“Canada is back,” Justin Trudeau declared. And then along came Donald Trump.
Newly arrived as Prime Minister in 2015, Mr. Trudeau hoped to make Canada a more respected voice among countries: a trusted mediator in the disputes of the day, a conduit for back-channel communication between opposing interests, a reliable contributor to peacekeeping, a leader in the fight against global warming, the freest-trading of all countries.
Three-and-a-half years later, Canada struggles to protect its own vital interests and to shore up a global order that is under threat from all sides.
“It’s important to recognize how dramatically international circumstances have changed, since the Liberals came to power,” said Prof. Leah Sarson, who specializes in international relations at Dalhousie University, “and how disruptive the rise of certain governments have been to Canada’s international agenda. These changes have really illuminated how vulnerable Canada is to external circumstances.”
In confronting those changes, the Trudeau government has had its share of successes, most recently the Trump administration’s decision to remove punitive tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, paving the way for ratification of the new North American free-trade agreement.
There have also been setbacks, especially with China.
“It is certainly the case that our relations with China are very difficult,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland acknowledged Friday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "I think that’s clear to everybody.” But responsibility, she adds, resides in Beijing, not Ottawa.
The world is a tougher place in 2019 than it was when the Liberals came to power. On many files, the watchword has been: Save what you can. Some of those files were handled better than others.
Mr. Trudeau positively leapt onto the world stage, dazzling foreign leaders at international gatherings, winning global good will by personally welcoming Syrian refugees at Toronto’s airport – “You are home. Welcome home” – and repairing Canada’s reputation as a laggard in the fight against global warming. (Even if Canada used the same targets set by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.)
Under Ms. Freeland, then international trade minister, Canada secured and ratified a trade agreement with the European Union first launched by the Conservatives. Foreign minister Stéphane Dion spoke of improving relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Canada began looking for a peacekeeping mission to join, with an eye to winning one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council in 2021.
And then came the night of Nov. 8, 2016, when Donald Trump upset every expectation by winning the American presidential election.
“Foreign policy was driven by this new factor,” observed Frédérick Gagnon, a political scientist who studies the United States at University of Montreal, “and they had to change their minds on many issues.”
Now there were two challenges: First, preserve at all costs free trade with the United States, which Mr. Trump threatened to end unless Canada and Mexico agreed to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement on terms more favourable to his country.
Second, help protect a Western alliance under threat from all sides, now that the United States, which had established the alliance in the first place, appeared unwilling to defend it.
“I really believe that we are at an inflection point in the course of world affairs,” Ms. Freeland told The Globe and Mail. “We really are at a time when liberal democracy is under greater threat as an idea than at any time since the Second World War.”
To save NAFTA, Mr. Trudeau started a charm offensive, including the memorable evening when the Prime Minister travelled to New York to accompany Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and adviser, to the Broadway musical Come From Away, which dealt with Canadians who took in stranded American air travellers on 9/11.
Throughout the negotiations, which launched formally in August, 2017, the government lobbied hard to save NAFTA, with cabinet ministers, provincial premiers, business leaders and former prime minister Brian Mulroney lobbying the administration, Congress and state capitals.
There were setbacks – at one point, it looked as though the U.S. and Mexico had frozen Canada out of the talks – and compromises – the final agreement included concessions on Canadian efforts to protect the dairy industry, for example – but the three countries signed a new NAFTA accord in November of last year.
“It was not an easy issue, and I think they managed pretty well,” Prof. Gagnon concluded.
Still, it took six months after that signing to convince the Trump administration to lift steel and aluminum tariffs, and Democratic leaders who control the House of Representatives are demanding changes to the accord. Congress may or may not ratify the agreement this summer.
Whatever the American pace in ratifying the treaty, Canada intends to match it. “We want to take a sort of Goldilocks approach," Ms. Freeland said. “Not too fast, not too slow.” So while implementing legislation is likely to be presented to the House soon, passing the bill into law depends on progress from Congress.
“Our plan will be, insofar as it is possible given two quite different legislative processes, to move in tandem with the U.S. ratification process,” Ms. Freeland said.
After Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, Canada joined with the 10 remaining countries to conclude and ratify the ambitious trading agreement, another big win for this government.
But there have also been setbacks. Efforts to secure improved trade ties with India were undermined by Mr. Trudeau’s decision to dress himself and his family in native garb during a visit to that country, prompting international derision. Even worse, a B.C. resident who was convicted of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister in the 1980s showed up at diplomatic receptions during the trip.
Saudi Arabia became a flashpoint. The Trudeau government defended a contract to sell light armoured vehicles to the country, even though critics said the LAVs would be used offensively in the Yemen conflict.
Then the government tweeted criticism of the kingdom’s attacks on women human-rights activists, which led to a freezing of diplomatic relations that deepened further when Canada condemned the abduction and killing by Saudi agents of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But the most fraught file, by far, involves relations with China. The Trudeau government initially hoped to at least explore the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the Middle Kingdom. But last-minute Canadian demands that the agenda include environmental and human-rights elements scuttled the talks before they began.
The Americans are pressuring Canada and other allies to boycott Chinese telecom giant Huawei in the rollout of a 5G communications network, citing security concerns. The government hasn’t decided.
And then, on Dec. 1 of last year, Canadian authorities detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport at the request of the United States government, which is seeking her extradition on charges related to sanctions against Iran.
Most observers see the detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, along with a ban on canola and pork products, as revenge for Ms. Meng’s detention.
But although Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye stated last week that diplomatic relations were at a “freezing point," and that it was up to Canada to thaw them by releasing Ms. Meng, Ms. Freeland defended her government’s response to the crisis.
“Canada is a rule-of-law country,” she said. “Our extradition treaty with the United States requires us to act as we did.”
Although there appears to be no immediate prospect of the situation improving, Ms. Freeland said Canada would continue to make its case. “We are working hard to explain to China that there was no political involvement and therefore no political intent behind Canada’s actions,” she said, citing a number of countries that have called for the release of the detained Canadians.
Helping to preserve the Western alliance and a rules-based global order, in the face of Mr. Trump’s apparent indifference to both, has been daunting. Here the Trudeau government has a strong record: deploying forces to Latvia to protect NATO’s eastern front; promoting education for girls in developing countries; participating in a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, advancing human rights and defending the rule of law in a world increasingly dominated by populists and autocrats, from Hungary to the Philippines to Brazil.
“Holding the course doesn’t look sexy, but in times of great tumult, it’s a very significant contribution to be making on the world stage,” said Aisha Ahmad, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies international relations.
Nonetheless, the Liberals have sent enough mixed signals and angered enough allies, in Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s mind, for the Trudeau government’s foreign policy to be declared “disastrous.”
Mr. Scheer said a government under his leadership would take a more confrontational approach with China and strengthen ties with Israel by moving the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem.
Justin Trudeau is no longer the Prime Minister who rocked the planet with his youth, charisma and sunny ways. Foreign policy under his leadership has had its share of failures or only partial successes.
And in the case of China, this government has managed to convert a relationship that was guarded but functional into a cold war.
But on some of the biggest files – trade, human rights, international rule of law – the Liberals have delivered.
Voters will decide in October whether that’s enough.