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Trudeau’s policy of diplomatic re-engagement a step in right direction

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Cuba this week talking to Raul Castro. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was in The Hague campaigning to save the International Criminal Court.

These are places that Stephen Harper didn't go. The Liberals' policy of diplomatic re-engagement, of reconnecting to countries and institutions that Conservatives more or less shunned, is clearly visible now.

It's a policy the Liberals have sometimes soft-sold: they've been reluctant to talk about diplomacy with Russia and slow to re-establish relations with Iran. Talking to bad guys isn't popular.

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But diplomacy isn't a reward for friends. It's to protect interests, and nudge progress, and that means talking to troublemakers. This is a world where Vladimir Putin's Russia is a willing spoiler, China is rising and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is a surprise package who questions the value of alliances, admires Mr. Putin and promises a me-first, unilateralist United States. There's more reason for Canada to expand diplomacy and try to promote international rules.

Mr. Trudeau's trip to Cuba was planned before the U.S. election, and it wasn't a country that the Conservatives completely ignored – former foreign affairs minister John Baird visited. But it was different: Mr. Harper would never meet a Castro in Havana. And the tenor of Mr. Trudeau's trip changed with the U.S. election: he's no longer visiting a country normalizing relations with the U.S., but one that, with Mr. Trump, expecting renewed tensions. Canada might eventually be a diplomatic go-between again – and certainly needs its own connection in Havana.

That's true elsewhere. Mr. Trump's election increased jitters. But Canada always had a reason to seek stability, and in large parts of the world that's hard to do without talking to Russia or Iran.

Of course, there's a danger talking can become the goal. The Liberals rejected a so-called Magnitsky law sanctioning Russians for rule-of-law abuses, believing it would kill prospects for Russian diplomatic co-operation. But Mr. Dion still responded to Mr. Trump's warm tone with Mr. Putin by arguing sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine should be maintained.

And there is reason for Canada to push for international rules. That's why Mr. Dion was in the Hague on Wednesday. He has taken on a pair of unlikely, obstacle-laden international campaigns, efforts to revive a moribund nuclear-control initiative and trying to save the International Criminal Court.

He travelled across Africa to lobby nations to stick with the ICC, after three African countries including South Africa decided to pull out. But on Wednesday, when he made his appeal in The Hague, Russia withdrew from the Statute of Rome, which established the ICC.

It was self-serving. Russia had never actually joined the ICC. But Moscow was annoyed that the ICC called the annexation of Crimea an international conflict – and picked a good time to destabilize the court.

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The withdrawal of three African nations will probably be followed by others, said Indiana University professor David Bosco, who wrote a book about the court. "The idea that the court would one day be universal – that idea has taken a real hit," he said.

In The Hague, Mr. Dion appealed to countries to remain with a court that offers a way to "shine a light on grave wrongs." He promised efforts to address African concerns of bias – nine of its 10 investigations have been on the continent – but argued there is not actual discrimination, noting most investigations were referred to the court by Africans. "We need more of the International Criminal Court, not less," he said.

It's not the only uphill battle Mr. Dion has taken on. He led an effort to revive the near-dead idea of a fissile material cutoff treaty. That would see countries agree to stop producing bomb-grade nuclear fuel, and mainly limit the arsenals of Pakistan and India – the world's most unstable nuclear tripwire. It was blocked for years, but in October, a Canadian resolution to start basic work was backed by 177 countries. China and Russia chose to abstain, not block it. It was only a small step, but a step. And it required diplomacy.

Those things aren't the grand mark of foreign-policy success. The Liberals can be judged on what diplomacy brings. But talking isn't the mark of failure, either, and they are right to broaden the conversations.

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