Comment: Friend or faux? Four years of failed foreign policy

DAVID CARMENT, BRANDON JAMIESON, FATIMAH ELFEITORI and EMILY ROBERTSON

When it comes to foreign policy, members of the Trudeau government are very good at explaining what they think Canadians want. Less clear is if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the right leader to navigate a new world of uncertainty.

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This is a key finding from our annual Foreign Policy Report Card evaluating the government’s performance in key areas. Heading into an election, the Liberals received the lowest grade ever, scoring a C+ overall and in crucial areas, such as diplomacy, a C-.

We find that that Trudeau’s foreign policy is driven largely by domestic pandering with little thought to long-term strategic objectives. A foreign policy designed in dribs and drabs, never planned too far in advance, never looking too far into the future.

While a comprehensive defence review was conducted in 2017, there was never an equivalent foreign-policy review to recalibrate Canada’s national interests in an increasingly complex and changing world. For all the change and uncertainty that have roiled alliances and our allies, Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland have sat comfortably idling on the margins, eulogizing the end of the liberal international order and longing for its return, looking back but never forward.

We’ve heard rousing speeches in Parliament that evoke memories of the “Golden Age” of Canadian diplomacy. A party extolling its proud tradition of statesmanship, always with a hand in negotiations and conflict resolution. And yet, at every turn, this government has helped undermine and weaken the international order and the principles it stands upon.

Under Freeland’s watch, Liberal foreign policy has become conservative, hawkish and short-sighted. A foreign policy no longer committed to multilateralism or diplomacy. A foreign policy largely improvised, ad hoc, and built for domestic consumption with a tinge of subservience to the United States.

Twitter, not the UN, is this government’s preferred forum for settling disputes. When it suits their electoral agenda, the Liberals are all too eager to chastise the oppressive regime du jour, without consideration of the blowback that inevitably ensues.

For example, apart from virtue-signalling on the home front, no strategic advantage was earned by Freeland trashing the Saudi government on Twitter. The Saudi government continues to behave brutally and the Liberals still plan on delivering $15 billion in armoured vehicles to them, despite the irresistible temptation they will be used for fighting the war in Yemen.

All that has changed is the tenor of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but not the substance. In Venezuela, Freeland soft-pedals regime change, bearing no costs for the inevitable violence that will ensue.

In Ukraine, she shows no interest in bringing the conflict to an end through mediation and remains apparently indifferent to increasing corruption, war profiteering and worrisome minority-rights violations.

For all our shouting at the Russians’ disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty, our foreign minister is still deemed persona non grata and unable to engage with the Kremlin. We find ourselves shut out of talks with China as the Chinese wantonly arrest and imprison Canadians on charges of espionage and conspiracy.

Diplomacy is not just about getting along with our allies. It is the ability to work with those with whom we share little in values or outlook. It involves managing difficult relationships and trying to find common ground where there might be none. No skill is required to attend photo-ops, funding announcements and glitzy diplomatic receptions.

True diplomatic tact, as former U.S. president Harry Truman said, is “the ability to step on a man’s toes without messing up the shine on his shoes.”

The Liberals’ amateur approach to statecraft has crept into other areas of government policy, as well. Few Canadians would know or appreciate that the Canadian Forces are now at one of the highest operational tempos in decades. Our troops are deployed across the Middle East, West Africa and Eastern Europe on a variety of missions. But none of these interventions serve a broader security policy. When we are engaged, we do so half-heartedly. Where we are needed most, such as in Mali, we abandon our allies in the heat of the fight.

The state of our armed forces remains equally depleted. Despite the Liberals’ preference for running deficits, our air force continues to fly planes that first saw action during the senior Trudeau’s government. Rather than committing to the investments that are so obviously needed, the procurement issue has been punted down the road, beyond the election.

The challenges of the past decade seem small compared with the ones Canada now faces. Chief among these is working with our neighbour to the south, whose government appears determined to create a new world order, unmoored of any values, convictions or truths beyond self-interest.

As Canadians prepare to head to the polls this fall, our economy, security and prosperity depend on a government capable of navigating this new world order. If the Liberal platform resembles anything like what we have seen over the past four years, Canadians should take pause before casting their vote.

David Carment is a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. Brandon Jamieson, Fatimah Elfeitori and Emily Robertson are graduate students in the program and co-authors of the report card.

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