Strife Feature – Trudeau’s First Year: The Fundamental Shifts in Canadian Foreign Policy

By: Marc-Olivier Cantin

President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau review the troops. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy); Source:; 10 March 2016
President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau review the troops. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

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, hinting at the fundamental foreign policy overhauls he intended to implement. Indeed, a year has passed since Trudeau settled in Ottawa and it appears that the lines of fracture are manifold between the genuinely Westphalian conception of the world of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau’s uninhibited internationalism. Over the last twelve months, under the leadership of the new prodigy of world politics, the legacy of the Conservatives’ intergovernmental and hard-power oriented foreign policy has dramatically withered in favour of a truly transnational approach. In this context, this article endeavours to underscore the chief manifestations of these foreign policy shifts and to shed a light on their implications for the international landscape.

The revamping of Canada’s international agenda has been ubiquitously observable 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 corrupted platforms. By contrast, Trudeau appears to lean closer to the promise of transnational organisations and has repeatedly reasserted Canada’s adherence to the core values of such organisations, particularly 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. These will be stationed in the Baltic countries and in eastern Poland to deter the exponential boldness of Russian interventionism 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 seat on the Security Council in 2020, a bet that could improve the clout of the country’s international voice and that would simultaneously provide a potent source of political leverage for this middle power that can struggle in translating its wishes into deeds.

Irrefutably, the Liberals aim to foster a truly pivotal role for Canada within these organisations. This trend reflects a sharp contrast to the traditional scepticism towards the prospects of multilateralism from the former Conservative-led government. With this aim in mind, Ottawa has been overhauling the hierarchy of its international priorities while simultaneously rethinking its strategic approaches. Indeed, Trudeau has been prioritising “low politics” and “soft power” in attempting to realign the country’s actions to its actual political, economic and military capabilities. Canada has, for example, renewed focus on its traditional areas of expertise including increased emphases on human rights, environment, promotion of equality, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid. Such issues are more compatible, in Trudeau’s mind, to the inherent identity of Canada’s progressivism.

Comparatively, Stephen Harper adhered significantly more to the potentialities of “hard power” and increasingly turned his back on Canada’s traditional prudent 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 focusing on peace keeping. This fundamental shift was evident in the recent launch of the Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOS), in which Canada pledged $450 million CAD and more than 600 soldiers to promote peace building and stability worldwide. This new programme is a clear manifestation 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 their 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.

US Secretary Kerry and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau toasting to the US-Canada relationship on March 10th, 2016. Source:; (Accessed 15 November 2016)
US Secretary Kerry and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau toasting to the US-Canada relationship on March 10th, 2016.

Canada’s Emerging Security Role

This new perspective on Canada’s role in global security is also manifest in the way Trudeau grounded its planes in Iraq to prioritize the training and equipping of regional forces. It is also found in peacekeeping training programs implemented in key West African states such as Senegal, Ghana and Mali. Additionally, the central role Canada plays in the actual 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 converging international direction. Moreover, in terms of a commitment to humanitarian assistance, the Trudeau administration appears to be diametrically opposed to its Conservative forerunners as Harper was known to be rather parsimonious in his approach to foreign aid while the current government is indubitably untying the purse’s strings. Ottawa will be spending $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance over the next three years, supporting programs such as 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 seduce to world rather than to compel it. Thereby, restoration of Canada’s reputation as a principled and compassionate actor in world politics is undoubtedly a key priority of the Canadian PM.

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 is one of kind not of degree since the reliance on international trade isn’t significantly different in quantitative terms between both eras of Canadian foreign policy. Yet, while Stephen Harper largely favoured bilateral channels and intergovernmental agreements, Justin Trudeau is undeniably privileging 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.

As a patent manifestation of the fraternal relationship and the ideological overlaps that have developed between Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, the Canadian PM also seems to be mirroring the United States’ “pivot to Asia” initiated by his American counterpart. Indeed, 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 in regards to China since, after just a few days in office, Trudeau sought to put Canada’s relationship with the country on sounder footing. In comparison, the Conservatives were relying substantially more on European states and on its North American partners inside NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) when it came to doing business outside Canada’s borders. Therefore, 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, the 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 the diplomatic channels between both nations. Reflected through the closure of Canada’s Teheran 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, to normalise the relations with both countries.

If one can criticize the moral malleability of these partnership choices, the Trudeau administration appears to be thawing these relationships though a rational mind frame, being conscious of the inescapable necessity of cooperating 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 entirely lift the economic sanctions and trade embargo that, for many years, poisoned the bilateral relations between the two countries. Additionally, 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 in 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.

President-Elect Donald J. Trump during his election campaign in Arizona.
President-Elect Donald J. Trump during his election campaign in Arizona.


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. The international agenda which President-elect Donald J. Trump seemingly intends to institute is, in many regards, an antithesis of the one favoured by Trudeau. Under such circumstances, should Trump advance with his electoral promises of isolationism, the prospects of multilateralism will likely become increasingly appealing to the Canadian administration. America’s potential negligence towards the issue generates incentive for the Canadian administration to collaborate with alternative partners from the European Union, forming multilateral relationships to compensate for a weakening privilege originally shared with its southern neighbour. Hence, by engaging on the path to political seclusion, the Trump administration would inadvertently promote Canadian commitment to multilateralism and to establish more international anchorages to substitute its faltering American support.

This tendency might also materialize in terms of security if the United States develops an autarkic strategy and treat NATO with contemptuousness. In this scenario, Canada could benefit from an eventual leadership vacuum within the military alliance and becoming an indispensable pole of strategic influence on the American continent. Trudeau might be obliged to rely, politically as well as militarily, on alternative partners and allies to respond to the waning of the American support – further solidifying the need for broader Canadian-International partnerships.

As for the economic landscape, the professed isolationism and protectionism of the Trump administration 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 (Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement; CETA) with Canada. Within this context, 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 American domestic economy rather than on international commerce. These trends will undeniably consolidate Trudeau’s reliance on commerce and on alternative sources of influence to counteract the potentiality of an increasingly unreliable America. It thus seems evident that the Trump presidency will present both opportunities and challenges for Canada in the upcoming years, despite the numerous uncertainties it implies.

The Long Road Ahead

Ultimately, the fundamental shifts in Canadian foreign policy are tangible and are showcasing 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 the values that are under threat by the current proliferation of far-right movements, religious fundamentalism and populist politics. Essentially, as Trudeau prophesied in his inaugural speech, these changes mean that Canada is back, 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 opened to the world.



About the Author:

Marc-Olivier Cantin is a postgraduate student in International Relations at King’s College London. He focuses on Canadian foreign policy, Middle Eastern affairs and security matters.




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Image 1 Source:; (Accessed: 10 March 2016)

Image 2 Source:; (Accessed 15 November 2016)

Image 3 Source:,_2016#/media/File:Donald_Trump_(27150683144).jpg; (Accessed 12 August 2016)

*An earlier variant of Marc’s article can be found on Global Policy Journal:

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