In early 2014, after Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president had been deposed and the threat of a Russian invasion loomed, Justin Trudeau made a joke.
During an appearance on a popular Radio-Canada talk show, on the last day of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the then newly chosen opposition Liberal leader mused that the situation in Ukraine had become “even more worrying now that Russia lost in hockey and will be in a bad mood.”
Mr. Trudeau’s comments drew guffaws of incredulity. After his previous utterances about his “admiration” for China’s “basic dictatorship” and the need to “look at the root causes” of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, his foreign-policy gaffes were becoming a major liability in his quest to unseat Stephen Harper, then the G7′s second-longest-serving leader.
Thus, to better prepare their leader, the Liberals assembled a committee of 14 experts, politicians and former diplomats – led by former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie – to school Mr. Trudeau in the intricacies of foreign policy in a post-hegemonic era. It remains unclear what lessons Mr. Trudeau took away from his briefings by the group. But as Prime Minister, he has overseen arguably the most risk-averse foreign policy of any Canadian government, ever.
That has not prevented the occasional foreign-policy gaffe, such as the “deep sorrow” expressed at Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s death, or his disastrous 2018 trip to India. But more than anything, Liberal foreign policy has amounted to avoiding saying or doing anything that might pin Canada down. Under Mr. Trudeau, we have become a dependable, er, fence-sitter.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin issues NATO an ultimatum calling for withdrawal from Eastern Europe, and amasses more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, the Trudeau government is torn between courting Canadian voters of Ukrainian descent and its desire to propagate its delusionary self-image as a “helpful” player on the world stage.
“We are working with our international partners and colleagues to make it very, very clear that Russian aggression is absolutely unacceptable,” Mr. Trudeau said last week, in a declaration that must have sent tremors through the Kremlin. “We are standing there with diplomatic responses, with sanctions, with a full-court press to ensure Russia respects the people of Ukraine.”
Asked whether he would meet Ukrainian entreaties that Canada join the United States and Britain in sending arms, in addition to a symbolic $120-million loan already provided, Mr. Trudeau responded: “We are looking at what more we can do and how we can help even more.”
We found out on Wednesday what “more” means after Mr. Trudeau announced an extension of Canada’s years-old military training mission in Ukraine, which had been expected. He also said Canada would provide non-lethal equipment to the country. In other words, Mr. Trudeau is trying to get away with doing as little as he possibly can.
Not even Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, an avowed hawk on Russia, appears ready to take a stronger stand – at least publicly – by arguing for pre-emptive sanctions on Mr. Putin and his cronies as Ukraine has requested to deter a Russian invasion. Her silence speaks volumes.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has repeated the same empty slogans as Mr. Trudeau in recent days, on the heels of a trip last week to Kyiv that was more ceremonial than anything else. It followed similar pilgrimages by her counterparts in other NATO countries and, hence, went unnoticed outside of Canada. It was just another example of playing to Ukrainian-Canadians at home.
The Liberals do not have a monopoly on diaspora politics. Several Conservative MPs joined Liberal cabinet ministers and MPs in recent days in posting pictures of themselves on social media holding up signs with the #StandWithUkraine hashtag. There is nothing wrong with tweeting solidarity with the Ukrainian people. But it does nothing to alter Mr. Putin’s thinking.
The Conservatives support sending defensive weapons to Ukraine. The New Democratic Party argues Canada should step up diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The Liberals have opted instead to waffle, dither and play for time.
Is this what Mr. Trudeau meant when he said Canada was back?
An enlightened foreign policy might have recognized long ago the benefits of reducing European dependence on Russian energy by promoting Canadian liquid natural gas exports to the continent, to prevent Mr. Putin from holding Europe hostage as he does now. But the Liberals refused to look beyond their own domestic political interests to Canada’s national interests.
What we are left with is a passive-aggressive mess that fools no one and only ensures yet more eye-rolling when Canada’s name comes up in international forums. None of our allies is looking to Canada for “help” on the Ukraine crisis; they know perfectly well they will not get it.
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