We now know that whatever John McCallum was trying to say about the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, he screwed it up. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets to own the whole debacle, even after he fired his ambassador to China.
It left behind a mess on many levels, complicating a high-stakes dispute with China and threatening to blow a hole in one of the best home-turf advantages an incumbent prime minister has: being the leader who deals with the world.
Foreign policy probably won’t drive most voters’ decisions in next October’s election, but episodes such as this can raise questions about whether the government is wobbly on the world stage – much like Mr. Trudeau’s gaffe-filled trip to India last February.
That is a real political danger in times like these: Polls show Canadians are anxious about the world outside. Mr. Trudeau has used political speeches, such as his campaign-style address to his own Liberal caucus earlier this month, to note the world faces turbulent times – and to argue that his chief opponent, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, has no plan.
In other words, he’s telling Canadians his government will steer them through the chaos – but last week, it seemed to be creating it.
Typically, an incumbent PM has the advantage of being the one who walks with world leaders. His team gets to contrast him to U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Scheer claims Mr. Trudeau caved to Mr. Trump in the renegotiation of NAFTA, but many folks credit the PM with fending off Mr. Trump’s pressure to get a virtual draw.
But moments of memorable bumbling undermine that. And last week, the government took a difficult dispute with China and made it worse.
For weeks, the Liberals had stuck to the line that Canada was respecting an extradition treaty and the rule of law when it arrested Ms. Meng at the request of U.S. authorities. China was hopping mad and detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in retaliation.
Folks could see Mr. Trudeau’s team were in a tight spot, but it looked like they had a plan: Stick firmly to principles and rally international support.
Then Mr. McCallum jumped in, suggesting that Ms. Meng had a good case to fight her extradition, that it would not be a “happy outcome” if she were extradited to the U.S., and that the U.S. and China might cut a deal. It sounded like the Canadian government was just hoping to find a way to send Ms. Meng home.
Mr. Trudeau could have clarified, but he didn’t. He waited a day. Mr. McCallum weakly walked back his comments, while the PM rebuffed calls for the ambassador’s dismissal. The next day, Mr. McCallum made similar comments again. Mr. Trudeau fired him.
There’s been speculation about whether Mr. McCallum misspoke or whether he was sending an unofficial message aimed at easing tensions with Beijing. Either way, it was amateur hour.
No one – not Beijing, nor allies, nor the public – can really know what the message is. Canada’s firm position is now weak, waffling confusion.
It’s a screw-up, and Mr. Trudeau gets to own it. Mr. McCallum is a Liberal plucked straight from Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet to be the first high-profile political appointee in the ambassador’s post in China. Mr. Trudeau’s opponents in Parliament will delight in criticizing the bumbling with Beijing.
It’s not just image, either The confusion won’t help rally support from other countries. Mr. McCallum must be replaced by his second-in-command as temporary chargé d’affaires, amid a major dispute that sees Canadians jailed in China.
It’s worth noting, too, that Canada’s China policy was suffering from confusion even before Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1. Mr. Trudeau had once tried to open free-trade talks with China, but that failed to launch when he visited China in 2017. There was an effort to try sector-by-sector trade talks, but it was still pretty foggy.
Of course, Mr. Trudeau isn’t the only world leader without a clear China policy. His predecessor, Stephen Harper, never had one, either. Voters don’t demand all those details when they cast a ballot, but stumbling on the world stage will make them nervous.