Under PM Trudeau, Canada’s Foreign Policy Has Seen A Seismic Shift

October 22, 2016

Did the seismic shift in Canadian political landscape, a year ago, also trigger a shift Canada’s diplomacy, defence, development agenda? Largely, yes, and for the most part for the better.

First and foremost, Canada re-surfaced loudly and boldly at the United Nations – the world family of 193 nations. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disdain, disrespect and disapproval of anything to do with the UN was well-known, resulting in Canada’s isolation at the UN, including losing its bid for a seat at the Security Council, the ultimate decision-making body on world affairs. While Harper rebuffed the UN, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraced the world body, including addressing the General Assembly in September and declaring, “Canada is back” on the international scene.

In re-emerging at the UN, Canada also pledged financial assistance to various UN agencies, withdrawn during previous Conservative government. One must however, caution against throwing good money after bad, in the case of UN agencies as they are fraught with inefficiency. The previous Conservative government was adamant in demanding accountability before approving funding for any UN requests for financial assistance.

A country the size and strength of Canada can leverage its influence effectively and efficiently through multilateral organizations. Hence, Canada seems to be enhancing its role in various international and regional organizations, including, G-20, NATO, and the African Union, among other forums. While pursuing Canadian agenda through multilateralism remains essential part of Canadian diplomatic strategy, bilateral relations are also playing an important part, as with Prime Minister’s state visit to China in September and various foreign heads of government have come knocking on Ottawa’s door.

Pursuit of free trade agreements goes on with same vigour, as under previous Conservative government. The Canada-India Free Trade agreement seems to have died with the defeat of the Harper Conservative government. Much too much energy was wasted on this agreement which at the end was designed to appease voters of Indian origin, most of whom were not too impressed or thrilled with the transparent vote-getting antics.

Canada’s relations with the United States of America is foremost on Canada’s diplomatic agenda. Personal chemistry between leaders is essential in maintaining and promoting irritant-free bilateral relations. In this regard, current Prime Minister Trudeau has restored much needed personal diplomacy with US President Barack Obama. Prime Minister Trudeau was the first Canadian Prime Minister to be hosted at a White House State Dinner, in March this year, in almost two decades. The two countries are busy resolving issues of energy and building oil pipelines.

Within a year of coming to power, the Liberal government has kept its commitment to climate change agenda, by signing the Paris Agreement on controlling carbon emissions. Most world leaders recognize the threat of climate change and want to put in place mechanisms to protect the environment.

Canada has resumed an active role in defence matters too with promise to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. The problem is that while Prime Minister Trudeau committed to supplying 600 Canadian troops, but has not found a place to deploy them. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan went on a hurried and inconclusive trip to East Africa to find a place of deployment. The government seems to have put the cart before the horse!

As per the previous Conservative government, Canada is actively monitoring the Russian antics in the Baltics and Ukraine. It has pledged to contribute more troops, as part of NATO’s efforts to protect and ensure sovereignty of the Baltic states.

Whereas the previous Conservative government was hostile to international development agenda and inflicted serious financial cutbacks to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Liberal government has resumed Canada’s role in providing humanitarian and development assistance, be it immediate help in the aftermath of recent hurricane in the Caribbean or funding women’s education and literacy programs to furthering gender equality, under the aegis of UN agencies.

As for the future, volume of consular matters will continue to increase and become more challenging, both because of changing demographics and dealing with countries with different value and legal systems. For example, recent efforts to secure release of Canadian of Iranian origin from Iran has been a challenge.

Instead of indulging in cost cutting exercises, Canada needs place more diplomats in foreign missions. We should end the practice of replacing Canadian diplomats with locally engaged staff. They are not the same for various reasons.

It is hoped Canada’s experiment of building a pluralistic and multicultural society will continue to be reflected actively in its foreign policy.

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