ibbitson

Justin Trudeau wants to undo a decade of Conservative foreign policy and return Canada to its Pearsonian tradition of being a helpful fixer in the world.

The problem is that the country has changed and the world has changed. If Mr. Trudeau simply wants to turn the clock back, he will fail. The question is whether he has the insight to adapt past Liberal principles to current reality. Those closest to him insist the answer is yes.

As I wrote here on Wednesday, the Liberal Leader outlined his thoughts on how he would conduct foreign policy if he were prime minister at a meeting a few weeks ago with members of Salam Toronto, an Iranian-Canadian publication. You can view that video here.

The Liberal Leader would restore Canada's standing at the United Nations and other multilateral forums. He would devolve greater responsibility and autonomy to diplomats serving overseas. He would maintain and accelerate the Conservatives' trade agenda. Most important, he would once again offer Canada's services as a helpful intervener, unhindered by the Europeans' colonial past or the United States' imperialist present.

Mr. Trudeau's agenda will appeal to many who long to move away from the with-us-or-against-us rhetorical excess of Stephen Harper's foreign policy. But there are problems with the Liberal leader's approach.

In my previous column I spoke of the hypocrisy of any Liberal accusing the Conservatives of being laggards on trade, and of the latent anti-Americanism implied by Mr. Trudeau's remarks. But there is a bigger issue. Mr. Trudeau's nostalgia for the Pearsonian past fails to recognize that Canada and the world are very different places from a generation ago. It's simply not possible to go back.

For example: Mr. Trudeau wants to increase Canada's commitment to peacekeeping. But long before Stephen Harper became prime minister, Canada had withdrawn from any meaningful role in that field. In 1991, Canada contributed more forces to peacekeeping operations than any other country. By 2005, the last year of Paul Martin's prime ministership, we had dropped to 32nd.

The increased focus on terrorism in the wake of Sept. 11, the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the winter that followed, the obvious failure of the Kyoto Accord to combat global warming, the rise of China, India, Brazil and other emerging economic superpowers, and now increasing Russian belligerence have all conspired to render the Pearsonian legacy of peacekeeping, shop-talking and soft diplomacy incoherent. Mr. Trudeau may not like Stephen Harper's foreign policy, but it at least fits with the world as it is.

A senior Liberal official, speaking on background, takes exception to this analysis. The Salam Toronto interview, the official said in a conversation Wednesday, is far from a complete description of Mr. Trudeau's foreign-policy priorities.

Far from harbouring anti-American sentiments, the Liberals maintain that one of Mr. Trudeau's top priorities is to improve the strained relationship that has developed between Canada and the United States on Mr. Harper's watch.

While Mr. Trudeau strongly supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, he believes the Conservatives have so mishandled the file that a major reset is required, one that he would vigorously pursue.

Mr. Trudeau would also work to improve Chinese-Canadian relations, which he believes have seriously deteriorated on the Conservatives' watch.

In that sense, Mr. Trudeau's Salam Toronto remarks almost seemed like a throw-back, a return to outdated Liberal verities that the new leader has in other important respects abandoned.

Mr. Trudeau is one of many who believe that Conservative foreign policy consists of little more than shopping for votes at home. Whether the subject is Israel, Ukraine, or Canada-U.S. relations, Mr. Harper is "very, very much focused on what is going to play well at the ballot box," Mr. Trudeau maintained. "That's not my vision for what Canada can mean."

He is not alone in this view. At a recent forum hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the distinguished foreign diplomat Christopher Westall maintained that Conservative foreign policy is largely diaspora-driven.

"Diasporas are a huge problem in foreign policy," he observed. Immigrants' unwillingness to sever political ties with their homeland "is a problem with diasporas everywhere," he added. The duty of political leaders is to transcend the "old views" of immigrant communities and craft a responsible, enlightened foreign policy, something Mr. Westall believes the Harper government has conspicuously failed to do.

Mr. Westall is absolutely right. Canadian Tamils influence Conservative foreign policy toward Sri Lanka; Canadian Sikhs influence Conservative foreign policy toward India; Chinese Canadians influence the Harper government's approach to China; Ukrainian Canadians influence the Harper government's approach to Ukraine.

But what would you expect? When Canada's population was mostly of French, English, Irish and Scottish descent, does anyone believe our foreign policy was anything other than diaspora-driven?

Forgive this repetition, but over the past two decades we have imported the equivalent of two Torontos-worth of immigrants, almost all of them from what used to be called the Third World. Any political party that wants to succeed must earn their support. Political parties that lose the immigrant vote lose the election.

The Liberals believe that they can reconnect with Canada's immigrant community without pandering to parochial concerns. They believe they can improve Canada's reputation abroad and revitalize the Canadian economy through trade while recognizing the hard realities of today's global environment.

If so, Mr. Trudeau's supporters may be surprised to discover that Canada's foreign policy under his leadership is essentially what it was under the Conservatives, but with softer language and a warmer smile.

Unless, that is, Mr. Trudeau is unable to escape his nostalgia for the Pearsonian past, in which case his foreign policy will make no sense at all.

John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.

Along with other CIGI experts, Mr. Ibbitson will be contributing at, where this post was originally published.