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Opinion Canada’s new foreign policy: the end of ‘ideological fantasies’

Michael Bell teaches at Carleton University and advised Justin Trudeau on foreign policy before the recent federal election. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

We are at the beginning of a new era in Canadian diplomacy with the election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. Our place in the international community is about to undergo a dramatic and positive change. The appointment of Stéphane Dion as the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a harbinger.

Although there will be many challenges, often insurmountable, and mistakes will inevitably be made, the new Prime Minister's world view and his commitment to international norms could not be more different than that of his predecessor.

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Stephen Harper, the world's last neo-conservative leader, is no longer with us. His modus operandi in foreign affairs viewed the international community, most markedly characterized in his eyes by the United Nations, as a threat to his deeply held but exclusionist ideology. For him, the very concept of accommodation with others constituted moral relativism: a sellout.

The result: Canada was viewed abroad as an outlier, as a contrarian, as a force for disruption. Mr. Harper's colleagues abroad found him most often difficult, if not impossible, to deal with. For the first time in our history, and to our great shame, Canada was voted down for a seat on the UN Security Council, so much had we lost the respect of others.

Life was miserable for Canadian diplomats at home and abroad, including those charged with UN affairs; we lost the chairmanship of UN committees traditionally ours for asking; we lost any role in its consultative processes. Mr. Harper and his long-time foreign minister, John Baird, snubbed the institution. Their political staffs: "The boys in short pants" were the enforcers.

With Mr. Trudeau's election, those days are now past. For instance, after a single day in office, he called on Canadian ambassadors abroad to engage fully with the governments, civil society and media in their countries of accreditation.

In retrospect, it is astounding that the Canadian government's aversion to evidence-based decision-making lasted as long as it did. It is astounding that diplomacy (most often a backstage craft) was confined to the dustbin. It was depressing that truth could never speak to power. It was intolerable that bureaucrats felt it necessary to ensure that analytical assessments were censored so that the ire of the man in power was not brought down on them.

With Mr. Harper's electoral defeat, it now seems obvious that Canadians need engagement in a very complex world in which effective policies depend on a deep understanding of foreign cultures and reliable barometers of impending difficulties. We need more reliable eyes and ears out there, not fewer. My hunch is that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Dion will give us just that.

The quiet exceptionalism of Canada, a country almost all others in the past had respected and valued, has returned, harking back to the days even beyond those of the Prime Minister's father, Pierre, to the internationalism that characterized the work and persona of Lester Pearson.

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Canada will re-embrace its most natural calling of multilateralism. Whether over climate change, a policy that the Conservative government had gutted, or the work of the G20, where Mr. Harper defied consensus decision-making, or the United Nations, which he regularly castigated.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Dion seem determined to act. They should provide leadership and innovation and play the facilitating role that used to be this country's hallmark; this would enhance, not sacrifice, the pursuit of our national interests. Canada's culture of pragmatic and pluralistic politics will probably become the natural counter to rising extremism around a world, where positive exemplars are desperately needed.

Increasingly dangerous geopolitics in Ukraine, the Middle East and the South China Sea and the increasing need for multilateral co-operation on global health, economic and environmental issues mean that Canada's role as a diplomat and facilitator is needed now more than ever. We are unlikely again to see the gratuitous insults directed by Mr. Harper toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. There are much more effective ways to make the point and change the setting.

On more specific issues – such as peacekeeping in Africa, taking in refugees, nuclear proliferation or the Israel-Palestine conflict – the change may not be rapid, but a recalibration will take place. More Syrian refugees will be accepted, a dialogue with Iran will be pursued and Canada once again, without sacrificing our friendship with Israel, will probably play a useful middle ground on Israel-Palestine. We will devote our efforts to constructive answers for suffering regions rather than ideological fantasies.

Some things will go wrong, but there are countries out there, such as Brazil and India or even those in the limping European Union, that will see much utility with an actor such as our new Prime Minster and his ministry; re-engaging, ready to play an active role, rather than sitting on the sidelines and barking while global affairs deteriorate.

A self-confident, socially adept and thoughtful Prime Minister with a feel for issues and a commitment to socially enlightened change. An intelligent, erudite Foreign Minister with a compelling, Cartesian intellect.

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What a change.

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