‘We’re back’. It was with this unequivocal assertion that, in his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reclaimed Canada’s seat at the international table, announcing a fundamental shift in comparison to his predecessor’s foreign policy. Indeed, a year has passed since Trudeau settled in Ottawa and it appears that the lines of fracture are manifold between Stephen Harper’s Westphalian conception of world affairs and Justin Trudeau’s uninhibited internationalism. Over the last twelve months, the Conservatives’ intergovernmental and hard-power oriented foreign policy has dramatically shifted, under the leadership of the young and popular Prime Minister, towards a genuinely transnational approach.
The revamping of Canada’s international agenda has been conspicuous in the country’s most recent global endeavours. The shift that is perhaps the most evident is the reaffirmation of Canada’s commitment to multilateralism. Stephen Harper, in his decade-long reign at 24 Sussex Drive, fostered a sincere repugnance for international rostrums, favouring bilateral channels over what he perceived as ineffective and corrupt platforms. By contrast, Trudeau appears to place great faith in the promise of transnational organisations and has repeatedly asserted Canada’s adherence to the core values of such organisations, in particular, the United Nations and NATO.
This reengagement was evident in Trudeau’s first NATO summit where he pledged that Canada would assemble and lead the organisation’s new battalions, to be stationed in the Baltic countries and in eastern Poland to deter Russia’s aggressive moves in the region. This renewed commitment to multilateralism is equally apparent in Canada’s utilisation of the UN as the paramount catalyst for its international aspirations. Concurrently, Trudeau’s administration has undertaken significant diplomatic efforts over the past year to acquire one of the rotating seats on the Security Council in 2020, a bet that could boost the clout of the country’s international voice and would simultaneously provide a potent source of political leverage for a country that often struggles in translating its wishes into deeds.
Irrefutably, the Liberals wish to foster a truly pivotal role for Canada within these organisations and this trend appears to be a sharp contrast in comparison to the previous Conservative-led government’s traditional scepticism towards the prospects of multilateralism. With this aim in mind, Ottawa has been overhauling the hierarchy of its international priorities while simultaneously rethinking its strategic approach. Trudeau has been prioritising “low politics” and “soft power” in an attempt to realign the country’s actions to its actual political, economic and military capabilities. In that context, Canada has renewed its attention on its traditional areas of expertise including a focus on human rights, environment, promotion of equality, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid. Such issues are more compatible, in Trudeau’s mind, with the inherent identity of Canada’s progressivism.
Stephen Harper, on the other hand, adhered significantly more to the potentialities of “hard power”, and increasingly turned his back on Canada’s traditional prudence on the world stage, to bet on a more muscular foreign policy posture. After a year in office, Trudeau appears to be opting for persuasion rather than for coercion and has abandoned Harper’s “boots on the ground” strategy to embrace an approach focused on peacekeeping. This fundamental shift was evident in the recent launch of the Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOS), in which Canada pledged CAD 450 million and more than 600 soldiers to promote peace building and stability worldwide. This new programme is genuinely emblematic of Trudeau’s desire to “address the causes and the effects of conflicts, to prevent their escalation or recurrence and to work on early warnings, prevention, dialogue and mediation (Government of Canada, 2016)” rather than to rely on mere military deterrence. Hence, by committing to train, assist and advise allies around the world instead of fighting alongside them on the battlefield, Trudeau and his Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion are betting on Canada’s operational expertise and are capitalising on its reputation as a Blue Helmets pioneer to enhance the international visibility of Canada as a whole.
This new perspective on Canada’s role in global security is also manifest in the way Trudeau grounded Canadian planes in Iraq to prioritize the training and equipping of regional forces, and in the peace training programs implemented in key West African states such as Senegal, Ghana and Mali. Additionally, the central role Canada plays in the global refugee crisis similarly highlights Trudeau’s reliance on alternative means of influence enhancement in his attempt to bolster the country’s international credentials. Indeed, by pledging to welcome more than 25,000 refugees in the first few months of his mandate, Trudeau aimed at positioning Canada in the foreground of the world’s most critical issues. Thus, Justin Trudeau seems to be disavowing the compartmentalized approach of his predecessor by opting instead for an integrated approach that combines foreign policy, defence, development and national security in one coherent vision.
Moreover, in terms of a commitment to humanitarian assistance, the Trudeau administration appears to be diametrically opposed to its Conservative predecessor, as Harper was known to be rather parsimonious in his approach to foreign aid while the current government is indubitably untying the purse strings. Indeed, over the next three years, Ottawa will be spending USD 1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance of all sorts, ranging from emergency relief, health and sanitary operations, educational programs and infrastructure schemes. In this instance as well, this renewed commitment to humanitarian principles underscores Trudeau’s soft power-oriented foreign policy and his quest to influence the world rather than to compel it. Thereby, the Canadian Prime Minister is engaged in restoring the country’s reputation as a principled and compassionate actor in world politics.
Furthermore, the new Liberal government appears to be utilising commerce as a power leverage to further the country’s credibility and to revamp its international “brand.” However, in comparison to the former administration, the difference in Trudeau's trade policy is qualitative rather than quantitative. Indeed, the two regimes didn’t differ quite as much on trade in quantitative terms; but while Stephen Harper largely favoured bilateral channels and intergovernmental agreements, Justin Trudeau undeniably prefers larger multinational covenants. Particularly exemplified by his commitment towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), Trudeau’s new trade policy appears to be an attempt to fortify relationships with key partners around the world and to showcase Canadian leadership in negotiations of vital importance.
There have been undeniable ideological overlaps between Justin Trudeau and the outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama. The Canadian Prime Minister seems to be mirroring the United States’ “pivot to Asia”. Since the November 2015 elections, the commercial focus of Ottawa has largely shifted towards Asia-Pacific, a region that will be incrementally interested in Canadian natural resources. This reorientation is particularly conspicuous with regards to China since, after just a few days in office, Trudeau sought to put Canada’s relationship with that country on more sound footing. In comparison, the Conservatives were relying substantially more on European states and on North American partners within NAFTA when it came to doing business outside Canada’s borders. Therefore, as a whole, it is the nature and the regional focus of their international trade policy that differentiate Trudeau and Harper.
Finally, another fundamental shift in regards to the way Justin Trudeau conducts his foreign policy is the considerable thawing of Canada’s relationships with both Russia and Iran. Indeed, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, ties between the two countries were severely damaged and tensions reached a critical apex. Similarly, the nuclear uncertainty surrounding Iran in Harper’s years in office dramatically impaired diplomatic channels between the two nations to the point where Canada closed its Tehran embassy in the fall of 2012. Conversely, Trudeau capitalized on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, i.e. Iran Nuclear Deal) that reinstated Iran as an acceptable interlocutor, and on the growing influence of Russia in global issues such as the Syrian War, in order to normalise relations between the two countries.
If one can criticize the moral malleability of these partnership choices, the Trudeau administration appears to be thawing these relationships on a rational mind frame, conscious of the utmost necessity to cooperate with these exponentially influential actors and of the potential to further Canada’s national interests through them. Regarding Iran, this reconciliation was embodied by Ottawa’s decision to almost entirely lift the economic sanctions and trade embargo that, for many years, poisoned bilateral relations between the two countries. Indirectly, in the future, this decision might also pave the way towards an eventual improvement of their political, diplomatic and military cooperation. As for Russia, Trudeau’s appeasement policy towards the Kremlin appears to be propelled by more pragmatic incentives since both countries are compelled to cooperate on a vast array of issues, including the fight against Daesh and the management of the Arctic. Hence, the thawing of the Russo-Canadian relationship is significantly more attributable to a rationalized understanding of their shared interests than a genuinely symbiotic perception of world affairs.
Certainly, the arrival of the White House’s new tenant in January 2017 will have meaningful implications for the implementation of these new foreign policy commitments. Indeed, it is clear that the international agenda that President-elect Donald J. Trump intends to institute is, in many regards, an antithesis of the one favoured by Justin Trudeau. Under these circumstances, if Donald Trump moves forward with his electoral promises of isolationism, it is likely that the prospects of multilateralism will become increasingly appealing for the Canadian government. With its southern neighbour possibly becoming negligent towards it, Canada will likely be incentivized to rely more heavily on multilateral platforms and alternative partners such as the European Union to compensate the possible weakening of the privileged relationship it shares with the United States. Hence, by engaging on the path to political seclusion, Donald Trump will arguably consolidate Canada’s commitment to multilateralism by compelling it to cling to other international anchorages and to find substitutes to the faltering support of its American ally.
This tendency might also materialize in terms of security if, like Donald Trump suggested, the United States favours an autarkic strategy and treats NATO with contempt. In this scenario, Canada could benefit from a leadership vacuum within the military alliance and become an indispensable pole of strategic influence on the American continent. But Justin Trudeau might be obliged to rely, politically as well as militarily, on alternative partners and allies to respond to waning American support.
As for the economic landscape, the professed isolationism and protectionism of President-elect Donald Trump might also benefit Canada insofar as the country might become a landing strip for eventual investors eager to have a foothold in North America. This consideration will be particularly true for the European Union, which has just signed a free trade agreement (CETA) with Canada. In this context, Justin Trudeau’s commercial shift towards the EU and the Asia-Pacific region will most likely be amplified, since Donald Trump has been rather vocal about his disdain for the NAFTA agreement and about his intention to refocus on the United States’ domestic economy rather than on international commerce. Thus, these trends will undeniably consolidate Justin Trudeau’s reliance on commerce and on alternative sources of influence to counteract the potentiality of the United States becoming an increasingly unreliable partner. Hence, it seems evident that the Trump presidency, despite the numerous uncertainties it brings, will present both opportunities and challenges for Canada in the upcoming years.
Ultimately, the fundamental shifts in Canadian foreign policy are tangible and showcase the evolving international trajectory that Justin Trudeau has set out for the country. Certainly, this new approach will have genuine implications for the world in the next few years, as Canada might become a vital ally in the safeguarding of all of the values that are under threat by the current proliferation of far-right movements, religious fundamentalism and populist politics. Essentially, as he prophesied in his inaugural speech, these changes mean that Canada is back to its historical roots as a principled and progressive actor in international politics, back as a pacifist and moderate player in global issues and back as a nation open to the world.
Marc-Olivier Cantin is a postgraduate candidate in International Relations at King's College London with specialization in Canadian foreign policy.