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Trudeau’s hard line on foreign aid won’t help re-elect him

Billions for the military and a lump of coal for foreign aid. Justin Trudeau has turned out to be hard-nosed enough to make Liberal foreign policy more hard-nosed when he had to – in the dog-eat-dog world of 2017. But politically, that's not where he wants to be when he heads for re-election in 2019.

The Liberal government's three-part foreign-policy renovation last week would have been a surprise if you had been asleep since late 2015, when Mr. Trudeau was just elected, and before U.S. President Donald Trump made Canada's biggest ally into an unpredictable partner demanding its friends pony up more money for defence.

As much as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did a plausible job of tying the new realities of 2017 into a new Liberal foreign policy in a speech last week, the resources were allocated in the two pieces that followed – a new defence policy and a new "feminist" foreign-aid policy – were telling.

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Back in 2015, when the freshly-elected Prime Minister Trudeau was declaring that Canada was back, most of his supporters understood it was the do-gooding Pearsonian Liberal Canada: multilateral diplomacy and peacekeeping, updated with a welcome for Syria refugees and climate change, not billions for fighter jets and warships.

But that's where the money went in last week's foreign-policy reset. Yes, the military needs it. But there aren't many who could say that was a Liberal priority – not before Mr. Trump came along and the Pentagon started asking allies how they expect to reach NATO's guideline that calls on members to spend 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.

Ms. Freeland made the case for the military spending another way – arguing that Americans are questioning the value of their global leadership, so countries like Canada have to be prepared to step. Whether it's Mr. Trump's pressure or the need to help fill the vacuum he is leaving, the prescription is the same.

But the same logic about filling the vacuum left by diminished U.S. leadership could apply to foreign aid – especially if you are a Liberal. But it didn't mean more funding for the feminist-aid policy that International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launched Friday. At a time when Mr. Trump plans to slash U.S. foreign-aid dramatically, particularly for items like contraception and access to abortion, the Liberals could have made a political statement with its new policy – if the lack of money, compared to the military funding, wasn't such a stark message.

This was an obvious place for the Liberals to make a political statement in contrast to Mr. Trump, and to the Conservatives, who dropped funding for abortion services from foreign-aid programs. Yes, the Liberals will tout the fact that they have already earmarked $650-million over three years for reproductive-health projects. But each time they do so, they have to mutter vague words about where the money's coming from.

The aid policy itself was mostly a set of broad policy inclination, and what matters is how they are translated into funding for specific projects. There will be refocusing of bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa, and $150-million over five years to fund local women's organizations, but mostly, it's still to be hammered out. The aid community, relieved the Liberals talk to them more than the Conservatives, welcomed it, but over time, they'll start asking why Mr. Trudeau won't devote resources to foreign aid.

And the Liberals are going to have a hard time selling this foreign policy to their own base, particularly their left wing. It's not that voters demand more foreign aid. It's just that a Liberal policy that responds to President Trump with the defence spending he wants but not the foreign aid he is eschewing will not seem like a Liberal balance to them.

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You can bet this Liberal Prime Minister will be looking for a chance to change that, especially if public finances improve. Next year, he hosts the G7, and that may be the moment for Mr. Trudeau to make a more Liberal splash on aid. He has proven he can be hard-headed when realpolitik demands, but politically, he'll want his foreign policy to soften before 2019.

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