Despite repeated claims that Canada is a fully engaged player in diplomacy, development, defence and trade, the Trudeau government’s foreign policy record is weak, fraught with scandal and far more conservative than voters appreciate. Canada is falling behind in competitiveness because our foreign policy has focused on the dominance of an established power at the expense of building relationships with emerging markets, supporting a sustainable multilateral presence and showing real leadership on the global stage.
These are the findings of our most recent Report Card on the Trudeau government’s foreign policy agenda. The Report Card evaluates the government on three criteria: progress in meeting election promises, overall performance and accountability. The Report Card gives the Trudeau government a C+ overall, which is by far the worst grade since we began evaluating the Liberal record in 2015.
Canada’s conservative diplomacy is best exemplified by Chrystia Freeland’s appointment as foreign minister. Under her tutelage, Canada’s foreign policy no longer conveys a clear commitment to multilateralism, nor for that matter quiet, constructive diplomacy. It has become instead a series of improvised, ad hoc efforts to publicly isolate, chastise and bandwagon against those states caught up in America’s geopolitical struggles. In many ways, Canada is in lock-step with Donald Trump’s agenda.
While our Canadian Forces maintain one of the highest operational tempos in decades, the current government has shown disinterest in investing for the future despite a willingness to freely spend elsewhere. Canada’s air force is aging and our navy is hardly seaworthy. Though Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan has taken an innovative approach to peacekeeping through “Smart Pledges,” the Trudeau government has yet to organize its priorities to ensure our defence remains strong.
If top bureaucrat Michael Wernick’s alarmist comments presented to the House of Commons Justice Committee early in 2019 are taken at face value, Canada is less secure today than it was four years ago. The world has fundamentally changed and the Liberals find themselves adrift without a plan for steering us to safety. While the government has found small victories in bringing light to clandestine activity, reforming our intelligence community and preparing for the future of cyber security, the Liberals have failed the larger tests. Our Arctic remains unattended to, foreign fighters are returning home without consequence, and now we find ourselves in the middle of a geopolitical battle between China and the United States with no exit strategy.
With respect to foreign aid, the Trudeau government has simultaneously underperformed and oversold its “progressive agenda.” Our Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) remains underfunded and disorganized. The launch of FIAP was really a shuffling of old money under a new brand. Most surprisingly, it still does not have a framework for the Canadian public to gauge its success. The focus on supporting women in developing countries is commendable, but it is not a sharp departure from the past. Disappointingly, FIAP appears to be more of a ploy for galvanizing a progressive domestic base than a real transformation.
In terms of Canada’s ability to uphold and advance human rights, the Trudeau government falls short. A recent example is the government’s support for an unelected leader of Venezuela. While Minister Freeland has pushed for an investigation by the International Criminal Court to try to remove sitting president Nicolás Maduro, the recent SNC-Lavalin scandal brings into question whether our government should be instructing other countries on the rule of law. Claims of political interference have caught up to the Trudeau government on the world stage. The OECD Working Group on bribery is now closely monitoring allegations of widespread Canadian corruption.
The recent SNC-Lavalin scandal brings into question whether our government should be instructing other countries on the rule of law.
The increasing gap between rhetoric and reality doesn’t stop there. The heady days of the Paris Climate Agreement, when Justin Trudeau hoped to establish himself as the global climate leader, are long gone. Trudeau still seeks to reconcile opposing visions for Canada while at the same time appeasing environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the West. His government champions a transition to a low-carbon economy whilst purchasing new pipelines. He supports empowering Indigenous groups, until those pipelines he bought cross their territory. He promises “new leadership” but struggles with those provinces resistant to his federal carbon tax.
On immigration and refugees, the Liberal government prefers virtue-signalling and photo-ops with recently landed immigrants, but can’t seem to disarm the fear and controversy surrounding irregular border crossings. These shortcomings at home undermine Canada’s performance on the global stage, where the Liberals call for a revamped global refugee support system.
Though foreign policy rarely weighs heavily on the minds of Canadian voters come election day, this year may be different. Accusations of political interference and inappropriate pressure hover over the Liberal government’s political fortunes. It’s likely that by mid-campaign this government could find itself embroiled in two criminal investigations. Regardless of the outcome, the Liberal promise of offering Canadians a new way of doing politics is clearly broken.
David Carment is a Professor of International Affairs at Carleton University and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Brandon Jamieson is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, studying Security and Defence Policy. Fatimah Elfeitori is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in Humanitarian Assistance and Project Management. Emily Robertson is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, in Project Management for Humanitarian Assistance.