OTTAWA — Rhetoric is no substitute for reality, as the American social theorist Thomas Sowell said. It is the besetting sin of the Trudeau government that it has not lived up to its promises in so many fields of endeavour.
In foreign affairs, this week gave us another reminder of the gap between what Justin Trudeau said he would do — a “new era of Canadian international engagement” — and the state of affairs in the real world.
The Hindustan Times reported that India has informed Canada that there is little prospect of warming the frosty bilateral relationship unless Ottawa takes action on the burgeoning activities of groups seeking an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab region.
The relationship with India has cooled since Trudeau’s disastrous visit last year, largely because the Indians believe the Liberal government is taking a position that is deliberately ambiguous for domestic political reasons (the Sikh population being a particularly coveted voting bloc at the next election).
The problem is not specifically Trudeau’s lack of credibility with Narendra Modi’s government, though India is an important Commonwealth partner.
The larger issue is that it is just one example of Canada’s continuing evisceration of its foreign service, its subjugation of relations with regional powers to domestic politics and of the millenarian belief that Canada should be regarded as a moral superpower.
Policy has been diaspora-driven in the case of the Sikhs, Tamils and Ukrainians. “We are trying to win votes in Surrey, B.C. That’s not adult. It’s not G7 behaviour,” said one former ambassador.
Another senior diplomat, with two decades of experience in Asia, said the Liberals seems to believe that foreign governments will buy their progressive talking points just as its political base does.
“I spent decades working with these highly educated and sophisticated people and I would be embarrassed to be defending current policies. We have never before had strained relations with all three of the world’s strongest powers,” he said.
The Post spoke with a handful of former senior diplomats, all of whom lamented the current state of Canada’s foreign relations.
They talked about a missed opportunity after the Harper years, when the Conservative government turned away from multilateralism and refused to “go along just to get along.” Trudeau tried to rebrand Canada as a more sympathetic, co-operative country, and said he wanted to share a “positive Canadian vision.”
When he visited the renamed Global Affairs Department in Ottawa’s Lester B. Pearson building he was greeted like a rock star by staff who were open in their jubilation at the demise of the Conservative government.
“Harper made no secret of his open disdain for the bureaucracy, which he thought was staffed by a bunch of Liberals,” said one former ambassador. “That wasn’t true — people had served previous Conservative governments loyally.”
There were high hopes that Trudeau would revive the foreign service but by all accounts, that has not happened.
“For a government that evinced such appreciation of bureaucrats at the beginning — which was embarrassingly reciprocated — Trudeau’s government has shown little appreciation for the actual institution of Canada foreign policy. Was this because the institution didn’t deliver, after the years of Harper starvation; because the Harper model was there and was so easy to fall back on; because of the press of crises; or because of personality?” asked another former ambassador.
The answer is probably a combination of the above. But what can be said with confidence is that allowing the foreign service to atrophy further has had real world consequences.
Naiveté, myopia and bad advice contributed to the debacle in Beijing in late 2017, when Trudeau arrived in China expecting to launch talks on a free trade deal and left empty-handed. Old Foreign Affairs hands shake their heads at the expectation that China would change its labour laws to accommodate Canada’s progressive trade agenda, blaming former ambassador John McCallum (one of a number of political appointees in key embassies) for not warning the visiting prime minister. “The Liberal establishment is in bed with the Chinese and they were slow to see that Xi is different and the romantic vision of China is no longer true,” said a former ambassador.
The consensus on Trudeau’s trip to India is that foreign service advice was either ignored or overruled. The logic appears to have been that dressing up in flamboyant costumes for pictures that would appear in constituency mail-outs at election time should take precedence over fostering more harmonious relations with the world’s largest democracy.
On relations with the U.S., there is a sense that Trudeau has performed more adroitly. “I’m careful not to carp about the swimming stroke of a guy caught in a white water cascade,” said one former ambassador, referring to the problem for any Canadian government dealing with Donald Trump.
The main criticism was that the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement has dominated the agenda, leaving little time for the rest of the world.
Chrystia Freeland, the global affairs minister, is given credit by foreign policy veterans for getting the free trade deal with the European Union across the finish line.
She is also commended for backing the Lima Group, a collection of 12 countries intent on creating a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela. “It’s one of the best initiatives to come out of this government,” said a former ambassador with experience in Latin America. “It’s flexible, not the usual suspects and pragmatic.”
But Freeland and Trudeau are given more failing marks than passes for prioritizing romanticism over realism in Canada’s foreign policy.
The Trudeau government’s idealistic crusade to promote democracy and reduce inequities has blinded it to the realpolitik that puts national interest ahead of all other considerations.
An example would be the tweet by Freeland calling for the release of two women’s rights activists, including Samar Badawi, sister of imprisoned writer Raif Badawi, which provoked an angry response from the peevish Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The prince called the intervention “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs,” expelled the Canadian ambassador, froze bilateral trade, and dumped Canadian assets. For their part, the Trudeau Liberals were able to engage in their particular brand of pulpit diplomacy. But it came at a cost and Canada’s former Saudi envoy, Dennis Horak, was quoted as saying Freeland’s tweet was a “serious overreaction” and “went too far.”
One of the former ambassadors interviewed concurred. “If we confine relations to like-minded countries, we’ll have ever fewer relations,” he said.
Freeland could claim to being on the side of the angels when the Saudis murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Turkey in October 2018. But Samar Badawi is still in detention and is less likely to be released after Canada’s involvement than she was before. The incident revealed that Canada is impotent when it comes to transforming the behaviour of other states, yet retains an unrealistic sense of utopianism that offers the mirage of power and influence.
Meanwhile, Canada’s foreign affairs department continues to disintegrate — quite literally. There has been no ambassador in Moscow for over a year and the roof of the embassy is falling in, such that staff are set to move into the basement and backrooms of the British embassy.
Canada promised to be “back” but the re-emergence on the multilateral stage has fizzled. On arms control, aid, peacekeeping and security, the Trudeau government has disappointed. The government took a long time to commit to a year-long engagement in Mali and the eight helicopters and 250 personnel are due to come home at the end of this month — nearly three months before their Romanian replacements are in theatre.
None of this bodes well for Canada’s attempt to win a seat on the UN Security Council next year, against strong opposition from Ireland and Norway.
Failure would bring uncomfortable comparisons with the prime minister’s father, who was in power when Canada held a non-permanent security council seat in 1977.
“Justin has a domestic focus to his foreign policy, compared to his father, who was a factor on the world stage,” said one eminent former ambassador, who spent 35 years working on four continents.
I asked him if he thought Trudeau, who travelled extensively with his father as a boy, was a student of geo-politics. “I don’t think so. When engaging with world leaders, he’s not talking about Middle East peace or Iran, I’d suggest he is engaging on issues like income inequality, women in leadership roles and the environment,” he said.
The consequence of these skewed priorities, according to my informal panel of ambassadors, is that in many areas of foreign policy, not only is Canada not back, it is positively AWOL.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019