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President Barack Obama arrives on the world stage armed with new approaches to global diplomacy, the environment and, it appears, trade. Never has Canada been less equipped to respond to the American challenge.

A succession of minority governments has left our foreign policy in a shambles and our foreign service paralyzed. On trade, on global warming, on peace in the Middle East, on the emerging Third World powers - on anything that matters, Canada has nothing to say. When we do speak, nobody listens.

The day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, Colin Powell was secretary of state. He was succeeded by Condoleezza Rice. The new secretary is Hillary Clinton. Over the same period, John Manley was succeeded by Bill Graham, who was succeeded by Pierre Pettigrew, who was succeeded by Peter MacKay, who was succeeded by Maxime Bernier, who was succeeded by David Emerson, who was succeeded by Lawrence Cannon. Seven foreign ministers in less than eight years. Most African countries have more stable ministries.

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Thanks to the perpetual risk of confidence votes, ministers rarely travel overseas any more. When Canada participates in high-level international discussions, as often as not it's a deputy minister or lower who shows up. This gets noticed.

When Ms. Clinton meets Mr. Cannon for the first time, she will know this latest placeholder in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's musical-chairs cabinet is part of a government more focused on surviving for a few more months than in meaningfully participating in the global conversation. Canada has a series of positions on things, but, in the larger sense, our country no longer has a foreign policy.

Only a decade ago, we played an important role in negotiations over the International Criminal Court, the land- mines treaty, the Law of the Sea. Since then, nothing. On the military side, we continue to pull more than our weight in Afghanistan. But who believes Canada will contribute significantly to shaping the future of that benighted country, or its relations with Pakistan - or Pakistan's relations with India, even though millions of South Asians have flocked to our shores?

Canada has forgotten that foreign policy is not about demanding, but about trading. This country insists that the Arctic waters are its sovereign territory. It has not the slightest capacity to enforce that position - which is weak in international law, in any case. More important, Mr. Harper's government isn't willing to expend the political capital needed to reach the only realistic solution: a commission managed by states with interests in the region that would be responsible for controlling shipping through the Northwest Passage, with the commission's primary mandate being to protect the environment by keeping substandard ships and crews from entering it.

On Buy American, Canadian politicians and diplomats are working diligently to convince Congress that the domestic-procurement provisions in the economic stimulus package violate the North American free-trade agreement, which they do. But we have forgotten that dealing with the Americans on trade means trading.

This is a protectionist Congress and this president has a protectionist streak in him. Canada has warded off previous protectionist assaults by thinking through what the Americans wanted, what we needed, and how we could accommodate both interests.

Now we merely confine ourselves to threat assessment and response. Sometimes, that assessment is deeply flawed. As far back as 2004, journalists, business leaders and foreign policy analysts warned the federal government that Congress and the Bush administration were serious about imposing passport requirements on the border and that Canada needed to counter that threat by proposing a whole new border arrangement, one that answered American security concerns while protecting Canadian trade interests.

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Instead, the politicians and bureaucrats shrugged off the passport plans, saying they were unworkable and would never be implemented. And when they realized, too late, that the Americans were serious, they focused their energies on pushing back deadlines. Land-crossing passport-or-equivalent requirements will go into effect on June 1.

Our foreign service retains many highly skilled officers who work hard to protect our interests and to contribute to the dialogue abroad. But they have been betrayed by events and by politicians who have lost control over those events. The ministry of Louis St. Laurent, of Lester Pearson, of Joe Clark, of Lloyd Axworthy, of John Manley is falling apart.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

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