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Opinion On the outs with the global superpowers, Canada shrinks from the world stage

Finally, the United States has spoken out against China’s detainment of two Canadians – which only happened because the U.S. put Canada in the crosshairs in the first place with its request to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

And it took the Americans all of four days.

On Friday, at a joint news conference at the White House with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo let the detention matter pass in his prepared remarks but finally addressed it when questioned. Washington, he said, would try to get the detainees released.

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Not that this was a special favour. The U.S., Mr. Pompeo added, seeks the release of anyone improperly detained.

As for President Donald Trump, whose relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is prickly, there’s been no empathy, prompted or otherwise – just the insinuation that he might use the crisis as leverage to get a better trade deal with China. If the U.S.'s northern neighbour suffers collateral damage, too bad.

The drama illustrates how middle-power Canada is at the mercy of the bigs – the U.S., China, Russia. That’s typically the case. But there’s a difference this time.

Given the sudden dire turn in relations with Beijing, Canada is on the outs with all the superpowers in a way it has seldom been before – if ever. Relations are hostile with Russia, abnormally fractious with Washington, grim with China.

And that denotes a shrinking Canadian presence on the world stage. It means its potential influence is diminished. It means it is more vulnerable on trade, defence and other issues.

Three years ago, when he took power, an optimistic Justin Trudeau surely could not have imagined this. With Barack Obama, relations were harmonious. With China, the outlook was promising for a breakthrough on trade. With Russia, then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion was intent on drawing down hostilities. He wanted a reset.

There was background to build on, nice pieces from the past. In 1971, Pierre Trudeau established diplomatic relations with China when few other Western countries had. The recognition represented a breakthrough for China and was followed by Richard Nixon’s historic visit the following year. Under Jean Chrétien, there were the highly publicized Team Canada trade missions to the Middle Kingdom. In the first few years of Stephen Harper’s stewardship, relations were rocky but then improved. Upon the arrival of another Trudeau, the Chinese were enthused to the point where Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui was touting a new “golden era” of relations. Though Mr. Trudeau’s visit to China last year failed to get an agreement to begin negotiations on a comprehensive trade deal, there was still hope – until now.

With the Soviet Union, Pierre Trudeau pushed hard for a thaw in Cold War tensions. He undertook a world-peace mission and formed close relations with Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovlev, who became Mikhail Gorbachev’s right-hand man. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ottawa and Moscow enjoyed a much-improved rapport until Vladimir Putin’s aggressions. With Justin Trudeau, there have been provocations rather than rapprochement. Ms. Freeland, a long-time hard-liner on Russia who is of Ukrainian descent, took over from Mr. Dion. She is so loathed by Mr. Putin that she is barred from entering the country.

With Washington, there have always been ups and downs. But by and large the special relationship endured until the arrival of Mr. Trump, who, with his America First proclivities, treats Canada as just another hunk of geography.

Prime ministers have often had a personal rapport with superpower leaders. Mr. Trudeau, despite his charms, has none today. The Canadian voice for compromise can hardly expect to be heeded. Ottawa’s views on multilateralism, open borders, diversity and climate change will have less of a hearing without superpower allies.

Relations with Washington are not about to change – not with Mr. Trump having surrounded himself with hard-liners such as Mr. Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. With Russia, relations have no prospect of improving, either: Mr. Putin is not about to change his ways, and Ms. Freeland is not about to get an entry visa. With China, a freeze could endure during months of extradition hearings. The prospect for long-term damage is very real.

It’s not Ottawa’s fault that it got caught in the Washington-Beijing crossfire. It’s not Ottawa’s fault that Americans elected Donald Trump.

But the upshot of it all is that Canada’s voice grows faint. As a middle power, it sometimes punched above its weight. Now the opposite is more likely.

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