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Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly speaks to media in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on March 1.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Expectations were low when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Mélanie Joly as Foreign Affairs Minister a little more than two years ago. As the fifth person in six years to hold the job, and with no experience in international relations, it almost seemed as if Ms. Joly had been set up to fail.

Her four immediate predecessors – Stéphane Dion, Chrystia Freeland, François-Philippe Champagne and Marc Garneau – made no real lasting mark on Canadian foreign policy. Despite Mr. Trudeau’s “Canada is back” talk, they proved otherwise.

Mr. Dion never had Mr. Trudeau’s ear, much less his trust, and his obstinate desire to reboot relations with Russia left him isolated. He was sent off to become Canada’s ambassador to Germany. The awkward fit of that job became too obvious to ignore after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine. Mr. Dion was shuffled to Paris in mid-2022.

Chrystia Freeland, an antagonist of Russian President Vladimir Putin since her days as a Moscow correspondent at the Financial Times, laid to rest any notion of a détente in Canada-Russia relations. And she played bad cop to then-Trudeau principal secretary Gerald Butts’s good cop during the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Ms. Freeland’s most memorable move as foreign affairs minister remains her 2018 tweet denouncing Saudi Arabia’s sudden imprisonment of the sister of then-jailed rights activist Raif Badawi. It smacked of virtue-signalling and led to a messy rupture in Canada-Saudi relations, just as that country was flexing its geopolitical muscles.

In May, Ms. Joly quietly renewed diplomatic ties with Riyadh. The move drew criticism. Some saw it as a capitulation undertaken to preserve a juicy Canadian contract to sell light-armoured vehicles to the Saudis. And coming after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which had been tied to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ms. Joly’s decision to restore ties struck some critics as cynical, if not outright immoral.

It was not. Constructive diplomacy often requires holding your nose and checking your moral superiority complex. If anything, the move was reflective of Ms. Joly’s efforts to get the rest of the world to take Canada seriously again.

Renewing relations with Saudi Arabia was a first step to restoring Canada’s credibility in the region. The war in Gaza has made Ms. Joly’s move look prescient. Saudi Arabia will arguably shape the postwar Middle East landscape more than any other Arab nation. Its participation in financing the rebuilding of Gaza will be critical.

If there is ever to be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will require Saudi Arabia’s support. Before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Saudi Arabia had been poised to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. The Gaza war and the suffering it has wrought have made that much more difficult now. It nevertheless remains a precondition to peace and countering Iranian efforts to sow chaos in the region.

Ms. Joly and Mr. Trudeau took flak from pro-Israel critics for meeting in Ottawa in December with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority, accusing Ottawa of seeking to curry favour with pro-Palestinian activists and supporters in Canada. The same critics weighed in again this week as Ms. Joly began a week-long trip to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Instead of attacking her, they should have asked: “What took her so long?”

Since the war in Gaza began, Ms. Joly has not always struck the right note. Intentionally or not, many of her public comments on the conflict have betrayed a pro-Palestinian bias. But her engagement with Saudi Arabia, which has condemned Israel’s “aggression” in Gaza, should not be seen as a repudiation of Israel or as a wink-wink nod to pro-Palestinian activists in Canada.

Rather, it’s another sign of a new-found maturity in Canadian foreign policy since Ms. Joly took over. It took some time for her to get her bearings, but she has developed genuine diplomatic chops and is well-regarded and liked by her G7 counterparts. Whether or not you agree with her worldview, she has at least articulated a clear and understandable set of principles and goals by which to guide Canadian foreign policy.

“We must resist the temptation to divide the world into rigid ideological camps. For the world cannot be reduced to democracies versus autocracies. East versus West,” she insisted in an October speech that broke with the Freeland doctrine. “We are not naive about what engagement will accomplish. But if we refuse to engage, we create additional incentives for those whose actions we strongly oppose to join together. As respect for the rules diminishes, empty chairs serve no one.”

Call it realpolitik if you like. Whatever it is, it is the right policy for Canada, and the times we live in.

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