Get Back to Foreign Policy Basics, Ditch Faulty Approach on Ukraine

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at the lowest point in the polls he’s ever been. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, only 31 per cent of Canadians have a positive impression of him. One explanation is that Canadians are tired of Trudeau. But this makes little sense. He was re-elected only last year. Plus, voters are not like TV viewers who get tired of plot lines. They get tired of unproductive policies and political antics.

For virtually all of 2022, the Trudeau government’s flagship program on foreign policy has been to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine. They went all in, all on day one. There was no debate on policy options, no obvious exit strategies, no contingency planning. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland talked tough. She wanted Putin out of office. She called on Western countries to cut him off from the global economy. She promised to “send lethal and non-lethal aid to support Ukraine’s heroic defence,” and allocated a massive $1.2-billion aid package in Budget 2022 along with tons of military equipment.

Then the Nord Stream gas turbine thing happened. With Russia blaming reduced natural gas flows to Germany on delayed equipment in Canada, the Liberals opted to break their own rules on sanctions and return the turbine, which was repaired in Montreal, back to Russia.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Yulia Kovaliv, is understandably disappointed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is apparently livid. The Ukrainian World Congress has filed a federal court complaint. As for bringing Putin to his knees, Russia reportedly occupies almost 25 per cent of Ukraine. Its currency has risen at times an astounding 30 per cent since the war began, and Putin is showing no signs of pulling back his armies. One could conclude that Canada has failed to achieve its policy objectives in Ukraine.

Which, incidentally, begs the obvious question: what exactly were our policy objectives?

Trudeau and his ministers have alternated between wanting a regime change in Russia and strengthening the NATO alliance to consolidating democracy in Ukraine. Regime change is clearly not happening any time soon, and with Zelenskyy banning political parties and cracking down on his critics, hopes for a democratic Ukraine might steadily slipping away. As for fortifying the NATO alliance, it appears that Canada is the only one seized by it. France has slithered quietly into silence; the United Kingdom’s got its own domestic leadership problems; and the Germans, who compelled Canada to return the turbines, are thanking us for calling “Putin’s bluff.” Sell that spin to the 14 million Ukrainians displaced by the war.

Instead of resetting Canada’s policy objectives, our government has intensified its obstinance. Even good news stories like the new embassy in Rwanda are being couched in jingoistic terms. Rather than presenting the embassy as an easy access point to help fight, say, food insecurity and the severe drought currently devastating eastern Africa, it was pitched as Canada’s strategy to counter the influence of Russia. “We can’t be naïve,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, adding that she sees our diplomats in Kigali as “eyes and ears listening to what’s going on.” The draught is what is going on.

Joly, meanwhile, is busy with another mess on her hands. The Canadian embassy that she had re-opened in Kyiv back in May has been sitting empty. Now it is being alleged that despite several warnings, Canada may have compromised the safety of the embassy’s locally engaged staff prior to the Russian invasion. Appearing before a parliamentary committee on Aug. 4, Joly proposed, with either mockery or mischief, that the committee ought a launch an investigation to study these allegations.

Sloppy stick-handling on Ukraine might be symptomatic of a broader malaise. It happens when policy-making is replaced by political hyperbole. You can get stuck in the mud of overemphasis, of exaggerating threats and overstating responses. This is when one should take a break and steer back to the basics. For Trudeau, the basics of foreign policy, as the missives from Global Affairs Canada regularly remind us, are supposed to be the feminist agenda. He should reclaim that agenda. The next federal election is not due until 2025, if the minority government holds. Trudeau has lots of time to win back the hearts and minds of Canadians. But first he needs to stop trying to reconfigure the world. We are a nation of peacekeepers and do-gooders, not warmongers. We should reveal to the world what a real feminist policy solution to end the war in Ukraine looks like. It’s a safe bet that the answer will not include playing more politics.


Bhagwant Sandhu is a retired director general with the federal government. He is a community organizer with a keen interest in Canadian foreign policy issues.

This article was originally published via The Hill Times

Photo Credit: the website of the President of Ukraine 

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