From a policy perspective, it is a challenge to predict how newly elected prime ministers will act once they take office. As a starting point, it is difficult to use past behaviour as a reliable guide since most newly elected prime ministers have had little, if any, experience as a national leader. It is also difficult to rely on policy platforms and campaign speeches. Although well intentioned, pronouncements during elections are no guarantee that, once elected, a newly elected government will actually implement the policies that formed the basis of their election platform.
However, the Trudeau government has now been in power for more than a year and we have some indication of where the government is heading with regard to foreign affairs. From the moment the government was sworn in on November 4th, 2015, Trudeau has embarked on a vigorous campaign to re-establish Canada’s presence in the world and, in particular, within the UN ambit. For example, he established an aggressive goal of welcoming more than 30,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, called for greater participation in multilateral United Nations sponsored activities, committed $2.65 billion to help developing countries attack climate change, assigned some military to a NATO mission to Latvia, promised 600 troops for a peacekeeping exercise in Africa, lifted visa requirements for Mexican visitors to Canada, successfully completed CETA, and supported UN agencies especially those associated with peace operations, international development, peaceful pluralism, respect for diversity, and human rights.
He has also strengthened ties with the United States government by appointing a consummate professional as ambassador to Washington and meeting with President Obama on a number of occasions when they engaged in meaningful discussions on climate change, protecting the Arctic, promoting innovation and alternative energy solutions by harmonizing border regulations.
Canada is also a member of many international clubs and Trudeau has been a starring player at many of them including La Francophonie, APEC, World Economic Forum (Davos), CETA, G20, Commonwealth Summits, and the Paris Climate Change meetings. Moreover, he has hosted a Three Amigos meeting with President Obama and President Peña Nieto and delivered a major speech in the UN General Assembly in September.
To date, aside from the very unpopular and apparently unprincipled decision to sell armoured personnel trucks to Saudi Arabia, he has shown unerring skill in functioning in the global political arena and an uncanny ability to bring the Canadian perspective to many fora.
While the prime minister has been extremely active in the international arena, he has also given his Minister of Global Affairs, Stephane Dion, a long list of instructions with regard to his portfolio. As a starting point, his mandate letter to the Minister instructed him to “restore constructive Canadian leadership in the world and to … support the deeply held Canadian desire to make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world.” He has asked the Minister to accomplish these goals by working closely and collaboratively with the Ministers of International Trade and International Development.
Acknowledging the Harper government’s marginalization of the public service, the prime minister has also instructed the Minister to “work closely with your Deputy Minister and his or her senior officials…to ensure that work is undertaken in a professional manner and decisions are made in the public interest.”
The call for a greater collaboration between the public service and the governments and more vigorous role for Canada in the world has not gone unnoticed by the public service which enthusiastically and uncharacteristically welcomed the Prime Minister in a very demonstrative manner after his first Cabinet meeting in the Pearson Building on Sussex Drive (where Global Affairs is located).
So far, the Prime Minister has shown an insatiable appetite for international travel. He appears to be willing to travel the world to sell the Canadian version of multilateralism and societal values. His spouse and children have accompanied him on many of these trips giving him extraordinarily positive media coverage both internationally and domestically.
It is clear that Trudeau has made foreign policy a personal priority and has mobilized the whole machinery of government to signal that “Canada is back” — another thinly veiled reference to Stephen Harper’s narrow-cast view of international affairs. However, the recent election of President Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, elections in Europe and the death of Fidel Castro signal that the next few years are going to provide different foreign policy challenges for the prime minister and for Canada than those he has been dealing with this past year.
Trudeau knows that we define ourselves in terms of how much the world “likes” us, so being considered a global player by punching above our weight is a worthwhile goal. However, during 2017, Trudeau will have to be more cautious and circumspect with respect to the foreign policy agenda since he is working in uncharted waters where he and his advisors have never worked before.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School
of Public and International Affairs at the University of
Ottawa, Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria,
and Research Advisor to the Public-Sector Practice of