With four years of experience under their belts – some of it bitter – the Liberals confront a world more hostile to Canadian interests than at any time since most people were born.
“We are living through a period of historic transformation in international affairs," said Roland Paris, who teaches international relations at the University of Ottawa and served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first foreign policy adviser.
“Canada’s interests are exposed to actual and potential harm probably more than at any time since the Second World War," he said.
Foreign policy in the immediate future must focus primarily on containing threats from friends, as well as foes.
First and foremost, that means surviving Donald Trump’s disruptive presidency, which has undermined the foundations of the postwar world order. With the Republican Party now at least as protectionist as the Democrats, Job 1 is to keep the border open, which starts with securing U.S. ratification of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement that the United States, Canada and Mexico signed in 2018.
The second challenge is to manage relations with an increasingly aggressive China under the leadership of Xi Jinping. That means working with the U.S. and Chinese governments to resolve the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and secure the release of the two Canadians detained by China in retaliation. The Meng case is the single-most important file on the Foreign Affairs Minister’s desk.
The third challenge is to navigate relations with Europe, as Britons vote in an election that could finally lead to Brexit. Populist, nativist, far-right parties are on the rise across Europe; the Spanish version, Vox, took 15 per cent of the popular vote in Sunday’s national election.
While continuing to work with the European Union, the Trudeau government will also have to look for leaders at the national level who will support an open, rules-based system of global trade and governance.
“We need to be ready to be operating in a more unruly world, and I mean unruly in its literal sense,” Prof. Paris said.
Then there is the home front. “One thing that will directly inform all policy decisions is the fact that [Mr. Trudeau] has a minority government,” observed Jason Zorbas, a foreign policy specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. For the Liberals to return to majority government after the next election, he points out, they will need to hold on to seats in Ontario while making gains in Quebec. The West, for now, is for the most part a lost cause.
“It’s going to be a Quebec-centric foreign policy, which also meshes with the other area he needs to keep an eye on: the Golden Horseshoe," Prof. Zorbas said. "And so I think we’re going to see a very progressive foreign policy” that focuses on the environment, the rights of women and human rights in general.
Bessma Momani, who specializes in international relations at the University of Waterloo, expects more rhetoric than substance on this front.
She believes the Trudeau brand has been tarnished overseas by the embarrassing India trip, by domestic scandals and by the Liberals’ reluctance to put their money where their mouth is on everything from foreign aid to peacekeeping.
Liberal foreign policy, she predicted, will involve "muddling through, talking a big game but not actually spending money on where it needs to be spent.” For that reason, Prof. Momani, who is also a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, expects the government’s campaign to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2020 will come up short. “I don’t think we have any chance,” she said.
But there are windows of opportunity as well: helping Canadian businesses exploit the potential created by new trade agreements with Europe and Pacific countries while continuing to seek out new possibilities for expanded trade; and working with other countries to create a global set of rules to guide the onrushing digital economy and society.
And as long as Canada continues to advance and protect the rights of women and girls – which both Conservative and Liberal governments have championed – this country will be a force for good in the world.
As for all the other disturbances and challenges, as Prof. Momani reminds us: “There is always room for the pendulum to swing back.” We can only hope.