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Justin Trudeau's true brilliance – and I say this with admiration and respect – is his gift for branding. The Prime Minister is determined to rebrand Canada as an attractive, youthful, progressive, postnational country, with himself as its attractive, youthful face. That's why he's everywhere, from the Pride Parade to Kiev.

Naturally, he has rebranded our foreign policy, too. Mr. Trudeau is confident that we can align our interests with our ideals with little, if, any compromise. Belligerence is out. Bridge-building is in. NATO is out. Peacekeeping is in. No longer will we bomb people. We'll help them. Multilateralism and the United Nations have made a comeback.

We believe in fighting climate change, talking to Russia and Iran, making nice with China and finding smarter ways to combat the Islamic State that don't involve killing people, God forbid. We've even renamed Foreign Affairs to Global Affairs, because it's all one world, and why should we otherize the foreigners?

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Unfortunately, the world is not co-operating. The post-Cold War narrative of progress, democratization and ever more open borders has collapsed. China is rattling its sabres, the Russian bear is growling and the Middle East has descended into what promises to be a generation of chaos.

EXPLAINER: Your guide to the new Cold War

Terrorism, uncontrolled migration and Brexit are shaking Europe to its roots. Nationalism is back. A lunatic is running for president of the United States. Instead of Kumbaya, we've got a new world disorder.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau found himself in Warsaw, where NATO leaders puzzled over what to do about Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial ambitions. The upshot was: Not much.

Nonetheless, after heavy pressure from its allies, Canada agreed to do its bit by agreeing to lead a NATO combat force in Latvia. Even this gesture was too much for Stéphane Dion, our Foreign Affairs minister, who has more progressive things in mind than reviving the Cold War. "It's terribly unfortunate that Canada has to deploy its forces in Latvia instead of having peacekeeping in Africa or in an area of the world where it's much more needed," he said tactlessly. Probably not the best thing to say to your allies.

In fact, Canada's forces are so depleted at the moment that there's not much room for doing anything. Our contribution to UN peacekeeping is likely to be largely symbolic too. But at least we'll be able to feel good about ourselves.

Poor Stéphane. He's always struck me as a bit hapless. He's caught between the world as it is and the world as he'd like it to be, without a clue how to navigate between the two. Nowhere was this more evident than in his handling of our $15-billion deal to sell military equipment to the Saudis – a deal that most Canadians loathe. He is both unable to persuade Canadians why this deal is necessary, and also unwilling to cancel it. He even pretends the deal might give us some influence over Saudi behaviour, which is risible. For a government that makes so much of its transparency, its virtue and its principles, the Saudi deal is a political debacle.

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I don't really blame our government for having no coherent foreign policy. Who does these days? The Western alliance is on its back foot, as Derek Burney puts it. Mr. Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, is an unreconstructed realist who knows that great-power politics are back with a vengeance.

Still, it would be good to have a policy that's a little more attuned to what's actually going on. The next test for Mr. Trudeau will be China, which wants to control the South China Sea. This is an exploding geopolitical hot potato. Mr. Trudeau desperately wants to do more business with China. Yet he is also obliged to demonstrate that he doesn't care for its human-rights record, and he will be pressured to criticize its territorial ambitions. Achieving both objectives at once will be tricky. China doesn't react terribly well to snooty judgments from international courts, or to human-rights lectures from moralizing Canadians. His upcoming China trip will be a test of how skillfully he can bridge the yawning gap between our interests and our ideals. (Free advice to Justin: Leave Mr. Dion at home.)

ANALYSIS: Tension rising in South China Sea

We Canadians are a self-regarding nation. We like to imagine we can actually influence the behaviour of the Saudis, the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Syrians and other nasty actors. Sadly, this is true only to a very limited extent. We can only influence them if we have something that they need. They're not persuaded by our ideals and our virtue, not even by Mr. Trudeau's substantial charm. They're persuaded by what's in it for them.

I'm sorry to say that it's still a nasty old world out there, and it's getting nastier by the day. Soft power is all very well. But it's no substitute for the real thing.

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