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A tough mandate for Canada’s new foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne

Trudeau revealed his new cabinet members Wednesday. With Champagne as foreign minister, it is time for a fresh look at the portfolio, writes Jocelyn Coulon.

By: /
20 November, 2019
Francois-Phillippe Champagne, here signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2018, has been appointed foreign minister. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

When Justin Trudeau appointed Stéphane Dion as foreign minister after his election in 2015, Dion was supposed to implement a foreign policy distinct from the Conservatives. But, with a dramatic change of leadership in the White House in 2016, Trudeau discarded this approach and fired him. Instead, Chrystia Freeland was tasked with saving the North American Free Trade Agreement and the international order based on clear rules of conduct.

Wednesday, one month after Canadians re-elected Trudeau, Freeland was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs. She is now asked to save Canada.

More than ever, Canada needs a full-time foreign minister. And thus the new one, François-Philippe Champagne — also confirmed Wednesday when the new Cabinet was revealed — has a lot to do. It is not going to be easy.

The good news: Champagne has strong qualifications for the job. A graduate in international law, he worked for major companies in Europe before being elected as a member of the House of Commons in 2015, representing the Quebec riding of Saint-Maurice—Champlain. He was appointed minister of international trade two years later, with the important responsibility of steering free trade agreements with Europe, Asia-Pacific and many other countries. More recently, he was moved to minister of infrastructure and communities.

Champagne is not an intellectual, but an operator, someone who delivers. He stood out in Ottawa for his good grasp of his files, his interpersonal skills with Cabinet colleagues and his diligence in the House.

At Global Affairs Canada, he will have to be very tactful if he wants to succeed and leave his mark. Overcoming the challenges of the role will require reflection and action. In fact, never since the end of the Second World War has Canada grappled more with a constantly changing global context. And never has Canada had such difficult — not to mention poor — relations with world’s great powers, particularly with the United States.

With his “America first” approach to foreign policy, Donald Trump’s unilateralism consists of promoting American interests to the detriment of the country’s allies. It remains to be seen if this approach will be pursued after the Trump years or if Americans will eventually return to multilateralism. But Champagne must prepare Canada for a tumultuous relationship with its main economic, political and military partner.

The question now is whether Trudeau and his new deputy prime minister are willing to let Champagne approach the file with fresh eyes.

Just a few years ago, we were expecting a lot from China, but the arrest of one of the top executives at Huawei — and the diplomatic fall-out that included the arrests of two prominent Canadians in China — is there to remind us that great powers have no friends, they only have interests. Canada is not as blameless in this affair as it may appear: things could have been handled with more finesse and in a way that was less prejudicial to Canada itself. Instead of being essential to resolving trade and political conflicts between Washington and Beijing, Canada finds itself stuck between two superpowers that, to an extent, dictate Canada’s prosperity. Champagne needs to manage this issue with great skill. He can count on the talent of Canada’s new ambassador to China, Dominic Barton.

The Liberal government has also succeeded in muddying the waters with Russia and India. Canada had every reason to impose sanctions on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, but there was no reason to freeze all relations with Russia. It is too often forgotten that Canada has just two neighbours — the United States and Russia — both of whom are great powers. We need a smart and productive relationship with Moscow. Instead, Freeland had resorted to robust Cold War rhetoric at a time when most Western countries are trying to re-engage with Russia. Champagne is not an ideologue. He will have to convince the prime minister that the time has come to change a misguided policy toward Russia.

Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India in February 2018 set relations back with that country, but a more serious problem is the murky relationship the Liberals maintain with the radical fringes of the Sikh independence movement resident in Canada. For this reason, New Delhi is not putting much stock in its relations with Canada. That must change. Champagne knows from his previous portfolio that we cannot ignore India if we are to succeed in diversifying our international trade.

The promotion of human rights takes a significant place in the priorities of the current government. There is no doubt that Canadians attach great importance to this issue. At the same time, it is only one aspect of foreign policy. Unfortunately, in recent years, Canada’s policy on human rights had the appearance of moral crusade, and ended up irritating many governments — Saudi Arabia, for instance — without contributing anything to Canadian diplomacy. It is not a question of opposing morality and interests, but of recognizing that a policy fixated on values narrows the field of action and masks the specificities of each situation. Champagne will have to balance both.

Canadian foreign policy needs a good deal of realism. The question now is whether Trudeau and his new deputy prime minister are willing to let Champagne approach the file with fresh eyes. If so, let’s hope that the new minister’s pragmatic side will dynamize Canadian foreign policy and open a new and positive chapter in our relations with the rest of the world.

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