Justin Trudeau was going to bring Canada back into UN peacekeeping. Now, that's on hold as he waits to understand Donald Trump's global priorities.
As Mr. Trudeau travels to Washington to meet the President on Monday, those global security issues are a critical part of the strategy to revamp relations now that Mr. Trump is in the White House. The question is whether Mr. Trudeau will feel forced to backtrack on key symbols of his Liberal internationalism.
Trade is the crucial bottom line for the Canadian Prime Minister, but there is also a sense that one way to ensure the relationship with the Trump administration goes smoothly is by working with them on defence and security matters. The economy and security are Mr. Trump's two top priorities – symbolized by the billionaires and generals in senior administration posts – and Mr. Trudeau's government is keen to be seen as a close security ally, knowing that might colour the entire relationship, including trade.
The problem, for Mr. Trudeau, is that no matter how much Canada's economic interests push him to work closely with Mr. Trump, those international security issues are a highly visible symbol of a leader's identity. It will be a political disaster for Mr. Trudeau if he is pushed to ditch icons of his Liberal worldview to stand beside Mr. Trump as an ally. If aligning with Mr. Trump means cancelling peacekeeping for, say, bombing in Syria, it will alienate many of his centre-left voters.
It's obvious the two leaders see the world differently. Mr. Trump started his tenure with a travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations, while Mr. Trudeau airlifted Syrian refugees. But Mr. Trudeau doesn't want to show up in Washington as leader of the global opposition. On international security, he wants to bridge the differences.
Mr. Trudeau ran on Liberal-left multilateralism and a return to UN peacekeeping. He promised a Liberal government would remain committed to alliances like NORAD and NATO, but withdraw from combat in Iraq, pulling CF-18 fighters out of air strikes on Islamic State.
That last promise was revamped, once in office, replaced with an expanded training mission in Iraq to placate allies. But he still maintained a Liberal image of less combat and more peacekeeping. In August, he announced that up to 600 Canadian troops will be deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission in Africa.
The UN is still waiting. France and Germany had expected Canada to replace departing Dutch troops in the UN mission in Mali. But Mr. Trudeau's government is trying to figure out the priorities of its biggest security partner. And the signals have been mixed.
It's clear, for example, that Mr. Trump's priority is terrorism and Islamic State. But there are two schools in his administration: one, led by Defence Secretary James Mattis, believes in a broad global counterinsurgency strategy including winning hearts and minds, and another, led by national security advisor Michael Flynn, favours counterterrorism focused on just killing bad guys.
The Trump administration could conceivably view a Canadian mission in Mali as part of a global effort against terrorism, since it is aimed at keeping extremists from controlling Malian territory. Mr. Mattis might see it that way – he praised Canada's contributions to UN peacekeeping after he met Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan last week. But Mr. Flynn might only care about direct combat against Islamic State. What will Mr. Trudeau the Liberal do if his key ally wants Canada to drop peacekeeping for Mr. Trump's war on terror?
Another traditional pillar of Canada's security ties to the U.S., commitment to NATO, seems on shaky ground now, too. Mr. Trump once declared NATO obsolete, and his officials have since given mixed signals about the alliance. The only thing Mr. Trump has been consistent about is complaining that NATO allies aren't living up to their defence-spending commitments.
On that score, Canada is ranked by NATO as one of its worst laggards, spending half of the 2 per cent of GDP that members are expected to devote to defence. Mr. Sajjan has argued that what matters is that Canada takes part in missions, but if Mr. Trump is going after NATO freeloaders, Ottawa can expect pressure.
But spending billions more on defence, dropping peacekeeping, signing up for combat – those are not the things Mr. Trudeau's centre-left voters expected him to stand for. In security matters, the pressure to protect economic interests might force him away from his own political identity.