In an era of instability, upheaval and change Canada’s place in the world remains uncertain. Under the circumstances, a study of Canada’s place in the world might seem superfluous, perhaps even trivial. This is, after all, an era of significant geopolitical shifts, unrelenting violent confrontation, nationalism and identity politics. As a result, the institutions in which Canada and its allies have invested significant capital such as trade, political, and security organisations are being tested and stretched to the limit. The European Union, for example faces challenges from within as its members states confront a changing political landscape in the United Kingdom; a European state desperate to break free of the shared values that made a peaceful continent possible. At the same time, EU members countries such as Hungary stand accused of backsliding and illiberal behaviour as their leaders engage in populist policies that pit them against the values of their EU partners.
Closer to home, Canada confronts a distinctly different kind of disruptive politics embodied in the presidency of the United States whose goals and motivations of putting “America first” are widely shared across a broad political and economic spectrum. For example, the unexpected election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016 severely disrupted the Liberal’s momentum towards realizing a progressive trade agenda; causing the Trudeau government to shift their focus and prioritize the North American trade relationship above all other interests, especially with regards to potential opportunities with China.
In its unrelenting confrontation with China, for example, the US has shown that it sees that country as a clear rival to American hegemony; an idea that resonates within Congress and among voters of different political stripes. For example, Canada’s recently completed trade negotiations with the US and Mexico demonstrate quite clearly that US has shifted its political and economic priorities to challenging China on the trade front. In turn, Canada’s commitments to multilateralism are constantly tested as the US signals its dissatisfaction with current arrangements whether that be on the trade front through the WTO , climate change or the United Nations. In essence, Canada’s fate and future is structurally contingent on its relationship with the United States; a relationship that paradoxically is key to enhancing Canadian sovereignty while at the same time having the potential to reduce it.
In all of these cases, democracy itself has provided the fertile ground from which these inward-looking nationalist policies have grown. The rise of populist nationalism may be unanticipated to some, but the possibility has always been embedded in liberal democracies. This is especially true in an era of globalisation with its clear cut economic “winners.”. But there are also the “losers” whose need for dignity and voice is acutely felt around the world. The economic and political grievances of today whether real or perceived have been framed by leaders like Donald Trump as an affront to their dignity.
Not surprisingly when liberal democracies seek to protect individual dignity and rights, they often do so at the expense of a collective identity that is necessary to unite society. In the absence of a shared identity, further fragmentation and division will continue. Nowhere is this more true than Canada, a country which struggles to define itself, perhaps even brand itself as distinct, and important more often than not in juxtaposition to the USA.
After years of struggling with the question of Canada’s place in the world we now know that Canada’s path forward remains undefined. The election of Stephen Harper, for example, not only demonstrated significant dissatisfaction with large L policies it showed that the public was largely ambivalent toward small l political ideology. This so called “big shift” has had some lasting effects despite the election of Justin Trudeau. In more ways than one can imagine, the current Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has embraced much of the Harper governments Conservative agenda whether that be on the trade front, defence, development or security.
What is less clear is whether this shift has become embedded in public opinion post Harper. In the Canadian context one clear transformation is the creeping incursion of political marketing strategies to micro target individual voters. In a sense individual interests are being satisfied by policies that appeal to a particular constituency. The upshot is that this is a political process to build support for the Liberal party – a state of constant electioneering – rather than implementing “good” policy. For example the Liberals pursuit of a seat on the UNSC is designed to attract voters to whom that policy appeals not because it is necessarily in Canada’s interests . A key player in all this is the unelected policy advisor whose job it is to build political support for the party though specific policy initiatives using social media and digital policy to engage Canadians. This kind of branding through marketing has become a cornerstone of Canadian politics. All this suggests that Canada is in desperate a need of a strategic vision of its place in the world. Statecraft emanates from building stability through linking domestic opportunities (e.g. a strong economy) with international constraints (finding reliable trade partners).
The continuities from government to government don’t stop there. Just like Harper’s similar claim a decade earlier, Justin Trudeau signalled that his government would operate according to politically defined Canadian values. Trudeau wanted less partisan politics, yet he portrayed Conservative voters as less than Canadian when he said that Canada was back. His government increasingly references Harper—and not Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer—to remind voters that his government’s values are distinct from his opponents.
Following a decade of decline, and challenged on both the left and right, the Liberals recast their brand to pull votes from the Conservatives and especially the NDP. Yet, in power, many of the left-of-centre “values” have been abandoned or severely watered down. Think peacekeeping, a commitment to United Nations reform, a balanced approach to the Middle East, the environment, and climate change. Moves intended to appeal to right-of-centre voters include increased defence spending, strengthening NATO, taking on Russia, and the pursuit of free trade deals, especially the single-minded focus on renegotiating NAFTA.
This ongoing politicization of Canadian identity shows how rhetorical constructs framed around values are used to distinguish leaders and their parties from one another as their party platforms, especially economically, become less distinct in an era of globalization. This is the essence of domestic brand politics. Emotions and values, more so than policy, are the means and basis for electoral competition. In foreign policy, parties reduce complex issues to “feel good” rhetoric that connects with voters, giving them hope for a better future. This was the case of the response to the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis.
Ultimately, however, the gap between rhetoric and reality, as seen in the Trudeau government’s management of the refugee file, is so yawning that a government’s inevitable shortcomings nourish the already entrenched sense of cynicism and disappointment with government. The cycle begins anew. Since Louis St. Laurent, prime ministers regularly project politically defined “Canadian values” abroad, not just as signals to global partners, but to Canadian citizens. Today, Trudeau does this with statements on diversity and gender equality. But despite all the window dressing and rhetorical differences across governments, Canadians have seen relative continuity in policies. Economic policies continue to be neoliberal, minimizing the role of government, and they continue to promote free trade.
Indeed, a less engaged Canada is the new normal. Trudeau often speaks of Pearsonian values, yet his government is on pace to become the least generous aid donor since Pearson. He pays only lip service to the global institutions in which we had a founding role, reflecting ex-Liberal foreign policy aide Jocelyn Coulon’s claim that Trudeau was not overly interested in foreign affairs when he won his party’s leadership. His 2017 speech to the UN General Assembly that focused on an apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, despite a year earlier claiming that Canada was “here to help,” shows that domestic politics are always top of mind.
Polls and pundits reveal increasing fatigue with Trudeau hypocrisy. The government seems long on rhetoric and short on action, providing new opportunities for the opposition. But can they offer something different? Not likely. The battle is to control and redefine the centre as the major parties seek to distinguish themselves by politically redefining Canada’s identity and its rhetorical role in the world, even though the broad trajectory of foreign policy is unlikely to change.
The idea that Canadian foreign policy is mostly a branding exercise raises some uncomfortable and perhaps irreconcilable questions such as “what is Canada? Perhaps we are not mature enough as a nation and our democracy is too fragile to deal with uncomfortable truths: such as the Afghan detainee scandal, our relationship with Saudi Arabia and Omar Khadr’s mistreatment at the hands of CSIS. More pointedly given that China is the focal point of US policy, Canada has not dealt very well with that shift in strategic orientation. The repeated call for trade diversification, for example is often made but rarely heeded. If anything, Canada is now tightly bound to the continent.
The question is whether those transcendent values that one might describe as “historically” if not “uniquely” Canadian can continue to shape and inform discourse on Canadian foreign policy in an era of disruption and instability. The current Liberal government would have us believe they can and still do. Indeed the 2016 election platform upon which the Liberals staked their political future was premised on a set of propositions about those values that define Canada’s place in the world: Its commitment to multilateralism, its respect for human rights, its long standing support for rule of law and its position in the world as middle power with influence and pride of place.
These values not only served the Liberals well in distancing themselves from the previous Harper government they served as the platform upon which the government has chosen to build its reputation abroad and define itself against the Trump presidency and the concomitant rise of American parochialism. For example, in her speech to parliament in the spring of 2017, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke of these values as the means to confront a changing world order beset by revisionism, nationalism and illiberalism. Yet it is clear that speech as well as those given by Prime Minster Trudeau since then are far more about the past then they are about confronting the future. If this is problematic it is simply that the merit of such rhetoric is being constantly challenged on empirical grounds whether that be Trudeau’s palpably contradictory position on climate change and pipelines, selling arms to human rights violator Saudi Arabia or the government’s failure to uphold the International Criminal Court (an entity that Canada was instrumental in creating).
In coming to grips with the increasing gap between rhetoric and reality we see that the Liberals are at times inconsistent and at times self-defeating. The stakes are high because if such rhetoric is only superficially about making a difference abroad and more about getting the Trudeau government re-elected than that casts doubt about their suitability for recalibrating Canada’s position in a turbulent world. More important perhaps is the question of what Canada really stands for in a world where traditional norms of state conduct are continuously challenged.
Consider as an example the Liberal government’s decision to uphold the Harper government’s contract to build and sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia. On the one hand the decision is consistent with the history of Canadian arms deals and was done with a very specific political and economic calculus. On the other hand, the Liberal decision to uphold the contract is at odds with the public message put forth by the Trudeau government. That Canada wants to be “back” on the world stage to protect and promote human rights.
A more subtle contradiction is evident in the kinds of “virtue signalling” evident in the PM Trudeau’s speeches abroad reflecting a self-congratulatory tone that lay claim to being both principled and core to Canadian identity. If there is cause for concern it is simply that political power in Canada is deeply concentrated at the Federal level. The Prime Minister is arguably the most powerful actor in Canadian foreign policy. Taken together the concentration of power and the idea that the PM is himself the repository of core Canadian values is to discount the important role of a diverse influences on foreign policy which themselves reflect a diversity of interests and values and which are in turn instrumental in the making and implementation of foreign policy. This include the provinces, civil society, cities and ordinary citizens.
A third example Is our wavering commitment to liberal internationalism. Despite all the recent claims to be a fully engaged multilateral player in diplomacy and trade our record is rather weak. If Canada has become economically strong that is largely due to the success of the US market and the expansion of Canada’s resource and manufacturing sectors in which our trading relationship with the US is paramount. Successive governments have failed to build ties with emerging markets which would in this 21st century become Canada chief economic competitors. As a result, Canada has fallen behind in market competitiveness. Indeed, our multilateral engagement has mostly focused on the dominance of established powers and the institutions they uphold rather than those institutions that are not dominated by the established powers. Today, Canada’s role as a traditional middle power is challenged by the changing global economy as emerging middle powers are focused on reform of international institutions and traditional middle powers seek to preserve status quo.
Canada’s leadership on Indigenous issues exemplifies how past policy is ill suited to projecting Canadian values abroad. On the Arctic Council we can point to Trudeau’s unilateral move to pass the US-Canada Joint Leaders Statement, which drew substantial criticism. The Liberals thus far have implemented very little in UNDRIP and took months to give their support to Bill C-262, legislation to harmonize the declaration within Canadian law. While some may believe Canada is still a leading nation with regards to Indigenous rights, Canada is constantly reprimanded across international human rights forums on its treatment of Indigenous peoples. Examples are the Canadian Human Rights Commission, UN Human Rights Committee, and Amnesty International who issue regular reports that condemn Canada’s poor performance with respect to Indigenous rights.
Finally, we come to the question of whether the past, really is a good platform on which to build Canada’s future. In dealing with the Liberal government’s core marketing slogan “Canada is back” we must ask if pursing a status quo ante strategy merits the attention it is being given. Cognitively such a proposition is appealing because it implies – and there is some truth to this- that a return to old style diplomacy would bring us back to the glory days of Canada’s golden era of diplomacy. But to date there are few indications that such an approach has traction in so far as inconsistent international conduct impacts international perception of Canada as a country in decline.
Indeed, since the end of the Cold War Canada’s commitment to and involvement in multilateralism and international institutions has shifted due to changes in the global political economy. Today the multilateralism that Canada helped develop and which was initially beneficial for Canada as a middle power, does not work in the same way today Canada is more and more often engaging states with different value systems, but has yet to figure out how to make compromises in shaping the new international order. A case in point is Canada’s official development assistance. Despite their rhetorical differences, the Trudeau Liberals have not changed much about the way Canada does foreign aid compared to the Conservative practices, except for the slogans they use to promote it. The growing distance of Canadian foreign aid policy and practice from the real needs of developing countries, demonstrates that foreign aid policies under the more self-consciously internationalist Trudeau government too, to a certain degree, have been characterized by mixed motives.
David Carment is CGAI fellow, and principal investigator of the annual Trudeau Foreign Policy Report Card. Richard Nimijean is a member of the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.