While we’re busy beating up on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his missteps on foreign affairs and lack of stature abroad, what is to be said about the capabilities of his potential successor in this war-battered world?
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre hasn’t been prominent in foreign affairs debates, and he hasn’t really wanted to be. He’s spent his life deep in the domestic political trenches and rarely peers out to the universe beyond. Why bother? Elections aren’t normally won on questions of foreign policy.
So we’ve only heard from him sparingly. Some early controversies perhaps made him hesitant. A bitcoin supporter, he was mocked here and beyond for his bizarre statements on wanting to normalize cryptocurrencies to reduce the influence of central bankers. Trying to enhance his lowbrow populist credentials, Mr. Poilievre made headlines for railing against the wretched elites who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Those highly educated, very successful people who know stuff: Shame on them.
Aside from attacking Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Poilievre mainly offers generalities on his own intentions. That may be okay in normal times, but these are far from normal times. Before long, he could be making decisions on whether Canada goes to war, decisions like those made around Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the world aflame, Canadians need a better idea of his thinking on China, Ukraine, India, the Middle East, our existing climate agreements and our commitment to NATO to spend 2 per cent of our GDP on defence. “People have a right to hear more from the leader of the Opposition,” Chris Alexander, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan, told me in an interview. What is Mr. Poilievre’s strategy to limit China’s influence, he wondered?
Mr. Alexander, who served in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, speaks from experience, having worked abroad as a diplomat, a Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and a United Nations official. The parochial Mr. Poilievre hasn’t travelled beyond Canada much, hasn’t met with many foreign leaders or demonstrated any intellectual curiosity in speeches about the ominous forces accruing against American paramountcy.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper is Mr. Poilievre’s mentor of sorts. Mr. Harper chairs the International Democratic Union, an alliance of right-leaning parties. He’s raised eyebrows for promoting ties with the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Mr. Poilievre should tell where he stands on Mr. Orban.
It might serve him well to visit foreign capitals, to sit down with leaders to get a feel of things first-hand, to demonstrate whether he has diplomatic skills to counterbalance his reputation as a hatchetman, as opposed to statesman.
But there are limitations to such ventures for a conservative politician. He couldn’t go to Washington, incredibly enough, because he’d be too embarrassed to be seen with Republicans, given that party’s long-running state of derangement. Tea with Marjorie Taylor Greene? I don’t think so. A London visit would not be advisable either, given the sorry plight of the unpopular British Tories, who bone-headedly backed Brexit.
Canadian opposition leaders have been hesitant to go abroad to boost their foreign-policy bona fides ever since Tory leader Joe Clark’s infamous 1979 world tour. Poor Joe. The four-country trip was one embarrassment after another, beginning with him losing his luggage and continuing with several rather obtuse observations. To an impoverished farmer in India, he intoned: “What is the totality of your acreage?” He followed that question by blurting, “How old are the chickens?” That was followed by his analysis of the uneven landscape in Jordan: “You have a lot of rocks here.” The trip could have been a Saturday Night Live skit.
As for Mr. Poilievre, a trip to India could pay potential dividends. He has accused Mr. Trudeau of being “considered a laughingstock in India” for his stumbles with Narendra Modi’s government. By contrast, Mr. Poilievre could show how he could work with the world’s largest democracy, even if the two countries are currently at loggerheads over Khalistan separatists.
He has done well to appoint Michael Chong as foreign affairs critic in his shadow cabinet. The veteran MP of Hong Kong descent performed impressively on the Chinese election-meddling controversy; he is well-informed, balanced and, in a potential Poilievre government, would make a fine foreign minister.
Mr. Poilievre, who studied international relations while a student at the University of Calgary, is a quick study in coming to grips with complex files. His multilingual wife, Anaida Poilievre, who was born in Venezuela, adds a South American dimension to his perspective.
Experience isn’t the be-all and end-all for effective decision-making. Nor is erudition. But in these times, it’s comforting to have leaders – the deeply experienced U.S. President Joe Biden being a good example – who have an understanding about where the conflicts rage. Mr. Poilievre has a steep learning curve on foreign affairs. He should seek to flatten it.