OTTAWA — Back then, the world was a much easier place for a Canadian comeback.
When the Liberal government came to power in 2015, Canada’s decaying relations with the United Nations and the United States left political space to rebuild. New trade prospects seemed bright in China and India. Canada’s most important foreign policy priority was humming happily along with the White House occupied by the friendly Barack Obama.
It was the dramatic shift in power in Washington, with Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidency, that many believe knocked the Trudeau government’s “sunny ways” and “Canada is back” foreign policy squarely off its axis.
The government will try to restore the equilibrium this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland give separate addresses at the United Nations General Assembly.
Their underlying message to the UN annual meeting will be to affirm the importance of the world order created from the rubble of the Second World War’s aftermath — the one Canada pledged to get back to, and that Trump keeps taking a hammer to.
Canada’s campaign to win a two-year temporary seat on the Security Council will also be under scrutiny with many questioning whether it is even feasible given the energy being expended to save the North American Free Trade Agreement.
New statistics tabled in Parliament this past week show Canada is behind the pace of campaign spending it set in the 1990s when it last won a seat.
Global Affairs Canada says in response to a written question that the government has spent $532,780 since 2016 on its campaign to land a Security Council seat — well behind the pace of the $1.9 million Canada spent over four years to win its last two-year term in 1999-2000.
Overall, the government’s foreign policy record is underwhelming, and Trudeau didn’t do himself any favours with his “Canada is back” pronouncements, says Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa.
“It’s disappointing especially because they set the bar so high for themselves with all the rhetoric before the election campaign and early on — 2015 and early 2016 — and all the attitude and swagger that went around that.”
Though the government is pushing to ratify the re-booted Trans-Pacific Partnership this fall, and has its comprehensive free trade deal with Europe up and running, its other trade ambitions in Asia — making inroads with economic giants China and India — have stalled.
Trudeau’s trip to India was a failure not because of the much-ridiculed photo ops of him in local garb, but because Canada’s trade interests with the country are going nowhere, said Juneau.
The same goes for China, which rebuffed Trudeau’s so-called progressive trade agenda when he visited there late last year, Juneau added.
Trudeau has had a tough hill to climb because of the herculean task of renegotiating NAFTA with an “erratic” Trump, said Fen Hampson, a foreign affairs expert with the Centre of International Governance and Innovation.
“NAFTA has really sucked the oxygen out of the government’s foreign policy agenda, not least because the foreign minister has been doing NAFTA 24/7 pretty much since she took office,” said Hampson, who recently authored a foreign policy biography of ex-prime minister Brian Mulroney, who brought free trade to Canada.
Trudeau and his ministers are doing a credible job of engaging in other areas, “but in terms of political engagement and expending political capital, it’s very hard to do when you’re in a make-or-break negotiation with the Americans,” said Hampson.
In late August, Freeland aborted a three-country European trip and jetted back to Washington to resume trade talks because Mexico and the U.S. announced their own surprise side deal.
At the UN, Freeland will give Canada’s General Assembly keynote, scheduled for next Saturday, marking the first time Trudeau has handed that role to a foreign minister. Trudeau will address the assembly briefly as part of a peace summit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.
Along with Jim Carr, the new international trade minister, Trudeau and Freeland will take part in various meetings on a range of issues from sustainable development, gender rights and climate change.
The trio will discuss Canada’s international outlook writ large at a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that will emphasize “the importance of restoring confidence in our institutions,” Trudeau’s office says.
The PMO made no specific mention of the Security Council bid. The election won’t take place until 2020 for a two-year term starting 2021, but the campaigning for the seat usually takes years.
Anthony Cary, a former British envoy to Ottawa, said Canada faces a tough fight because of stiff competition from Ireland and Norway. If Canada loses again, as it did in 2010, it shouldn’t take it personally given the challenge of contending “with a demagogue in the White House and unprecedented threats to the rules-based international order.”
Trudeau, he said, has been remarkably “sure footed” in attempting to restore Canada’s international standing during “this dangerous period of populism and resurgent nationalism.”
Hampson said the UN deck is stacked against Canada because Europe will likely vote as a bloc in favour of Norway and Ireland. “With NAFTA distractions, we haven’t really been able to be out on the global hustings making the case at the ministerial level, on why the world, and particularly the Security Council, needs more Canada.”
Roland Paris, Trudeau’s first foreign policy adviser, said a successful Security Council bid is going to require a robust campaign, and even then, there are no guarantees.
When he helped to initially craft the Liberals’ foreign policy, no one could have predicted the arrival or impact of Trump’s ascendancy, said Paris, an international relations expert at the University of Ottawa.
Now, any future plan must be aimed at how to “come to terms with how we can best advance our interests and help to preserve the structures that are most important to Canada, and most important to maintaining international stability,” he said.
“Dealing with Donald Trump and the threats on NAFTA represent the biggest foreign policy challenge that Canada has faced since World War Two.”
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press