Parties competing over values, not substance, in foreign policy platforms

In the 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau campaigned on a foreign policy vision that differed radically from that of Stephen Harper, arguing that a decade of Conservative rule meant that Canada had drifted away from upholding the values that underpinned its actions as a global actor. However, in power, the differences between the two are slim. As the Annual Trudeau Foreign Policy Report Card has shown, the Liberal government’s foreign policy accomplishments are far less than what its hyperbolic rhetoric suggests. Given that foreign policy increasingly plays an important role in Canadian federal elections, what can we expect in the 2019 campaign?

As we near the election date, we can expect far more scrutiny of Liberal pledges. Despite Trudeau’s post-election proclamation that “Canada was back” on the world stage, this claim must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a number of key areas where the rhetoric has outstripped reality. Notably on climate change, to be repeatedly highlighted by the surging Green Party, not to mention the NDP, with its recently released Canadian Green New Deal. They will note how the Trudeau government has only timidly implemented snippets of the progressive liberal internationalism Trudeau successfully campaigned on in 2015. The problem is not the vision, but the execution.

The Conservatives, however, will argue that a change in leadership is required for Canada to be an effective global actor. They will replicate the Harper government’s 2015 depiction of Trudeau as an inexperienced neophyte in over his head, not able to deal with the serious issues of the day. They will raise Trudeau’s disastrous 2018 trip to India to show that he is a leader concerned with his personal brand of celebrity and domestic politics.

All parties will highlight the ongoing crisis with China and a still unratified NAFTA 2.0 as examples of Trudeau’s failure to protect and promote Canada’s interests and reputation as a trusted ally. They will raise his mishandling of the Wilson-Raybould affair, which garnered widespread international attention, to show how it tarnished both Trudeau’s personal political brand and the reputation of Canada as a country that upholds the rule of law—something it claims underlies the decision not to stop extradition hearings against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Tellingly, however, Andrew Scheer’s pre-election outline of Conservative foreign policy focused on Trudeau and the rhetoric of Liberal foreign policy, not on the substance of Liberal foreign policy. Conservatives emphasize that they could have managed these complex files better, appealing to their base in criticizing Trudeau more than his foreign policy. The Conservatives, however, have not demonstrated how their leadership would have produced significantly different results on NAFTA 2.0 or on China.

Indeed, Scheer’s foreign policy vision only differs substantively from Trudeau’s on a few files: Canadian participation in “Star Wars,” buying the F-35 fighter jet, and moving Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem. These wedge issues, which are not at the top of the list of Canadian foreign policy priorities, serve to mobilize important Canadian constituencies for the upcoming election and indicate that Scheer, like Trudeau, appears to be more interested in using foreign policy as a tool of domestic political competition than offering meaningful foreign policy alternatives.

Thus we are in for a replay of 2015, where the Conservatives, ahead of the Liberals in the polls, tried to frame Trudeau as a weak leader out of his depth. Meanwhile, the Liberals will continue to promote the rhetoric of liberal internationalism and will remind Canadians at every opportunity that Scheer is no different than Stephen Harper, whose values they said were out of sync with a majority of Canadians’, and that Trudeau’s international popularity has contributed to a good economy. The Liberals, as they often do, will claim that they embody Canadian values and can be trusted in power. Thus, the election will be a debate about values, not what we are actually doing (or not doing) in world affairs.

As we have argued in our book on foreign policy branding, we can expect discussions of foreign policy to play a large role in the election campaign, as it provides comfort, reaches out to political bases, and it allows parties to distinguish themselves from one another. But whose foreign policy will it be? Justin Trudeau’s yet-to-be-realized idea of bringing Canada back? Andrew Scheer’s retreat into an even tighter and more overt relationship with the United States? Or might we see a surprise, where Canadian voters follow a growing international trend of supporting the Green Party to actively tackle climate change? Only time will tell.

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. They are co-editors of the recently published book, Canada, Nation Branding and Domestic Politics.

This article was original published in The Hill Times

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia

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