Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the free-trade agreement with the U.S. He is the co-author of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's whirlwind introduction to the global stage moved rapidly from the G20 in Turkey to APEC in Manila; next on the list is Paris for the Climate Change Conference. Quite apart from the rock star, photo frenzy that evokes nostalgic memories of his father's debut in 1968, Mr. Trudeau is getting an instant primer on the major global challenges and on the narrow scope for a distinctive Canadian role.
The G20 was overwhelmed by the terrorist incident in Paris. By clinging essentially to campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trudeau was not in synch with the major powers in attendance. The decision to withdraw from a combat mission against Islamic State and concentrate instead on training was consistent with the Liberal campaign pledge but was not driven by any analysis of what was now needed. Upholding concepts of freedom and human dignity requires more than half measures, as even President Obama is belatedly discovering.
Offering to hold the coats of those directly engaged in combat is simply not a worthy response. The risk is that, by asserting positions that do not take account of what is actually happening, Canada will consign itself to a zone of irrelevance on the most exacting issue of our times – the battle against IS terrorism which is now global in scope. Instead of being "back" in world affairs Canada will, by choice, be confined to the sidelines.
Similarly, Mr. Trudeau remains committed to bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end despite broad recognition that six weeks falls well short of the time needed to vet applicants, especially in the absence of any credible Syrian interlocutor. American security officials indicate that a proper vetting would take at least 18 months. Absent, too, from the refugee decision are the possible repercussions in the U.S. stemming from Canada's sudden action given that the President's plan for an intake of a paltry 10,000 refugees is meeting stout resistance from the Republican Congress and from a majority of U.S. Governors. Both will be sensitive to any vulnerability Canada's commitment may impose on U.S. security. Echoing Keynes, when the facts change, governments should be prepared to change their positions. (Or "consistency is of course the hob goblin of small minds"!)
In Manila, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) took centre stage and, again, Mr. Trudeau and his Ministers continued to dance to their campaign tune. They will "study an agreement they did not negotiate", consult and then decide. President Obama seems to have presumed stronger support but it would actually be prudent for Canada to see how the U.S. Congress will react before rushing to any quick judgment on TPP. With a solid majority, they can take their time whereas the prospects for approval in Washington are less than a sure thing.
Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has joined President Obama in describing climate change as "the most serious threat" to the planet but that concern may be muffled a bit in Paris given the events of mid-November. The rhetoric on climate change will soar as it has before but commitments may be more elusive. Any notion that international conferences can magically resolve all differences may prove fallacious.
Early in the new year, the Prime Minister will visit Washington for more substantive exchanges on bilateral as well as global issues of the moment. His promise of "warmer relations" with the U.S. will confront the reality of differences over trade and energy issues and perhaps as well differences on the strategy versus IS – and on the question of refugees.
Mr. Trudeau may also witness a political mood in Washington that is far from "sunny" these days. The "hope and change" promise that initiated the Obama presidency has not delivered in America. The long stagnation of wages and the widening disparity in household incomes have eroded belief in the American dream. The fact that the Washington neighbourhood now has the highest concentration of wealth in America is at the root of much of the cynicism about government in the country at large and is increasingly reflected in the mood underpinning the presidential sweepstakes.
Whatever the 2016 election produces will likely pose tough challenges for Canada's economic prospects with the U.S. and possibly our security ties as well. Personalities at the top that get along can certainly help but exchanges need to extend beyond the White House. We will need to be both nimble and hard-headed to defend our interests where there are nagging differences, recognizing that aspirations for warmth and platitudes count for very little in global relations. It would be timely to exercise leverage with a coherent strategy aimed selectively at the Asia-Pacific region in order to broaden our horizon for influence and simultaneously strengthen our hand in dealing with an increasingly wary and self-interested America.