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How to build a new foreign policy for Canada

Where will Canada make its greatest impact
globally? From trade to human rights, experts discussed the country’s new foreign
policy approach at the recent Ottawa Forum.

By: /
5 February, 2016
Foreign Minister Stephane Dion at the Ottawa Forum. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

As Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion prepared to meet his U.S. and Mexican counterparts in Quebec, discuss Canada’s role in the anti-ISIS campaign in Rome and announce changes to Canada’s sanctions against Iran, he told a sold-out audience in Ottawa that his government’s approach to foreign policy would be centred on diplomatic engagement.

“You don’t pull out, you engage. That’s what Canada should do everywhere,” he said before he dove back into a week full of regional and international meetings.

The Ottawa Forum, a two-day conference hosted on Jan. 28 and 29 by Canada 2020 and the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, was the most comprehensive event on Canada’s foreign policy since the election of Justin Trudeau on Oct. 19 and the appointment of his new cabinet in early November.

It brought together academics, policymakers, members of the private sector, students and the Ottawa community to discuss those areas under the large umbrella of foreign policy. Along with Dion’s opening keynote address, the forum featured presentations by John Manley on the 2016 World Economic Forum, former UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, a talk between CNN host Fareed Zakaria and Trudeau advisor Roland Paris, and closing remarks by Canada’s Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan.

Dion spoke lightly on a number of topics — including the continued value of the fight against child, early and forced marriages, the need to increase dialogue with Iran and Russia and for all ministries to collaborate on Canada’s climate policies — while other sessions delved more deeply into specific areas of interest, such as Canada’s relationship with its North American and Asian partners and changes in global dynamics.

Engagement and inclusion rang most clearly as unifying themes, from Zakaria’s suggestion to involve more rising powers in global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank in order to prevent “fragmented, multiple versions of international order” to Guterres’ praise for the positive spin Canada has put on resettling Syrian refugees, despite a comparatively low number accepted.  Minister Sajjan spoke of how he would like to see Canada as a nation improve its “situational awareness” in places like Ukraine, Egypt, Iraq and Syria — not just looking conflicts in isolation, but considering regional factors as well, he said. “I challenge you, as I challenge myself: if we want to understand the ripple we’re going to be creating, we need to understand the environment we’re creating it in.”

It was a starting point for an ongoing conversation, with panel highlights detailed below. 

Fareed Zakaria. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

International Institutions in 2016

Just as Lester B. Pearson must have contemplated the nature of international institutions at the founding conference of the United Nations more than 70 years ago, so the first panel of the Ottawa Forum on Thursday considered their use in a 21st century world.

Moderated by Robert Greenhill of Global Canada, the discussion featured CIGI’s Rohinton Medhora, the University of Ottawa’s David Petrasek and Queen’s University’s Margaret Biggs.

The panel agreed that for the most part, despite some notable exceptions like the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, institutions today are still a legacy of the post-World War II/Bretton Woods era: the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, etc. The rise of new global players and new conflicts necessitates an examination of Canada’s involvement with international institutions, and how we might be best placed to help with new ones.

“One of the relatively unsung successes we’ve had in the world is huge improvements in nutrition and food security. Canada had a major role in this,” said Medhora, who shared additional insights on OpenCanada this week. “But what about a CGIAR for green energy? Or [more attention] to sovereign debt? We don’t have a global, early warning system for the sovereign debt issue.” Medhora also cited oceans and cyber as areas where Canada and other countries are starting to work together to form coalitions.

Petrasek has three factors to consider when judging the appropriateness and usefulness of any new institutions Canada might consider involving itself in. “One is how inclusive they are – are all the people who need to be involved, involved? Second is legitimacy – do the actors involved and people affected by the institution see it as legitimate? And then [third,] efficacy.”

“The world is a very messy place,” Biggs told the audience. “For Canada, [being involved in international institutions] is really to achieve some of our key interests, but also because we earn influence as we are engaged constructively and bring forward solutions.”

Ottawa Forum Panel 1
Robert Greenhill, Rohinton Medhora, Margaret Biggs, and David Petrasek. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

Getting the North American Relationships Right

In kicking off the discussion on North American relations, Fen Hampson, director of the global security and politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, presented CIGI’s recent report on the topic. “The good news is,” he said, “if we can regain productivity growth… there is another $7 Trillion in GDP to put on the table, and for Canada that translates into $600 million more.”

Hampson was joined by moderator Anne McLellan, former U.S. envoy to Canada Gordon Giffin, Ian Mallory and Agustin Barrios Gomez in his belief that relations can be greatly improved with further investment in Canada from Mexico, greater cooperation between business and educational sectors and on opportunities for new infrastructure and climate plans for the region.

Barrios Gomez agreed, calling for a reframing of the region, not looking at each nation as a neighbour, but in fact seeing the relationship as one even closer, like roommates under one roof. “Ignorance. That is what is obstructing our progress,” he emphasized, suggesting Spanish be taught more in Canada and possibly French in Mexico.

Mallory on the other hand pinpointed the ongoing visa requirement on Mexican visitors to Canada as the “one major irritant.” The Trudeau government has promised to eliminate the visa requirement, as Dion confirmed in Ottawa last week. However, Dion did not give any further details or timeline. “From what I’ve seen on the ground there is very little progress in actually implementing this,” Mallory said. “I implore anyone who is connected with this issue in Ottawa to please, get it done.” 

Ottawa Forum Panel 2
Fen Hampson, Gordon Giffin, Ian Mallory, Agustin Barrios Gomez. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

Building Blocks for a Canada-Asia Strategy

Named after a new report from the Asia Pacific Foundation, this panel overwhelmingly emphasized the need for smaller players in Canada — SMEs, tech innovators, scientists and regional policymakers — to come together to make a greater impression on Canada’s Asian partners. 

Further, the strategy in the region needs to consider cultural context. “If you’re in Asia, it’s a big deal when a minister shows up,” Sandra Pupatello, of PwC Canada, said. 

Pupatello was joined by Stewart Beck, with the Asia Pacific Foundation, BMO’s Kevin Lynch, Janet De Silva of the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Maclean’s Paul Wells as moderator. 

Much of the discussion centred around the Trans Pacific Partnership and whether Canada on the whole will benefit or whether benefits to regional economies within Canada would be sufficient justification for the trade deal. 

The overall consensus for moving relations forward was around stronger promotion of the services, sectors and expertise Canada has to offer, from the agrofood to clean tech industries. “When are we going to start a trade agreement where we are a leader?” asked Lynch.  “With China, for instance, the big upside…is in the agriculture space.”

Ottawa Forum Panel 3
Janet De Silva, Kevin Lynch and Stewart Beck. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

Displaced Persons and their Effect on Global Stability

Canada is in a “privileged position” to play a “unique role” in contributing to the stability and security of the global world order, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the Ottawa Forum in a special address.

In addition to playing the role of “honest broker,” Guterres said Canada must be involved in the creation of a “massive resettlement program” for countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon that have been overwhelmed by the influx of Syrian refugees.

The former UNHCR head had high praise for the Liberal government’s response to the refugee crisis and lauded Canada as a country where pluralism and multiculturalism work. “In the last two months of my mandate,” Guterres admitted, “the only good news came from Canada.”

“I believe that with your resettlement experience…you can be a leader of a shift towards understanding that it is better to have an organized movement of people into areas where they can have full protection and a future, rather than allowing smugglers and traffickers to be in charge of that.”

The University of Ottawa’s Jennifer Bond and Toronto MP Arif Virani then joined Guterres for a panel discussion on displaced persons and Canada’s role in helping to maintain global security.

When asked by moderator Don Newman whether the Canadian government and Canadians themselves would be ready to expand the country’s role in dealing with refugees in an organized way, Virani said: “The short answer is yes; [with this government] we’re seeing a new level of engagement internationally where there wasn’t, unfortunately, before.”

Bond added that “Canada is already playing this role” through “financial support in the region… In addition to setting up a resettlement program [at home], we’re sending a message saying both these things need attention.” 

Ottawa Forum Panel 4
Antonio Guterres, Jennifer Bond, Arif Virani and Don Newman. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

The Changing Nature of Global Power

Moderated by former CIPS director Roland Paris, now a senior advisor to Justin Trudeau, the forum’s final panel featured OpenCanada editor-in-chief Taylor Owen, CIPS’ Peter Jones and CIGI’s Simon Palamar, and focused on what the effects of technology mean for relationships between governments and their citizens in the 21st century.

As Owen pointed out, the last time the Liberal Party was in power, social media, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and Wikileaks, among other things, did not yet exist. Tensions are now evident between institutions built on control – governments, corporations and newspapers, for example – and those who are able to harness the value of rapidly evolving technology, whether that be freedom fighters or hackers.

“The challenge is that the very things we perceive as positive in the digital world – free speech, financing, media – [use the same technology as the] things we perceive as criminal networks – ISIS, the Silk Road, drug markets. The [problem] for government is that what you have to do to stop the negative affects the positive,” he said.

“Public diplomacy – explaining your policies, convincing people that you are on the right track – is probably more important right now, because we have an increasingly sceptical public,” Palamar added.

What does the changing nature of global power mean for Canada? “These trends will produce winners and loser,” Jones explained, “sharper that before, because of global communications and the ability of disaffected groups to say ‘we’re losers’ and have it spread all over the world. Canada using its reputation to help the world manage these trends continues to be in our interest.”

Ottawa Forum Panel 5
Roland Paris, Taylor Owen, Simon Palamar and Peter Jones. Canada 2020 / Matthew Usherwood

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