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Opinion Canada faces a foreign-policy fork in the road. Are voters hungry for change?

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Tweets and soundbites are the fast food of communicating policy. Like news releases, they are frequent but mostly shallow, narrow-cast, and platitudinous. There is not a lot of “there” there, so a well-prepared speech, especially on foreign policy, deserves digesting.

Speaking recently in Montreal, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer gave what diplomats call a “meat and potatoes” speech – effectively a full-course meal.

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Mr. Scheer’s uncosted promises included new jets, new submarines, ballistic missile defence and a robust cyber-command. There will be work for all of our shipyards and more attention to the Arctic. He pledges that all-party involvement will take the politics out of procurement. He gave a Churchillian defence of democracies. He would establish closer relations with India and Japan, do a reset with China, stand up to Russian aggression and terrorists, and move our Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Four years ago, Justin Trudeau gave his own pre-election foreign policy speech – a nouvelle cuisine version that focused on North America. He committed to more attention to Mexico and subsequently lifted the visa requirement for Mexican visitors.

But they shared one major, unsurprising thread: the need to repair the U.S. relationship.

How to manage Uncle Sam has been a constant challenge, one that’s existed even before Confederation. Mr. Trudeau criticized Stephen Harper’s “hectoring belligerence” and for making the Keystone pipeline the litmus test of the relationship. Mr. Scheer says he could have gotten a better deal on renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement. He may still get his chance if he were to become prime minister, although the lifting of the retaliatory steel and aluminium tariffs makes it more likely that all three countries will now pass the new agreement’s implementing legislation.

Mr. Trudeau embraces multilateralism. His signature themes are climate, gender equality and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. His UN General Assembly speeches were essentially one-plate affairs addressing migration, then reconciliation, with climate as a side dish for both.

But the defining speech of Mr. Trudeau’s foreign-policy vision so far came from Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, when she spoke to the House of Commons in June, 2017. Erudite in its defence of liberal internationalism, the rules-based system and robust collective security, Ms. Freeland pulled no punches. Describing the United States as the indispensable nation, she recognized that it was tired of carrying the burden. Canada and its allies had to step up to deter aggressors like Russia. The speech sparkled, but Canada has yet to deliver on defence and development promises.

With an election five months away, these “turbulent times”, as Mr. Scheer described them, should mean more focus on Canada’s global affairs.

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As the pair head into an election, they need to be wary of three temptations.

First, doing foreign policy on the cheap. It’s a meaner and messier world. It is going to cost us more for defence, diplomacy and development.

Championing the cause of the Rohingya, participating in the Lima Group’s efforts on Venezuela, and working to improve the WTO’s dispute settlement are examples of constructive diplomatic entrepreneurship. Using Canada’s globally sought expertise in democratic governance is a no-brainer. Why do we give much more funding to foreign entities than to Canadian NGOs such as the Parliamentary Centre, a non-profit which offers support to parliaments around the world. Why wouldn’t we benefit from the Canada brand?

These initiatives require a dedicated prime minister, an energetic foreign minister, and, perhaps especially, a foreign service at the top of its game. There are no guarantees of success. Not everything endures, including the progressive trade agenda and the UN-mandated Responsibility to Protect. We need to focus, recognize limitations and decide what best serves Canadian interests. That will mean hard choices and hard questions: Why are we involved in peace operations in Mali? Why not more in Haiti or in Central America?

Second, playing diaspora politics hurts national security and bilateral relations, as Mr. Trudeau learned during his magical mystery tour of India.

Third, avoid smugness and the tendency to preach. Virtue and apologetic sanctimony are qualities adored by the converted, but they won’t win Canada a UN Security Council seat. Humility, being constructive and paying our way represent better examples of statecraft.

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Tangles with Saudi Arabia and China demonstrate that we have fewer friends willing to visibly stand with us than we thought. The United States is a less reliable partner to us today.

Canada is a blessed nation, in its resources and in its people. We need government, including vigorous policy debates. As we approach the fall election, there will be more speeches bristling with ideas, initiatives and their costs – and Canadians would be well-served by listening closely to what these words really signal.

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