Five days before Canada’s federal election, three of its closest intelligence-sharing partners – the United States, Britain and Australia – announced a new military deal to counter China’s power. Dubbed AUKUS, the deal envisages sharing of several defense technologies, beginning with Australia’s project to build nuclear-powered submarines.
But no one told Canada about the agreement until shortly before it was publicly announced. On the campaign trail, Justin Trudeau brushed it off: it was a deal for only a few nuclear submarines, which Canada is “not currently or any time soon” in acquiring.
As for his political rivals, Mr Trudeau’s absence from discussions confirmed his criticisms. “They are not being called by other countries because Canada is becoming irrelevant,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said.
Mr Trudeau became dean of the Group of Seven after German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired this fall to remain in power in Monday’s election. However, their ability to drive world events remains an open question. The prime minister has drawn praise from former US President Donald Trump for stifling economic protectionism and committing Canada to tough climate change goals.
But he faces criticism that, on some files, his foreign policy-making is non-committal. Mr Trudeau entered a tense diplomatic standoff with China, yet ruled out a confrontation with Beijing in the form of other Western allies. His efforts to steer a middle ground on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict caused panic on both sides. His historically low contribution to UN peacekeeping helped thwart a bid for a temporary seat on the Security Council.
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Those close to him emphasize that Canada has been devoted to the international liberal order over the past six years, a time when others have left.
“This has been challenging not only because of the development of authoritarian tendencies from countries such as Russia and China, but also because of the absence of the United States from a clear international perspective,” said UN Ambassador Bob Rae. “We’ve kept the flame alive, and we’re working hard right now to see how it can be strengthened.”
It is an act that US President Joe Biden, one of the leaders who unveiled the AUKUS last week, helped for Mr Trudeau on a trip to Ottawa at the end of his vice presidency in December 2016. As he arrived at the airport with Bruce Heyman, the then US ambassador to Canada, Biden said he expected the prime minister to be the leader of internationalism amid Trump’s pending nationalist presidency.
“The vice president told me how important Canada would be during this period, as the torchbearers Obama and the Trudeau team lit together,” Heyman recalled in an interview.
That’s what Mr Biden said in a private meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, a source informed of his conversation. This man is going to be a problem for everyone including you, Mr Biden said of Mr Trump, and you have to keep these flames of liberalism alive. (The Granthshala provided anonymity to one current and two former senior Canadian officials to gain a better understanding of the government’s behind-the-scenes policymaking.)
The Trudeau government will devote much of its foreign policy energy for the next two years to fighting Mr Trump’s threats to end free trade between Canada, the US and Mexico. In its closed-door dealings with his administration, Mr Trudeau’s team was often smarter than the public image of innocent people he suggested.
For example, in early 2017, the president planned to ban US oil and gas pipelines from using foreign-made steel. In Washington’s meeting with Wilbur Ross, Mr Trump’s commerce secretary, then Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, asked him to halt the policy. When Mr. Ross described two sources with information about the episode, Ms. Freeland told him she was meeting with Deputy National Security Adviser Dinah Powell, one of Mr. Ross’s rivals in the administration. , and will take up the matter with you. .
That evening, when Ms. Freeland sat down for a drink with Ms. Powell at the Georgetown Four Seasons bar, her phone rang. It was Mr. Ross with good news: he had spoken with Mr. Trump and he had decided that US pipelines could continue to buy Canadian steel.
Such tactics, and the ability to read the personality-driven dynamics of Trump’s chaotic White House, ultimately helped Canada keep continental free trade virtually untouched in the new US-Mexico-Canada agreement. Ms. Freeland exchanged reading lists with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer during the talks; Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford texts with Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“It became clear to us that the two most important people in Team US were Robert Lighthizer, number one, and Jared Kushner, number two, and so we put in a lot of effort to make sure those two individuals knew where we were coming. Were from,” recalled Mr Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
The prime minister’s dealings with the world’s second largest economy have been less successful.
First, he sought to build warm relations with China, including through a free trade agreement. But in December 2018, Beijing detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and blocked some agricultural imports from Canada following the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a US warrant. Mr Trudeau responded by leading an international coalition against arbitrary detention. He has also joined the US and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The prime minister, however, opted not to retaliate against China’s punitive tariffs. And his government has indefinitely delayed a decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network. Such a move has already been taken by other Five Eyes members – including signatories to AUKUS, as well as New Zealand – who fear the company could be used to gather intelligence for Beijing. Canada’s warning on China may explain why Ottawa was not consulted.
“Canada is not seen as a serious partner in accepting China’s challenge,” said retired Vice Admiral Paul Madison, head of the Canberra-based Defense Research Institute.
Mr Trudeau’s austerity can be linked to both economic considerations and concerns that further angering Beijing could lead to more trouble for both Michaels. On Friday, hours after Ms Meng entered into a deferred prosecution agreement that allowed her to leave Vancouver, the prime minister announced that Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor were on a plane back to Canada.
In the Middle East, Mr Trudeau’s attempt to find a central base has also been criticized. The Liberals restored funding for a United Nations program helping Palestinian refugees that had been cut under former prime minister Stephen Harper, and twice backed a resolution supporting Palestinians’ right to self-determination. But the Trudeau government has also voted with Israel on dozens of other Palestine-related resolutions at the United Nations.
Dahlia Schindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster and political adviser, said Mr Trudeau has aligned Canada with most of the international community in supporting the Palestinian state, but has not taken concrete action to resolve the conflict.
“It’s not clear to me how the Canadian government views its role. It’s a flat line to say ‘we support the two-state solution,’” she said.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, translators and drivers working for the Canadian government were left in a scuffle by the Taliban last month to take over the country. The day Mr Trudeau announced the mid-term election, television networks showed crowds of Afghans trying to escape at Kabul’s airport.
In June last year, Canada failed in its attempt to win a two-year seat on the Security Council, losing a first-round vote to Norway and Ireland. Based on key metrics, both countries give significantly more to the United Nations: Norway spent 1 percent of its GDP on international aid in 2019, while Ireland’s per capita contribution to the organization’s peace efforts is among the highest in the world. In contrast, Canada gave 0.27 percent of its GDP in aid a year before the vote. Ottawa last year let its peacekeeping force drop to just 34 personnel, its lowest level since 1956.
David Carment, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, says the Trudeau government has preferred to convene multilateral coalitions around specific issues rather than working through established institutions such as the United Nations – whether arbitrary detentions or the political crisis in Venezuela. While this approach may go fast, it leads to disjointed unilateral policies.
“It’s like kayaking the rapids, where you’re focusing on what’s immediately in front of you rather than a long-term strategic plan,” he said.
Mr Rai argues that despite Canada’s recent lack of peacekeeping forces, the country is contributing towards similar goals using other methods. For example, it sent troops to Latvia in a NATO operation to stop a Russian invasion. He says the country’s current position on human rights issues, whether in China or elsewhere, is sufficiently strong. “It’s not okay to change the behavior of other people…