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How much can an election change a country’s foreign policy? A few lessons from the next four years in Canada

Por Jean Daudelin*


On October 18 in Canada, against all pre-electoral forecasts, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party convincingly defeated Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Over his nine years in power, Harper had taken Canada into policy directions where the country had rarely ventured. Canada’s international and domestic image of a generous blue-helmetted bridge-builder has morphed into that of a body-armoured carbon-spewing tough out to re-fight the Cold War and give muslim fundamentalists what they deserve. Canada’s careful fence-sitting in the Middle-East, and its diplomats’ hyperactivism in all the clubs, summits and organizations that would invite them, was replaced by a strong alignment with the current Israeli government’s rigid policies, and with a quiet disinvestment and sometimes outright criticism of international organizations, the UN in particular. On the environment and drug policy, Canada’s stands were typically to the right of every other democracy and aligned with Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. In the face of Syria’s crisis, Canada sent bombers and told the UN High Commission on Refugees that the individuals it had approved for relocation would have to be vetted one by one by the Prime Minister’s office. In Latin America, the country aggressively taunted Chavez and Maduro, kept a rigid visa policy towards Mexico—the country’s third largest trade partner—and the only leader that really ever pleased Stephen Harper proved to be Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe. Diplomacy itself was largelly dismissed as a policy tool, with foreign affairs suffering through years of budget cuts and seeing many of its embassies sold off to save pennies to pay for the deficit. Diplomats themselves were told to shut up or to read from scripts dictated by the Prime Minister’s Office. Very few certainly were listened to.

Now that the country is led by a dashing young endearing smooth-talking warm-and-fuzzy progressive feminist open-minded pot legalizer, expectations in progressive circles are high, and hopes among frustrated diplomats and foreign policy hacks is reaching stratospheric highs. For the first time ever in this temple of hushes and understatement—and to the astonishment of observers—Trudeau was mobbed, hugged, and “selfied” by young diplomats on his first visit to the august Pearson Building—which houses much of the department of what is now “Global” affairs.

So is this the Dawn of a New Age for Canadian Diplomacy?

Well, yes and no, though appearances will likely be great, and greatly misleading. Expect Canada to make the right noises in absolutely all the right meetings. Expect more moneythough not huge amounts—to be invested in its foreign service and directed to multilateral institutions. Expect devious cuts to foreign aid—through the devolution of hundreds of millions of dollars of “unspent” funds to the government’s coffers at the end of the fiscal year—to end. Expect good policy ideas to find a welcoming hear and probably some financial support in Ottawa’s foreign policy offices—and quite a few such ideas to emerge from those same offices. In sum, to borrow from the new government’s phrase book, expect Canada to be “part of the solution” to global problems, from refugees and war and drugs to global warming, not part of the problem. Now, how big a part is the key here.

The changes likely to take place are significant and should not be sniffed at. A large part of global governance involves lots of talk about little things and it is much easier to be a pain than to be helpful. Diplomacy, in other words, matters. There is also plenty of space for activism, plenty of problems to solve, plenty of crises to deal with and this calls for engagement, open-mindedness and sometimes even investments. So, more resources, for aid and foreign affairs, also matter. In addition, few things are black and white and though sometimes uncomfortable—though not always—fence-sitting has many unsung virtues. Lastly, symbolic gestures and rousing moralism rarely hurt and sometimes even help: there is little wrong with feeling good and making others feel good too.

But countries are like oil tankers, and there are limits to a government’s ability to steer them in new directions. In fact, it is precisely to the extent that they are not consequential for Canada that quick and sometimes radical changes will be possible in the next few years. The department of “Global Affairs” is a tiny part of the country’s bureaucracy and increasing its budget will not much affect the government’s fiscal position. The 28,000 Syrian refugees that will quickly be admitted over the coming months will have little impact on Canada’s already massively multi-cultural social make-up (and no impact whatsoever on the crisis in the Middle-East). Discarding visa requirements for Mexican visitors (and hopefully Colombian too) won’t worsen the country’s security and only marginally contribute to reinforcing trade relations with those countries. Sitting back on the fence in the Middle East will similarly have few domestic implications (and even less impact in the region).

On the really big files, Canada’s foreign policy is heavily constrained and will not change. Canada is an extremely open economy deeply tied to the United States though increasingly dependent on its trade with Asia. It shares the world’s longest border with the United States and sits between it and Russia along the shortest flight route between the two countries (Alaska aside). It is a major producer and exporter of oil and mining products and resource revenues still play an important role in its economy and represent a significant source of taxes for the federal government and several Canadian provinces. Canada’s economic weight in the world remains sizable but is also quickly diminishing. Demographically and militarily, Canada is a fast-shrinking entity. In other words: reasonably smooth relations with the United States, a clear mutual security commitment, and access to the American market are existential necessities. To balance these out, effective multilateral governance and alliance-building are crucial. Given the redefinition of global political and economic architecture, participation in the design of global trade regimes, especially those that involve the fast-growing Asian economies, are simply not optional. Finally, the building of a functional relationship with China and the management of its multifacetted and sometimes aggressive rise to global power is quickly emerging as the main challenge confronting the country, which only reinforces the need for alliances and, especially, for coordination with the United States.

On those files, the idea that the Harper government was particularly anomalous is an illusion. Analysts have made much of the declining importance of Canada on the US agenda and tied it to the sometimes aggressive stances taken by the Harper government. Such conclusions, however, neglect the profound structural changes that have moved North America’s demographic, economic and industrial centre away from the Canadian border and ever closer to Mexico. It also underestimates the remaining geopolitical importance of Canada for the economic and security interests of the United States, raw facts that style, rhetoric, unfortunate statements don’t make vanish and that Washington policymakers won’t forget.

The idea that Trudeau could fundamentally change that equation is even more of an illusion. Canada will keep pumping oil to the US, though using trains instead of a new pipeline—albeit trains are much more dangerous and inefficient—it will move very tentatively on carbon emission because the health of several of its provinces’ economies depend on oil and resource exports, it will sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership and will do its best to join every trade liberalizing endeavour that could emerge in the next decade, it will remain firmly on the US-Europe side in the game with Russia, and it will very much be part of the ever-deeper and unavoidable engagement with China that will be at the centre of the United States and OECD countries foreign policy agenda for years to come.

So, to go back to our question: expect lots of noise and lots of change on little things that matter little, and little change on big ones that matter a lot.


* Doutor em Ciência Politica (Université Laval). Desde 2002 é Professor Associado na Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Tem experiência em Relações Internacionais das Américas, Política Externa Brasileira, Políticas de Drogas, Mercados Ilegais e Violência. É pesquisador do Núcleo de Estudos em Política Comparada e Relações Internacionais (NEPI/UFPE) e do Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas em Criminalidade, Violência e Políticas Públicas de Segurança.


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