Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist. His most recent book is Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough.
Suddenly, Canada finds itself almost alone in the world, with a Liberal government realizing that its optimistic foreign policy no longer entirely makes sense.
We’ve been here once before. Both times, Canada has faced a United States whose confrontational, easily angered president has to be managed carefully by a reluctant prime minister. A Britain, badly weakened, that has turned inward and is withdrawing from the world stage. A Russia that has changed from a precarious ally into a dangerous threat. An authoritarian tide sweeping across China and Central Europe. A Western Europe embroiled in political crisis and instability. And a democratic world collapsing into ugly totalitarianism or racial intolerance.
The first time was in the mid-1940s, as the world slipped into the grip of the Cold War. Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King found his old foreign-policy tools impotent and his old relationships ineffective, until his visionary foreign minister, Louis St. Laurent, stepped in to play a key role in creating a new arsenal of international organizations and alliances that would hold the democratic world together and transform the language of international relations for three generations.
This time around, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is staring across a strikingly similar foreign-policy void. Large parts of the world have slipped away from international co-operation and democratic peace – this time with the United States leading the retreat.
At best, it’s a temporary stress test of the Canadian government’s capacity to handle an unstable world without reliable partners. At worst, it’s a long-term international crisis that defies both Mr. Trudeau’s optimistic expansionism and the more defensive approach of his Conservative predecessors. Either way, we’re stuck.
“We have frozen relations with India, with China, with Russia. We’re walking on eggshells around the United States – we’re on our own,” says Janice Gross Stein, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “And our foreign policy has to be grounded in a deep understanding that we are now on our own.”
For a Prime Minister elected in 2015 on a largely domestic platform, Mr. Trudeau’s term of office, more so than that of any of his predecessors, has been shaped and fated by forces and events beyond Canada’s borders. Many of those forces have left his government unable to respond in any effective way.
Whoever ends up in 24 Sussex Dr. after this fall’s federal election must thoroughly rethink the notion of Canada as a middle-sized country that depends on trusted allies and reliable trade partners and an outsized role in the old international organizations. All of those certainties have vanished.
Once again, as we did 75 years ago, Canada will need to invent a new set of ways to approach a less stable world – new strategies, new institutions. To understand what tools are required, we need to see how the bold promise of the Trudeau government’s vision collided headlong with a new world.
Reclaiming our place
You could see things begin to fall apart in the final weeks of 2016. Inside the Prime Minister’s Office and in the upper ranks of the departments of Global Affairs and Trade, the election of Donald Trump provoked a frenzied response, as senior officials realized this was not just a shift from a Democratic to a Republican administration, but something far more fundamental.
Within days, then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion – who had been considered a comparatively minor minister, an indication of Mr. Trudeau’s pre-Trump priorities – was shuffled out of cabinet and replaced with former trade minister Chrystia Freeland, who began rewriting the language and priorities of Canada’s approach to foreign policy in an effort to maintain her government’s guiding principles in a world that had suddenly become hostile to them.
In the first months after the U.S. election, “the enormity of the change began to dawn on us," senior policy-makers said. Although analysts at Global Affairs Canada provided the government with plans for Canada-U.S. relations in the event of either a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump victory, by the time Mr. Trump delivered his chilling inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017, it was obvious to insiders that his ascent would hurt just about every file in Canada’s foreign policy – from China to India to climate change to global trade to immigration and, of course, the North American free-trade agreement, the termination of which had been an oft-repeated Trump campaign promise.
Across the government, there was a shocking realization that the new approach to foreign policy Mr. Trudeau promised in 2015 would not only be far more difficult to realize, it had been almost entirely premised, perhaps unknowingly, on having the United States as a partner.
That vision first materialized in late June, 2015, when the Liberal Party’s prime ministerial candidate impressed a number of previously skeptical voters with a heady proposal to repair the frayed and broken wiring that connects Canada to the wider world.
In his first and only election speech on foreign policy, reiterated three months later in a surprisingly articulate performance in a foreign-policy debate, MP Justin Trudeau proposed a new international role for Canada: “It’s time for us to reclaim our place.”
Mr. Trudeau vowed that summer to restore Canada’s broken relationship with the United States, which had been damaged under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and to use that renewed partnership to launch a range of major joint initiatives on climate change and deeper North American integration.
He would resuscitate similarly frozen relations with Mexico, Western Europe, China and other allies who’d been insulted or alienated. He would renew Canada’s role in international climate-change talks, at the United Nations, in the multicountry nuclear-peace deal with Iran, in a dozen other international bodies that had been dismissed by his Tory predecessor, giving Canada a larger say (and greater spending) in foreign aid, military alliances and peacekeeping.
It was, he said, “a vision for a better brand of Canadian relations with our most important and vital trading partners.”
It sounded like a judo move – a shift from conservative idealism to hardcore pragmatism – but one whose force and energy would be used to project Canada’s democratic and pluralist values into the bargain. More cynically, it could be seen as a way to square the ever-present interests of Canada’s international companies with the concerns of voters, which often amount to the same thing.
“Canada,” he declared that June, “has always understood that being fully and firmly committed internationally is important not only to our own success but also to the success of others.”
If there was ever such a thing as a “Trudeau Doctrine,” it is basically what he expressed in that sentence. Foreign relations were far from his biggest concern at the time, and this shift probably sounded relatively easy, given that the Liberals could feel certain they’d have the eager co-operation of the United States and the international institutions the Americans dominated.
The Trudeau Doctrine
What was the Trudeau Doctrine? As many Liberals saw it, it was a shift to putting pragmatic national interest back at the centre of foreign relations while using those renewed relations to promote Canada’s liberal, pluralist values.
For most of Canada’s history, “foreign policy” has been limited to one of two things: pursuing closer economic and political relations with Britain, if Tories are in power, or pursuing closer economic and political relations with the United States, if Liberals are in power. There have been two exceptions: prime minister Brian Mulroney reversed the traditional dichotomy in the 1980s, embracing continental integration while Liberals briefly turned protectionist, and Mr. Harper, a committed anglophile and admirer of former prime minister John Diefenbaker, attempted to switch his party’s stand back to the old norm by cooling relations with Barack Obama’s Washington and working more closely with conservative governments in Britain and elsewhere.
After the Second World War, Canada gained a few more foreign-policy outlets. Canada played a large role in creating the institutions that governed the postwar peace: the United Nations and its various organizations; NATO; the global trade body that became the World Trade Organization; the Bretton Woods institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Canada was decisive in the international agreement that authorized the future creation of the twin states of Israel and Palestine, giving it a role in the Middle East that expanded with its creation of the institution of peacekeeping after the Suez Crisis in 1956. And, starting in the 1950s, Canada became a player and a spender in the new field of foreign aid and development. Under both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, Canada used those tools to play a small but well-regarded place in the liberal-democratic order – and to slowly but profitably build its trade and economic relations.
Mr. Harper tried to make a dramatic break from those traditions. He was, in foreign policy, almost a pure idealist. Guided by a desire to project conservative principles, his government shunned and snubbed China and Russia, embraced Saudi Arabia, encouraged the breaking down of relations with Iran, praised Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron and gave a very cold shoulder to Mr. Obama after he failed to champion the Keystone XL pipeline. He avoided (and sometimes quit) international organizations and treaties in a principled rejection of traditions built on simply “going along to get along.” Most of these positions made sense to the Tories for the same reason that Mr. Trudeau’s overtures toward China and India later made sense to Liberals: because the stakes were fairly low and because those gestures appealed to his party’s core supporters. In his later years in office, Mr. Harper retreated to a more conventionally pragmatic approach to many files, especially China.
Mr. Trudeau’s initial proposal, at face value, was to find a way to engage with any country, no matter how disagreeable its government might be to Canadians, in order to get the best deal and to use this co-operation with wide and divergent blocs of countries to benefit Canada’s economic, social and environmental interests. As for the United States, he was proud, he said that June, to be in a party that “has worked well with presidents of both parties to advance our shared interests,” and it would work with whatever president came along – a promise that would be severely tested.
“I think he believed that the approach that Harper had taken was making it harder for Canada to secure its interests,” says Roland Paris, the University of Ottawa political science professor who served as Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy adviser in 2015 and 2016. “He had an approach that he felt was more consistent with Canadian values – that is, multilateralism as a means to an end. I would characterize it as a kind of pragmatic internationalism definitely informed by small-l liberal values.” On paper, it bore a resemblance to Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s approach to the world, using trade-driven realism and moralistic idealism as mutually supportive facets of the same diplomatic actions.
Of course, there was nothing terribly pure or consistent about Mr. Trudeau’s promised approach, any more than those of previous governments. His 2015 platform also included a promise to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the conflict in Syria, a very non-multilateral act that seemed to contradict his stated principles and mildly displeased the United States and other partners. A lot of his re-engagement goals were simply reversals and rebukes of Conservative policy. And whatever higher principles were involved, his foreign policy, just as much as the Tories’ foreign policy, always prioritized the interests of key diaspora voting blocs and contested ridings. Lobbyists for big Canadian companies doing business in China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere had an influence on the Trudeau government, as well.
Four years ago, the Trudeau Doctrine nevertheless seemed to many informed observers to be reasonable and attainable: It was, at the very least, a way for Canada to expand its sphere of trade and political partnerships around the world, making it less dependent on traditional partners by building on the existing circle of open-minded democracies. What was less apparent in 2015 was the extent to which the entire Trudeau Doctrine was premised on having the co-operation of the United States. Without a U.S. president seeking similar goals, without a circle of open-minded democracies, Mr. Trudeau’s combination of pragmatic hardball and moral influence would go nowhere.
Within days of taking office in November, 2015, Mr. Trudeau thought he had found a bold and high-profile test case for his doctrine. After a cordial meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Turkey, he began discussing the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the superpower. Ms. Freeland, then the trade minister, was one of several senior officials and cabinet members who were reluctant at first, worried about the prospects of trying to find common ground with a totalitarian dictatorship (and she was deeply tied up with the perilous negotiations needed to complete the Canada-EU trade agreement).
She and other skeptical officials were eventually won over by scholars, diplomats and prominent business leaders who felt confident that Mr. Xi was continuing the gradual shift toward more open forms of government that China had experienced throughout the previous decade. Nobody in Ottawa expected an actual trade deal to materialize at any time in the foreseeable future; the more desirable goal was the talks themselves, which would open up a new high-level channel between Canada and China and provide Ottawa with some small influence over the complex web of economic, institutional and human relationships that existed between the two countries.
Any sense of optimism deflated in September, 2016, when Premier Li Keqiang travelled to Ottawa to initiate exploratory talks (that is, talks about the possibility of talks) and made it known that a precondition for any free-trade initiative would be an extradition treaty with Canada. Given China’s support for capital punishment and lack of due process in its judicial system – and the revelation that Beijing is imprisoning a million people in its Xinjiang region simply because of their ethnicity – there was no chance of any Western government signing an extradition pact. That awkward development was eclipsed a year later by the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which gave the party greater authoritarian powers, and its announcement a few months later that Mr. Xi would be an effective ruler-for-life without term limits – crushing any remaining hope of China becoming a more open society in the foreseeable future.
So, while the exploratory talks are theoretically continuing, and the Liberals continue to claim they are interested in free trade with China, any real prospects of a China-Canada pact vanished long before relations totally broke down in 2018.
However, the ultimate near-total breakdown in relations between China and Canada was not the result of any decision made in Beijing or Ottawa. It was a direct product of the defining event of Mr. Trudeau’s term: the election of Donald Trump at the end of 2016.
The descent of the U.S. executive into extreme nationalism empowered a host of other counties, from Hungary to Turkey to India, that were slipping out of the liberal-democratic fray and lent credibility to intolerant parties in dozens of others.
The sudden disappearance of the United States from virtually every important international file put a huge obstacle in the way of every Trudeau Doctrine plank. The Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – both crucial to the Trudeau notion of multilateralism – would continue to exist, but the withdrawal of the United States from both pacts made them far less significant and made Canada’s voice less weighty.
Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the six-country nuclear-peace deal with Iran, and the evident inability of his administration to launch a credible Middle East peace process, meant Ottawa could find no useful role in the region. Mr. Trudeau’s promise to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran would go unfulfilled because Tehran had been goaded into hostility.
In fact, Canada’s place in the Middle East was dramatically reshaped by Mr. Trump’s presence. The breakdown in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia was triggered by Riyadh in a grotesquely outsize response to a carefully drafted Canadian message on social media calling on the kingdom to release a number of women it had imprisoned and tortured for requesting equal rights. That would not have been the response if the United States had sided with Canada in its condemnation of Riyadh’s treatment of activists. But Mr. Trump stood behind the Saudis, later even avoiding serious criticism of them for murdering and dismembering a Washington Post journalist in Istanbul. As a result, Canada became an easy target.
It also meant Mr. Trudeau’s goal of launching a new relationship with India would become far more difficult. While his February, 2018, India trip is remembered for its awkward photo ops and incompetently managed protocol gaffes in which Sikh-nationalist extremists appeared in Mr. Trudeau’s entourage, the trip’s larger repercussion was the symbolic political rejection of Mr. Trudeau by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing ethnic nationalist whose party tends to back Mr. Trump and who has shunned Western liberals – especially those whose cabinets include prominent Sikhs and Muslims with roots in the Indian subcontinent. However, that political schism did not extend across all India-Canada relations: Trade between the countries grew, and there has been a lot of co-operation between them in international organizations. But a major Canada-India pact was not going to happen under Mr. Trudeau.
Mr. Trump’s ascent would have far more destructive effects on Canada’s economic, political and civil relationship with China. It was Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear-peace deal, and his re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran, that caused his government to demand the arrest and extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, for alleged fraud related to the violation of sanctions against Iran that Canada does not observe. Because Mr. Trudeau had no choice but to go along with that demand, he faced a collision with Mr. Xi, who responded in a shocking manner: by effectively taking two Canadians hostage and shutting down agricultural trade between Canada and China.
It is hard to find a file in Mr. Trudeau’s portfolio of diplomatic initiatives that was not ravaged, frozen or silenced by the election of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trudeau and his government showed impressive discipline and resolve in holding Canada-U.S. relations together under Mr. Trump. That became a military-like campaign encompassing everything from the Prime Minister mastering handshake techniques to the recruitment of hundreds of political allies from across the ideological and partisan spectrum to defend North American free trade. The management of the President and the successful negotiation of the new NAFTA were the outstanding successes of the Trudeau government – but they were purely defensive moves intended to secure the status quo rather than build anything new. In the end, the election of Mr. Trump was the single event that rendered the Trudeau Doctrine meaningless.
It was Ms. Freeland who set out to salvage the remains of that foreign-policy position. In a major speech she delivered to Parliament in June, 2017 – one written by the Foreign Affairs Minister and her staff without any input from the Prime Minister’s Office, according to people involved – she outlined a new vision of Canadian foreign policy without the United States. It would be built on supporting and defending the “rules-based international order,” she said, a shift away from launching new engagements with individual countries to one built on maintaining alliances and global institutions.
And Canada would back a “feminist foreign policy,” which in practice meant a big increase in foreign-aid expenditures on gender equality and reproductive health. They now make up the lion’s share of Canada’s aid spending (an initiative begun by former, Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird, albeit at a lower level and without support for reproductive health). It also meant that trade agreements and other treaties would attempt to include gender-equality clauses, along with Indigenous and labour rights.
Conservatives dismiss the policy as little more than progressive virtue signalling. “For the first time in the history of our nation, we have a Prime Minister who put his own brand and his own electoral prospects ahead of the national interest when it comes to foreign policy," says Erin O’Toole, the former military official and moderate conservative who serves as the Tories’ foreign affairs critic. "It’s very much an image-based approach, premised on maintaining their bona fides with their progressive voter base.”
If his party wins the election, however, Mr. O’Toole’s objectives are modest. He says he and party Leader Andrew Scheer would “do some strategic re-engagement” with countries he feels have fallen out of favour with Canada – Japan, India, Australia – in other words, countries with broadly conservative governments. He would follow Mr. Trump’s lead in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that pleases ideological conservatives and harms the cause of Mideast peace but does not have major consequences for Canada. But he otherwise largely appears to agree with the Liberals that Mr. Trump is much more a problem to be managed than an ally to be sought.
Both of Canada’s major parties, in other words, find themselves stuck without allies or any larger way out of the crisis of liberal democracy – a crisis that should have been visible before 2015 but didn’t become fully apparent until it exploded.
A new approach
It might be more optimistic to think of the past three years as a stress test. How do Canada’s governments, its institutions and its economic actors handle the strain if you withdraw the support of the United States, face an escalating crisis of retribution from China and watch several important partners slide out of democracy and open trade, all at once? How well can Canada manage if it finds itself much more alone in the world?
Not as well as it should.
Dr. Stein, who argues that Canada is now almost totally isolated within a tiny circle of pluralist liberal democracies, feels the country needs to drop any pretense of idealism and signalling of Canadian virtues. “Canadian policy has to be interests-based,” she says. "All it can do now is protect our national interests.”
But “national interests” doesn’t mean what it used to. Ensuring Canada’s physical and economic security is no longer a matter of supporting existing alliances; it requires a lot more effort and spending a lot more money to create new blocs and democratic spaces where none existed. Canada can no longer afford its old see-saw of partisan foreign policy, in which Conservatives and Liberals take turns building alliances with like-minded countries and tearing down those that the other party had backed – taking opposite stands, for example, on Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This insecure, unstable new world requires new approaches to Canada’s international relations. These three should be a starting point, postelection, for either party:
Team up with the survivors. Last year, the American political scientists Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay proposed the creation of a “Committee to Save the World Order,” described as a new emergency “Group of Nine” organization consisting of the leaders and senior ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and Canada, which together hold the majority of the world’s economic power and the second-largest military force.
These countries would assemble regularly to “supply the leadership that the Trump administration will not” and would “maintain the rules-based order” in the absence of U.S. presence and “take on greater global responsibilities” in economic co-operation, military co-operation and maintaining peaceful relations between the powers. It would be fragile: Italy and Britain are both teetering on the edge of nationalist isolationism (although other countries might fall back into the liberal-democratic club and join). But it is meant to be temporary, based on the assumption that Mr. Trump’s demagoguery is a passing phenomenon rather than a new normal.
And that coalition is becoming a reality: At a Group of Seven meeting in Dinard, France, in April, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Japan and Canada announced they would launch a new “Alliance for Multilateralism” at this September’s United Nations General Assembly. As well as the “G9,” the group hopes to include Argentina, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway and South Africa, and it notably excludes the United States, Hungary, Turkey, Russia and other countries that have slid into “illiberal democracy.” Those countries are the problem to be solved.
Likewise, last year saw the launch of the Ottawa Group, an alliance of 12 democracies plus the European Union – again deliberately excluding the United States – that work together to improve global trade rules.
As symbolically valuable as these coalitions may be, a formal organization isn’t going to be an instant solution to creeping authoritarianism. But a central plank in any Canadian government’s foreign policy should be working closely with fellow liberal democracies, and especially those that embrace pluralism and open trade, to invest in making their system the norm and helping countries free themselves from nationalism and extremism.
Skip the governments, go to the people. One important way to do this is to establish direct diplomatic and political relations with the public majorities and democratic forces in countries whose governments have slid into dark places – if necessary, entirely bypassing governments that have gone beyond the pale. This is controversial and risky, but it’s not unprecedented. In Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, in Venezuela starting in 2015 and in Myanmar during the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority after 2016, Canada found quiet ways to provide support to mass public movements that have credible claims to democratic authority over their countries’ less-legitimate governments.
In 2017, Canada played an important role in creating a more formal and public version of this sort of assistance by helping shape and play host to the Lima Group, an alliance of 14 countries from the Americas and the Caribbean (it also deliberately excludes the United States) formed to respond to the seizure of dictatorial power by strongman president Nicolas Maduro and to recognize the legitimacy of the opposition-led parliamentary government.
The Lima Group – which supports the legitimacy of Venezuela’s democratic majority, provides aid to a people starved by their government and seeks a peaceful transition back to democracy – is a model for future democracy-based initiatives in a world threatened by illiberal nationalism.
This is a particularly valuable form of diplomatic relations for Canada, both because it’s broadly supported by both parties and because it plays to Canada’s strengths. As a country of diasporas, Canada has two million citizens with family ties to China, 1.4 million with ties to Ukraine, half a million with ties to Russia and another two million with ties to the Indian subcontinent.
Both Conservative and Liberal governments have generally got this relationship backward: They’ve pursued friendly photo-op relationships with these countries’ leaders, no matter how distasteful they may be, in hopes of gaining votes from ethnic communities. Instead, Canada could reverse the equation by drawing upon the cultural knowledge and connections of Canadian citizens and their families to help change the leadership of homelands that have gone terribly wrong.
We have learned, in recent years, that the only effective way to reach out to totalitarian-leaning countries such as China is not through government-to-government links but through citizen-to-citizen links. Making those links a permanent part of foreign relations, especially during political crises, would be a winning approach for either party.
Beef up at home. Most of the foreign-policy frustrations experienced by Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Harper and their predecessors are reducible to a single fact: Canada, despite being a highly successful medium-sized country, lacks the clout in economic output, military resources, fiscal base, infrastructure or size and scope of public and private institutions to make a decisive difference without the assistance of other, larger countries.
Canada, unlike the United States or China or India, cannot go it alone. Nor would it want to – a retreat into economic or political nationalism or isolationism is not an idea in the Canadian mainstream.
But circumstances are forcing Canada to rely far more heavily on its own resources. The dramatic decline of economic globalization after 2008, and the trade punishments meted out by China and the United States in recent years, have shown us weaknesses in our domestic markets. The inability of Ottawa to handle more than two major international crises at a time has shown how thin and underresourced our government departments are. And Mr. Trump’s threats to NATO and other international military alliances, and our inability to maintain more than a token peacekeeping role, have shown that we need to devote more to defence (and end the inefficient practice of procuring ships and vehicles from domestic suppliers). We need to build up our cities and infrastructure, our universities and institutions, our population and knowledge centres, to make Canada a place that can lead rather than merely join.
Even if the current crisis in liberal democracy proves temporary and short-lived, we know that it can recur – and likely will. If the institutions of 1945 no longer work and the doctrines of 2015 have failed to have an effect, we should develop new ones that will keep Canada connected to the better parts of the world for the rest of the century.