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Think of it this way, said Frank McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier and ambassador to Washington. “Canada has what Russia has.”

In the absence of that pariah state as a supplier of oil, gas, grain, other critical minerals and resources, Canada, he said, can do much more to fill the void.

Addressing a Canadian Global Affairs Institute conference in Ottawa Tuesday, he was one of several seasoned foreign policy specialists who had a message the Justin Trudeau Liberals would do well to heed.

In confronting the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as other threats to liberal democracy, the government is being overly cautious, reactive instead of proactive. There’s a lack of enterprise, leaving this country’s potential on the foreign stage markedly unfulfilled.

In the past, inaction wasn’t so costly. Given the new world disorder, standing back won’t do. “We have to have a greater presence,” the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae told the gathering, “or we will lose out.”

The problem, said former prime minister and foreign minister Joe Clark in a corridor interview, is that Mr. Trudeau heads “a remarkably inward-looking government. We’re not sufficiently engaged.” While there are a couple of very talented ministers, he thinks they don’t make enough of a mark. “They go to an event for the photo and then leave.”

The absence of boldness is a strange posture in the context of what John Manley, who piloted foreign policy under Jean Chrétien, had to say. Given the ways of geopolitics, especially how the United States can no longer be relied upon as in the past, “we are more alone in the world than we ever have been,” he said. Even the newly modernized NAFTA, Mr. Manley said, can’t be guaranteed to last, given how Mexico has not been integrated as hoped.

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On relations with the U.S., Gary Doer, a former Manitoba premier and Washington ambassador under Stephen Harper, said there should be a push to forge a comprehensive energy security plan.

He didn’t mince his words. It’s “absolutely insane,” he said, that Washington is considering replacing oil imports from Russia with supplies from human rights abuser Venezuela instead of working together with Canada to fast-track deliveries.

On Ottawa’s military assistance to Ukraine, Conservative Peter MacKay, who served as foreign minister in the Harper government, didn’t mince his words either. “We sent four howitzers. That’s not enough to protect a small village.”

From panelist after panelist, the warnings piled up. “Get ready for a period of long confrontation with China,” said Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau. China, he said, is on track to be “a bigger foreign policy problem for us than Russia.”

David MacNaughton, Canada’s Washington ambassador during Donald Trump’s presidency, said Canadian foreign policy has to put more focus on its own hemisphere, particularly in the Caribbean, where China is making major investments, and in the North, where neighbour Russia threatens Arctic sovereignty. Both areas offer potential for collaboration with the U.S., he said.

The run of critiques came after Defence Minister Anita Anand opened the conference with the statement that “Our allies and partners want more of Canada.” This is a crucial moment, she said, and promised there would be more from Canada to be seen in the coming months, including on the subject of continental defence, which she called an as-yet unwritten chapter in the policy book.

On the plus side, as noted by Mr. McKenna and others, is the vast Canadian potential. If any country has the capacity to navigate the new perilous world, said Mr. Manley, noting Canada’s natural resources, diversity and highly educated population, it’s this country.

A more activist role in foreign affairs, pollsters David Coletto and Frank Graves told the participants, stands a good chance of being greeted by something unusual on the political front: bipartisan support. Liberals and Conservatives are not so ideologically divergent in the domain.

Unlike other countries that have been turning inward, even isolationist, Mr. Graves observed how Canadians commendably remain open to the world, to free trade and immigration.

In sum, noted Mr. Rae, “We have every reason for our diplomacy to be more robust.” To the Manley concern about Canada having never been so alone, he offered one of his favourite maxims: “If you want to have a friend, be one.”

Good advice. The new world instability calls for a bold new foreign policy. Instead of caution, it’s time, as Richard Fadden, Mr. Harper’s former national security adviser put it, to “pop the clutch.”

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