A Canadian foreign policy that practices what it preaches: Part Two

The library within the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa, Ontario.

In the lead up to the 2019 federal election, we set out some of the key elements for a foreign policy that practices what it preaches. We looked at Canada’s role in the global arms trade, addressing the nuclear peril, and Canada’s relations with Iran. Subsequent blogs addressed a range of other issues, all with the theme of urging the Justin Trudeau government to narrow the gap between its welcome multilateralist rhetoric and its actual foreign policy record. We concluded:

The Justin Trudeau Liberals need to develop diplomatic peacemaking and peacebuilding options that are commensurate with the scale of the challenges facing Canada and our global community.

Now that the election is over and we have a minority Liberal government, but a progressive majority of parliamentarians, it is time to outline some urgent steps that need to be taken  to give Canadians a foreign policy that finally delivers on the Justin Trudeau 2015 re-engagement promise.

Two steps forward

We focus today on two  steps that will help the new Liberal minority government strengthen its foreign policy smarts.

The most important thing that Prime Minister Trudeau can do in the area of Canadian foreign policy is to appoint a new, full-time foreign Minister.

It was not only Donald J. Trump who derailed the ambitious “Canada is back” multilateral agenda announced by the newly-elected Justin Trudeau government in October of 2015.  It was the Prime Minister himself, by appointing Chrystia Freeland as Foreign Minister while continuing her responsibility for Canada-USA trade.

If Trudeau’s aim had been to sideline the multilateral diplomatic agenda, (which we do not think was the intention), he could have found no better way to do it.

Not only was most of the Foreign Minister’s time necessarily swallowed up with Canada-USA trade, but every other foreign policy issue was seen first and foremost through the Canada-USA trade minister lens, with none of the balancing that would have come from two Ministers – an international trade minister and a foreign minister, with the latter dedicated to determining how best to move Canada’s multilateral agenda forward despite Trump.

Add to that Chrystia Freeland’s hard line on both Russia and Ukraine and the inevitable sidelining of multilateral diplomacy was complete (except for initiatives in explicit aid of some dubious Trumpian agenda item, such as the the Lima Group and Venezuela).

So we need a new full-time Foreign Minister who is going to focus in every international forum in which we are present on concrete, realistic opportunities to advance multilateral diplomacy especially in relation to UN-led conflict resolution, arms control and disarmament, and strengthening international law.

Ideally, this means finding good opportunities that don’t necessarily put us in head-on conflict with the Trump administration. But make no mistake, on some issues there will necessarily be differences, sometimes big ones. After all, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien withstood enormous American pressure and did not join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Rebuilding Canadian Diplomatic Capacity

But we also need a full-time Foreign Minister who will focus on the urgently needed rebuilding of the Foreign Service. Recall that the then Department of Foreign Affairs was savaged under then Prime Minister Harper, who denied it any meaningful policy role, starved the department of funding and regularly belittled the very notion of diplomacy as “weakness” and “failing to take a stand”. Many of the most senior, seasoned diplomats took early retirement and no new professional foreign service recruitment took place.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is now a place where most of senior management has never served overseas; where many positions are not even held by diplomats, let alone experienced ones; and where reporting from diplomatic posts – the life blood of good diplomacy – is almost a lost art in too many Canadian embassies.

In short, the new Minister has to develop a plan for recruitment and for internal training of professional foreign service officers. To this end, her/his mandate letter should explicitly call for the establishment of an Advisory Group which would include senior retired diplomats and others with foreign policy expertise to make recommendations on how to do this and fast.

These are important process-related recommendations on how to increase Canadian diplomatic capacity.

In next Friday’s blog, we will examine some key substantive foreign policy priorities for the Justin Trudeau minority government to pursue in cooperation with progressive parties in the House of Commons.

A much greater focus on conflict prevention and conflict resolution should be at the heart of the feminist foreign policy.  The new Foreign Minister must be mandated to give real depth to this mantra.

Stay tuned.


President of the Rideau Institute

(Ceasefire.ca is a project of the Rideau Institute)

Photo credit: Getty Images, Steven Kriemadis creator (inside Library of Parliament)

Tags: "Canada is back", arms control and disarmament, Canada and Iran, Canadian foreign policy, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, full-time Foreign Minister, Liberal minority government, ministerial mandate letter, Prime Ministr Justin Trudeau, Professional Foreign Service, re-engagemetn by Canada, rebuilding Canadian foreign policy capacity, Russia, strengthening international law, Ukraine