David Mulroney is president of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto and a former ambassador to China.
The best that can be said about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to India is that it may prompt a review, if not a complete rethinking of a Canadian foreign policy that appears to be seriously off the rails. We have some hard lessons to learn.
At the very least, the Prime Minister's debacle in India should encourage smart people in Ottawa to zero in on what isn't working.
Most worrying is a fundamental and puzzling failure at the level of policy implementation, something that appears to be compounded by the Prime Minister's own impetuosity. Flying to India before the big meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the bag, much like heading off to Beijing on a free-trade themed visit without any reasonable expectation that a deal was doable, exposes Mr. Trudeau to a degree of prolonged public skepticism that comes to define the visit itself.
Ottawa's obsession with exotic photo-ops is a less likely candidate for serious review, given its long and undistinguished lineage through such past devotees as Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien. But we can at least hope that the Trudeau version of this practice may get dialled down. Through his rapid succession of exotic costume changes, Mr. Trudeau managed to do to his own image what Alec Baldwin does, through similarly comic exaggeration, to Donald Trump's on Saturday Night Live.
Even harder to banish will be our obsession with diaspora politics. No one is denying that we derive wonderful advantages from our multicultural society. But other multicultural countries, such as the United States, Australia and Britain, are far less inclined to view their international interests so completely through the prism of diaspora communities. We need to understand that Canada's interests in India are not entirely the same as those of influential portions of the Indo-Canadian community or of the Sikh-Canadian subset of that community. Worse, our continuing insistence on the political importance of diaspora groups makes it more likely that their countries of origin – and this is particularly true of China and India – will be inclined to interfere in Canadian affairs.
These persistent problems point to an inconvenient truth: The problem isn't with politicians, it's with all of us. We're getting the foreign policy we deserve. We seem unable to grasp that our engagement of countries such as India and China ultimately needs to be about something more than reminding them of how much they admire us.
India isn't our friend. It is a rising regional power beset with a range of domestic problems, including serious human rights issues. It takes a prickly approach to global issues that is often at odds with traditional Canadian policies in areas ranging from trade policy to nuclear disarmament.
The Indian diplomats I worked with could be wonderfully pleasant after the official day was done. But, for the most part, they brought a formidably ruthless precision to their pursuit of India's interests in the world. While they might ultimately agree to grant Canada a concession, this was always a product of hard and often heated negotiations. They never conceded a point because they liked us or because we are home to a large Indo-Canadian community.
My experience with Chinese diplomats was entirely similar.
Long before the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, it should have been clear to us that the world is changing in ways that do not align with traditional Canadian views, interests and values. If we're smart, the rise of countries like China and India can certainly contribute to our prosperity, and with hard work, we should be able to find common cause on important issues such as global warming.
But the rise of these assertive and ambitious Asian powers will almost certainly challenge global and regional security. Both will also continue to reject traditional Canadian notions about global governance and human rights, and neither will be particularly squeamish about interfering in Canadian affairs.
The Trump era should convince us that we can no longer rely entirely on the protective cover of a globally engaged America. We need to be smart and hard-nosed when it comes to promoting and defending our own interests. Photo ops and costume changes won't cut it any more.
The Canadian Press