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Opinion The vacuum in Canada’s foreign policy is killing us

Canadians have grown accustomed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s moments of inattention, when the words that come out of his mouth don’t quite match the occasion. Usually, these slip-ups aren’t too serious and produce chuckles, such as during the 2015 French-language leaders’ debate, when Mr. Trudeau referred to then Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe as “my love.”

During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Ottawa visit last month, however, Mr. Trudeau seemed to be in another dimension entirely when he twice referred to Japan as China in describing the close relations between Canada and the Land of the Rising Sun.

If Mr. Trudeau’s briefing notes did not include a primer on the long history of bad blood between China and Japan, they should have. But it’s hard not to get the sense that, in foreign policy, the Trudeau government doesn’t have much of an institutional memory.

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It’s not clear what the Trudeau government hopes to accomplish through its foreign policy, other than to check off a series of boxes that speak to its progressive bona fides. That may play well with certain domestic audiences, but it carries zero weight in the real-world trenches of geopolitics. A foreign policy that’s only for show is the same as having no foreign policy at all.

This explains why Canada is seen by so few of its traditional allies or international institutions as a reliable partner. When we won’t even agree to a United Nations request to extend by a few months a modest contribution to peacekeeping in Mali – because, you know, it might interfere with an election campaign – it’s not hard to understand why Canada is seen as unserious.

The navel-gazing of Canadian foreign policy is best exemplified in our toxic diaspora politics, which admittedly weren’t invented by the current government. But the Trudeau Liberals seem to operate exclusively on the basis of diaspora politics when dealing with certain countries, again with domestic electoral considerations outweighing diplomatic or geopolitical ones.

The vacuity of our foreign policy was laid bare last year with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s virtue-signalling tweet demanding that Saudi Arabia release human-rights activists. If any thought was given to what should follow that ultimatum, it has not produced any concrete action other than to put Canada on a Saudi blacklist without helping a single dissident.

Ms. Freeland has proved adept at issuing earnest and high-minded statements about spreading Canadian values through foreign policy, but these are mostly for domestic consumption. Elsewhere in the world, such preachiness is seen as the refuge of those who talk rather than do.

It’s in allowing such a precipitous deterioration in our relations with China, however, that the Trudeau government has really fallen down on the job. The excuse that talks with the United States to renew the North American free-trade agreement had monopolized the best minds in government doesn’t cut it. Canada has no choice but to manage its relationships with both world superpowers; the cost of failing to engage with China has simply become too great.

That’s why Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s pledge to get tough on China, which he reiterated this week in a pre-election speech on foreign policy, would be laughable if it wasn’t so self-defeating. “So long as China is willing to hold our exports hostage, all the while committing human-rights violations on an industrial scale, we have no choice as Canadians but to consider other trade partners,” Mr. Scheer insisted. But he failed to name any that could fill the void.

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The Scheer doctrine, if you can call it that, seems to consist mainly of aligning Canada with the United States and Israel, even if it means alienating the rest of the world. The claptrap about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the right’s version of pandering to its domestic base.

Mr. Scheer showed some initiative in promising to begin talks to join the U.S. continental missile defence program, which at least three successive prime ministers have been too scared to propose, lest they awake the sleeping dogs of anti-Americanism. But Canada must play a bigger role in its own defence, especially as Russia increasingly occupies the Arctic.

Mr. Scheer’s promise to move to meet our defence spending commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is also long overdue. It’s been two years since Ms. Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced a massive investment in our military capabilities, none of which has materialized. But that’s what we’ve come from to expect from this government.

Like many of Mr. Trudeau’s early declarations in office, his bragging about Canada being “back” has come back to haunt him. The reality is, we’ve rarely been this absent.

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