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An agenda for Canada’s new foreign minister

Mélanie Joly has an opportunity to give Canada’s foreign policy the coherence it’s been missing

By: /
11 November, 2021
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Announces New Cabinet
Mélanie Joly, Canada's foreign affairs minister, at a news conference on Oct. 26, 2021. David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Mélanie Joly settles into her new job as minister of foreign affairs, she would be well advised to focus on three things: relationships, policy priorities and events. 

Although all ministers (if not all politicians) quickly understand that personal relationships are essential to getting things done, the foreign minister’s role is unique. In addition to building and sustaining connections within Ottawa’s political firmament and with an array of stakeholders across Canada, she must also quickly establish a personal rapport with her international counterparts. 

This is partly why changing foreign ministers every year or two (Joly is the fifth person to occupy this role in Justin Trudeau’s six years as prime minister, and the 12th in the last 15) is detrimental to Canadian diplomacy. Every new minister essentially must start over, not just building international relationships but also learning an array of complex issues. 

Every new minister essentially must start over, not just building international relationships but also learning an array of complex issues.”

Minister Joly seems to recognize this. She decided to remain in Ottawa for intensive briefings while Trudeau and several of her ministerial colleagues jetted off to Europe for the G20 and COP-26 meetings, and she will have her first in-person meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, her most important international counterpart. 

Meanwhile, she must also quickly define her policy priorities. Much of this work has already been done for her — by her predecessors, by the Liberal election campaign platform and, most importantly, by the Prime Minister himself. The themes he highlighted during his recent trip to Europe — combating climate change, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and countering threats to democracy — provide direction. So will the “mandate letter” that Trudeau will soon send to Joly and other ministers. 

Geopolitical realities elevate other issues to the top of her agenda. These include Canada’s relations with a more protectionist United States and its response to an increasingly aggressive China. 

However, it remains to be seen how much influence Joly will wield on these issues. The Prime Minister, as head of government and as Canada’s chief representative abroad, always shares the foreign minister’s job, as do other ministers with primary or joint responsibility for key international files, from climate change to trade and security. 

Still, the foreign minister is uniquely mandated to coordinate and ensure the coherence of Canada’s foreign policy as a whole, something that has been lacking of late. To accomplish this task, Joly will need to leverage her relationship with the Prime Minister, and he must make it clear to other ministers and senior bureaucrats that he is empowering Joly to perform this vital coordinating role.  

Despite the fact that Canada’s broad foreign policy goals have already been decided for her, Joly will have considerable latitude to shape how this agenda is tackled and to champion specific issues. How, for example, should she implement the Liberals’ important but vague campaign commitment to make democracy and human rights a “core strategic priority” of Canadian foreign policy? She will need to decide. 

She must also deliver on another campaign promise: implementing a “comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy.” In recent years Canada has incrementally hardened its stance on China, rejecting bids for Chinese investment in strategic sectors and increasing joint military exercises with allies in the region, including sailing Royal Canadian Navy ships through the disputed Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas. Ottawa has also worked to deepen its economic and diplomatic ties with key regional partners. International Trade Minister Mary Ng announced in June that Canada would begin negotiations of a comprehensive economic partnership with Indonesia. 

But these remain baby steps. Joly must produce a clearer, more determined and better-coordinated strategy towards the region, whose importance to the global economy and international security grows with every passing year. But here again, she must be empowered to accomplish this task, which requires coordinating several parts of the federal government and conducting extensive consultation with human rights and business groups and other Canadian stakeholders, while also triangulating the strategy with Canada’s international partners, most notably the United States. 

Joly must also be ready to deal with international crises — events, in other words. Some will come with advance warning. In Afghanistan, for example, the economy is collapsing and much of the health care system has shut down. No one will be able to claim ignorance if the current humanitarian disaster gets much worse. Rather the question will be: Why didn’t Canada and other countries do more? 

Other inevitable crises will come as a surprise, and Joly will need to respond quickly. François-Philippe Champagne (Trudeau’s third foreign minister, for those keeping count) unexpectedly had to manage the biggest peacetime evacuation of Canadians in our history, right at the start of the pandemic. If he had failed, the next evacuation might have been Champagne from his political career.

Joly is entirely capable of accomplishing all these tasks — if she is given the time, space and support she deserves. Trudeau would be wise not to replace her as quickly as he did her predecessors.

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