by Jack Cross
After the triumph of his election victory in 2015, the new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau declared: “Canada is back!”. Five years on from that soundbite, many are starting to ask, where has Canada gone? On the international stage, the Trudeau government has been noticeably absent. There has been a lack of commitment to international peacekeeping missions, and a general lack of energy in its foreign policy and diplomatic activities.
The Trudeau Ministry began with such promise, declaring a ‘feminist foreign policy,’ and a re-engagement in international affairs. While this was largely to satisfy its domestic audience, it did raise hopes for Canadian diplomacy. But in June 2020 the Canadian government suffered the embarrassment of failing to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. This was despite intensive lobbying, spending $2 million on the effort and sending Trudeau on a world tour. While this not a rejection of Canada’s ‘feminist foreign policy, it was a rejection of Canada’s approach to the UN and its desire for greater influence. This was a second defeat in seeking a seat for Canada, as the previous Harper Ministry had made the attempt ten years ago. At present Canada appears increasingly isolated and saddled with an ineffective foreign policy full of great style but lacking in proper substance.
A key problem in current Canadian foreign policy is a lack of substance and action to back up its style and rhetoric. While this is not an unusual position for a government to be in, the Trudeau Ministry has clearly wished to expand Canadian influence on the world stage, as a more palatable North American alternative to the bullish, isolationist policies of the outgoing Trump Administration. However, influence is usually dependent on participation, something which the current government has failed to recognise.
As of November 2020, there were less than fifty Canadian military and police personnel involved in UN peacekeeping missions. This ranks them 76th in terms of the size of their contribution and makes up roughly 0.046% of the total number of personnel involved in peacekeeping missions. These figures go against previous promises made by Trudeau, to provide the UN with six hundred soldiers and one hundred and fifty police officials for peacekeeping work by 2019. Not only this, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, Canada’s commitment to UN climate change goals has been lukewarm. On current projections, the Canadian government is unlikely to meet any of its 2030 climate targets. While Canada is not alone in its climate policy failures, when seeking it elevate its position within the UN, a good record on pursing its goals would certainly have been an asset. One would presume that governments base their vote on council membership on what a country has to offer and clearly a large bloc of UN member states do not know what Canada has to offer. Of the four states which put themselves forward for this slate of UN elections, Canada, Ireland, Norway and San Marino (which withdrew itself from consideration), Canada is considered the most powerful of the four, as a member of the G8 and with a larger military global military presence. Yet power on paper does not always equate to success.
By direct comparison, the two member states who beat Canada for Security Council seats, Ireland and Norway, both rank higher in terms of contributions to UN peacekeeping. While it is true that Canada’s monetary contribution to the UN budget is larger than that of Norway and Ireland combined, this does not equate to active participation. It’s also worth noting that the Canadian government only began their campaign for the 2020 vote in 2016, whereas Ireland and Norway announced their intention for this particular election in 2005 and 2007. This sort of late decision reaffirms the idea of Canadian inactivity, as governments of both major parties failed to launch an earlier bid for this seat. It suggests that Canada wants a seat at the top table, without doing the hard graft needed to actually get there.
The problem of style over substance can be seen right across current Canadian foreign policy and diplomatic efforts. The idea of an explicitly ‘feminist’ foreign policy is an initiative which should be applauded, seeking to empower women around the world, through education, financial independence and control over their own bodies. However, this has not always stood up to scrutiny. While there have been some clear successes, such as a focus on children and the empowerment of women through Canadian assistance in Mali, there have been inconsistencies within the government’s policy. The Canadian government have continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia whose ruling class’s attitude towards women needs no explanation. In 2019 alone, arms exports worth almost $3 billion were delivered to Saudi Arabia, almost doubling the previous year’s exports and dwarfing annual amounts sold under the previous Conservative government.
Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is hardly a unique one within global politics, but it does directly contradict their officially feminist foreign policy. It has continued to sell arms to a state which has presided over a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, propping up a government which itself has an appalling record on women’s rights. By contrast, Canada has imposed an arms embargo against Turkey, citing concerns over human rights abuses and its intervention in the Syrian Civil War. More damaging than this was Trudeau’s defence of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, senior officials of which admitted to committing fraud and bribery while operating in Libya. Governmental ethics officials confirmed in 2019 that Trudeau’s interference in the investigation amounted to a serious ethics violation. Actions like this have harmed Canada’s reputation around the world, with polling data showing that 41% of Canadians believe that the country’s international standing is poorer than it was ten years ago.
So, what can be done to reverse the decline in Canada’s international fortunes? From everything already discussed, it’s clear that if Canada continues to pursue a seat on the UN Security Council, reengagement is required. Partly, this means greater commitments to peacekeeping missions and to combating climate change. Though most importantly, it means following through on promises. At present, the foreign policy commitments made by the Trudeau Ministry remain largely unfulfilled. If the Canadian government wishes to be taken seriously, then it needs to start following through on its pledges. Once Canadian politicians understand this, they can start to repair the damage and return the country’s standing to the more respectable position it once enjoyed. It was the late Pierre Trudeau, former prime minister and father of the incumbent who in the pursuit for international peace, earned the praise of John Lennon and became the first western leader to recognise the People’s Republic of China. The elder Trudeau charted an independent, successful course for Canadian foreign policy, perhaps the younger can still do so as well.
Jack Cross is currently pursuing a masters in the History of War in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His main research interests are diplomatic history, the role of great and middle powers within current international politics, as well as the politics of the Balkans and Middle East.