Scheer on foreign policy: A critique of Trudeau, with few new proposals of his own

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer laid out his foreign policy approach on Tuesday. Steve Saideman breaks down the speech, from Scheer’s views on China, Iran and Israel to his omission of US tariffs and climate change.

By: /
7 May, 2019
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks during Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Four years ago, Justin Trudeau was in third place, and one of the many questions people had for him was whether he could handle himself on the world stage. In the months before the 2015 October federal election, Trudeau out-performed expectations, especially at the September Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy.

Six months ahead of this year’s election, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is in a similarly fortunate position — he has not yet made a serious impression when it comes to foreign policy and defence issues. He, too, may win an election by beating low expectations (not the inspiration we might be looking for, but for Scheer, winning is better than losing). So, Tuesday in Montreal, Scheer tried to take a big step by announcing his vision for Canada’s foreign policy. What was it and how did he do?

Mostly, it would be fair to say that his foreign policy stance is: “I will do what Trudeau has done but with fewer faux pas and more resolve.” It is fair to criticize Trudeau for his ill-fated 2018 India trip, which Scheer did do. Likewise, Trudeau is fair game for overselling “Canada is back” — Canada never did leave. As Scheer noted, when the Liberals were elected, “our Armed Forces had just spent a decade in Afghanistan.” The change we have seen under Trudeau is more one of degrees than magnitudes and more about Trudeau preferring multilateralism where his predecessor, Stephen Harper, preferred bilateralism. Scheer also blasted Trudeau for failing to show up to a 2017 meeting of leaders of the countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, upsetting the Japanese, but Canada did manage to join the TPP despite the departure of a core member (the United States).

So, is Scheer’s vision about style or substance?

What does Scheer propose to do to improve the relationships that he says Trudeau harmed? To join in global partnerships? Canada has, under Trudeau, committed to be a key player in the NATO mission in the Baltics, to contribute to the training missions in Ukraine and Iraq, and to the temporary mission in Mali. Scheer promised to have a better relationship with India, which is not easy, something that was demonstrated by the India visit (India was not seriously considering significantly improved trade even before Trudeau’s Bollywood attire became a joke), even though the optics obscured that lesson. Scheer also promised to continue the “important work” he said he is doing on increasing trade with the United Kingdom, which is interesting since the UK is quite fixated these days on shooting itself in the foot via Brexit.

“In the 21st century, some politicians want Canada to be the referee. I want Canada to be the quarterback,” Scheer’s statement says (during his read out of the speech, he said he wanted Canada to be “on the starting line”). What does he mean by that? Does Canada have the power, the heft, to lead the world? Haven’t recent events taught Canadians the limits of Canadian power, having to suffer from Saudi and Chinese hostile actions with only limited means to respond? Scheer went on to say Canadians must support the rules-based international order. Hasn’t Trudeau been one of the key faces of that effort? Again, how would Scheer do it better?

On defence, Scheer asserted, in French, that “many liberals would like to reduce our support for our armed forces…” when it was the Harper government, with its fixation on balanced budgets, that cut the defence budget. While the Liberal defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, still remains more promise than action, it was definitely not a call for “reducing support for the armed forces.”

Speaking about Canada’s relationship with China, Scheer said we need a “total reset.” Maybe he is right — whatever a reset means. His speech came closest in specifics when he discussed the various measures he would take to confront China. This is an interesting way to go since China is much better equipped to play games — not just jailing Canadians but also cutting off the purchase of Canadian canola. Given that China has been quite willing to escalate its trade war with the United States, does it make sense for Canada to make more threats?

The big question is whether Scheer can do better with US President Donald Trump than Trudeau.

Most troubling, however, was Scheer’s call, essentially, for regime change in Iran: “Canada must do all we can to ensure that the people of Iran soon enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy.” Haven’t we learned anything from the wars of the twenty-first century? From the current events in Venezuela? Changing an unfriendly regime is very difficult, and the consequences can be very harmful.

The big question is whether Scheer can do better with US President Donald Trump than Trudeau. The days of considering Trudeau to be the “Trump Whisperer” are behind us, but given Trump’s difficulties with centre-right politicians elsewhere (Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May), it is not clear that switching leaders here will be very productive. The funny thing about the litany of complaints offered by Scheer about US-Canadian relations is that he does not mention aluminum and steel tariffs, nor Trump’s threats about the auto industry. Why this omission? Might it be that USMCA — the new NAFTA (same as the old NAFTA with a few relatively minor tweaks) — is not that bad?

There were three other key omissions: climate change (which Scheer said he would address in the future, likely later this week as he continues to roll out speeches on various topics), global populism as a threat to democracy and stability, and corruption. He could have launched a big initiative to confront corruption, which would have parlayed Trudeau’s SNC-Lavalin problem into a foreign policy campaign. One wonders why he avoided these three challenges.

Returning to the start, the question that Scheer did not really answer is: how can he do better than Trudeau? Aside from a few key policy differences — Scheer would be more pro-Israel, would join the ballistic missile defence program — it is not clear at all that Scheer would behave much differently. It is perhaps standard to expect any politician to declare themselves to be more resolute, but talk is easy. Confrontation is hard, and Canada is really not well prepared, especially with an increasingly unreliable best friend.

So, I have got good news for Scheer: expectations are still set on low. He didn’t dazzle on Tuesday, but given how much damage the Liberals are doing to themselves with regard to the SNC-Lavalin mess, he may not have to dazzle in the fall. He might just have to appear to be slightly more thoughtful than he did this week.

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