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Seven foreign policy wishes for the Trump administration

With the election of Donald Trump for U.S. president, we asked Canadian diplomats to name their one hope for his approach to foreign policy.

By: /
16 November, 2016
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures to supporters as he departs a campaign rally in Clive, Iowa, U.S., September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

1. Make wise foreign policy appointments (and prove us wrong)

– Paul Heinbecker, former Ambassador to the United Nations and chief foreign policy advisor to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney

My wish is that President Donald Trump turns out to be someone other than presidential candidate Donald Trump — that the xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, nativist cartoon he appeared to be during the election campaign was all an act to appeal to disaffected voters. 

Despite the (disappointing) appointment of ex-Breitbart executive chairman Stephen Bannon as chief strategist, the choices he makes for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor might still provide evidence that there is more to Trump than meets the eye. 

In all three positions, he could select people, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, who understand the significance to the U.S. as well as to the world of America’s place at the heart of the liberal international order; who value the contributions to peace and stability of international law and treaties, especially those that govern weapons of mass destruction, above all the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; who have seen the value of alliances and the importance of diplomacy and plurilateral and multilateral cooperation to advancing U.S. interests; who realize that together with its allies the U.S. is stronger; who comprehend the value to the U.S. as well as to global stability of integrating economic relations and trade; and who understand that human rights are essential to international progress. 

In other words, the President-elect could appoint people who would act as compliments to his own experiential shortfalls and counterweights to his authoritarian instincts and his impulses to act spontaneously and unilaterally. Such appointments could be drawn from Congress, notably from the House and Senate foreign affairs and defence committees, and from those who staffed the last days of the Bush administration and even the Obama administration. He would rule out the neo-cons whose hubris triggered the Iraq war and led to the deadly conflicts in the Middle East. 

In selecting non-Trumps, he would signal maturity and steadiness in an age of turbulence internationally and at a time of division and change at home. Even if it seems a trifle unlikely, such a signal is certainly worth wishing for.

2. To be a stronger global leader, heal America’s divisions

– Jillian Stirk, former Ambassador to Norway and assistant deputy minister in the federal public service

Like so many others, I was expecting a different outcome to the presidential election when I agreed to write about my hopes for American foreign policy last week. It would be easy to say I have lost all hope, but after a few days it is time to move beyond the shock, the despair, the grief even, and to think about the future. 

So, what might we wish for — beyond a kind of miracle where Donald Trump is transformed into a very different kind of president than candidate?

If we consider the man himself, his tough talking, take-no-prisoners style is singularly ill-suited to foreign policy where nuance is everything and compromise essential. Lasting agreements or solutions to complex problems are rarely winner-take-all. But if Trump were to use his mandate to engage those who elected him in a more constructive way and to deliver to them some plain truths, as he might be uniquely suited to do, about the way the world really is, then maybe he could begin to restore America’s moral authority, which was so badly damaged during the election campaign.

It is America’s commitment to democracy, its support for human rights and freedom, and its indomitable spirit that resonates internationally. Today, most of us are not so sure how solid those values are and we see a nation divided. My guess is that Trump is a hard-power kind of guy and that he doesn’t have much time for the idea that it is America’s soft power that gives license to its leadership role. 

But he will soon find that while theoretically the U.S. can act as it sees fit, without the support of its friends and allies, and even the grudging admiration of its foes, it achieves little, including for Trump’s most ardent supporters.

“The peace and security so essential to prosperity are not built on bilateral showdowns, but on a web of relationships based on compromise.”

Trump’s first order of business should be to bring Americans together. He needs to come clean about the realities of globalization, which if he doesn’t understand already, he soon will. He needs to help his supporters cope with the fact that manufacturing jobs are not coming back and that the American and Chinese economies are interdependent. He will need to accept that the peace and security so essential to prosperity are not built on bilateral showdowns, but on a web of relationships based on compromise. That rejecting NAFTA and undermining the Mexican economy is likely to increase the illegal immigration and the threats to security his supporters so fear, not to mention have a negative impact on the U.S. economy.  

A deeply divided and fractious America plays into the hands of autocrats and extremists everywhere by exposing a weakness in fundamental American values and undermining its moral authority.  My hope, albeit a faint hope, is that a President Trump (and yes, I have difficulty using that designation) will surprise us all, and use his plain talk to help his supporters come to terms with the way the world has changed and to see a future for themselves that is not defined by hate and distrust. Without that, I find it hard to imagine how the U.S. can play the kind of leadership role that it should in addressing the conflict in the Middle East, keeping a deeply dysfunctional Russia in check, or in managing a complex and challenging relationship with China. 

For the sake of us all: America, heal thyself. 

3. Leave the campaign rhetoric behind and stick to the facts

– Jeremy Kinsman, former Ambassador to Russia, Italy, and the European Union, and Canadian High Commissioner to the UK

Henry Kissinger recently said a president’s “inescapable responsibility” is to “analyze and reflect” and then “give direction” to his country’s foreign policy. 

What should we want to see most from President Donald Trump? That the direction he gives America is based on facts.

Donald Trump’s winning campaign to “make America great again” channelled resentments of white working people over status and class divisions inside America’s economy and society. Though he blamed U.S. trade and security partners for taking advantage of U.S. generosity, his themes were inward-looking, almost isolationist. He hasn’t shown where he stands, and probably hasn’t reflected, on most international issues except for trade, defence spending and climate change, where he vows he will extract “better deals” for the United States.

The international program at (elite alert) Harvard’s Kennedy School trains future foreign leaders in decision-making that reduces “bias and inaccuracy.” It does so knowing that our post-war international system aims for predictability and evidence-based consensus. Candidate Trump has been all about unpredictability and bias. His excruciating disregard for facts (e.g., Obama was born in Kenya, Mexican “rapists” are over-running America, the Democrats are planning to bring in “hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” coal mines and 1950s manufacturing plants can “come back,” and climate change is a Chinese hoax) was radiated via the Internet, where anybody can say anything, and amplified by talk radio echo chambers to like-minded alienated supporters. As in the Brexit campaign, most voters inhabited fact-free zones. 

If these techniques and outcomes now characterize U.S. foreign policy, the international environment will become fractious and dangerous. Global respect for democracy will plummet.

As in the Brexit campaign, most voters inhabited fact-free zones.

I devoutly hope President Trump will give direction to U.S. policy that is evidence-based, and unbiased by exaggerated nationalist notions of American “exceptionalism.” 

His first appointments are important. President-elect Trump has already chosen propagandist Stephen Bannon to be his chief strategist and climate-change denier Myron Ebell to run the Environmental Protection Agency transition. If he also chooses a hostility-driven unilateralist like John Bolton to be Secretary of State or government-destroyers like ex-Governor Bobby Jindal, we’ll know that Trump’s team and tenor will be vindictive, and his term brutal (and probably short). International cooperation will deteriorate, including across the Canada-U.S. border. 

Since the Second World War, America’s “greatness” has been defined by U.S. leadership in building a cooperative international system in the common good. Any alternate route to “greatness” is a delusion neither America nor the world can afford.  

4. When it comes to ‘irritant’ issues like softwood lumber, recognize the value in North American ministerial meetings

— Colin Robertson, former Consul-General in Los Angeles, Vice-Consul in New York, Consul in Hong Kong, and current vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ask of President-elect Donald Trump should be to preserve the loose institutional arrangements that oversee North American relations, specifically the regular meetings of ministers responsible for foreign affairs, trade, energy and defence. Other ministers — finance, environment, labour, industry — also meet but usually in a bilateral or multilateral setting like the G20. For these meetings to be successful it is vital that the responsible U.S. cabinet officer be present and actively engaged.

Over the years, meetings at the ministerial level have proven very useful as clearing houses for the important but not always strategic issues. These irritants (which would include, for example, bilateral issues like softwood lumber or country-of-origin-labeling) that can’t or won’t get resolved at the level of officials or ambassadors because of their political implications used to get bounced up to the leaders’ meetings. But they cluttered the agenda and diminished the value of these meetings. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used to derisively call them the ‘condominium’ issues.

The energy ministers’ meetings, in particular, have acted as a catalyst for a lot of highly practical initiatives. By obliging officials to report regularly, things get done, especially as we increasingly need to manage North American energy interdependence to our competitive advantage. 

North American integration is different than that of the European model, which is heavy on bureaucratic superstructure with its commission, council and parliament. It wouldn’t work for Canada, the U.S. or Mexico, but having regular meetings of key ministers on shared issues of joint concern makes a lot of sense and will both complement and enhance the annual meetings of the Three Amigos.

5. Respect other states’ right to peace and security

– Peggy Mason, former Canadian Ambassador for disarmament to the UN and is the president of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs

President-elect Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and “outmoded” and has warned its members to stop freeloading or the U.S. will no longer “protect” them.  

NATO governments face huge challenges, from climate change and economic fragility to migration flows and a global terrorist threat that no amount of military firepower can quell. Surely it is obvious the problem is not that Canada or Spain is spending too little on defence. 

“How Western leaders respond will be central to limiting the damage a Trump presidency can wreak.”

No, the elephant in the room is the staggering amount of military spending by the U.S. – at $600 billion per year, more than the next seven largest military economies combined, including upgraded “tactical” nuclear weapons slated for Europe that will have lower explosive yields and greater accuracy. Critics point out this creates the “illusion of usability” at the very time when the President-elect has reportedly asked: “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” Trump’s solution to ISIS is yet more bombing, at least in Iraq. He favours an entirely different approach in Syria, since he can apparently accept dominance by a Putin-backed Assad there, but he cannot tolerate Iranian influence in Iraq.

Trump has also said he does not think the U.S. should be the world’s policeman.

However half-baked and ill-informed these Trump pronouncements are, they will nonetheless force a conversation on the rest of us. How Western leaders respond will be central to limiting the damage a Trump presidency can wreak. 

This is a hugely important moment for Justin Trudeau. He must take his lead from Angela Merkel in Germany and situate his responses to specific issues within a guiding framework of core principles. Absent this framework, an ad hoc or “pragmatic” approach will further unnerve Canadians, the majority of whom found the election result quite shocking. It also will leave Trudeau utterly vulnerable to U.S. whim and pressure.  

Crucial guidance can be found in a central provision of the UN Charter: the equal right to security of all states. This is the mindset change that is so urgently needed to replace the absurdly childish and morally bankrupt “good guys/bad guys,” “with us or against us” approach to terrorism instigated by George W. Bush, which has proven to be such a gift to violent extremists everywhere.

Once you allow the possibility that “the other” has legitimate concerns, the only way forward is the enlightened, constructive UN-centred multilateralism that Trudeau channeled so effectively in his “Canada is back” pronouncements. Now is the time for our prime minister to demonstrate the strength of those convictions; our southern neighbours will be watching.

6. Scrap the China tariff idea and engage Asia constructively

– Philip Calvert, former Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and a senior fellow at the China Institute

Although Asia’s profile during the Trump campaign was largely negative, especially with respect to China, the reality is that Asia-Pacific security and prosperity are key to global stability and to American jobs. 

As president, Donald Trump will need to move away from the more negative promises and pronouncements of his campaign and reassert, and even strengthen, the American presence in Asia. He will doubtless be told that a stable and constructive Sino-U.S. relationship is essential to each country, and to the region as well. Given the importance of mutual interests, he should plan to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping early in his first year in order to start establishing a basis for dialogue, with a broad agenda that includes security, trade and regional concerns. 

China is used to anti-China rhetoric during U.S elections, and will be anxious to engage with the new president. Trump should move away from his promises of trade action against China, such as a 45 percent tariff, which would damage both economies. To assuage his supporters, he could instead announce enhanced attention to Chinese trade practices that violate China’s obligations.

As president, Trump should send clear signals to U.S. allies in Asia of the importance of cooperative security in the region. His pronouncement that allies were not contributing their share to security, while more threatening than those of previous U.S. presidents, reflected an ongoing American concern about burden-sharing. As a confidence-building measure, he should seek to renew and strengthen regional security cooperation, in the face of China’s growing power in the region. 

Building on his public statements against isolating North Korea and his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he should convene a five-power meeting (U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) aimed a seeking new and creative solutions to the North Korea nuclear issue, including strengthened private sector connections with the isolated regime.  

The ASEAN region — with the exception of Vietnam — receives less attention from the U.S. than North Asia. Japan and Southeast Asian countries are likely to be dismayed with the probable demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was in part a geopolitical counterbalance to China’s growing influence. As a result, Trump will need to reassert American interest in the region, and he can do so through strengthened political and security engagement with key ASEAN members and with the ASEAN economic community. 

7. My wishes are many, but we cannot leave out hope for better climate policy

– Daryl Copeland, former Canadian diplomat with postings in Thailand, Ethiopia, New Zealand and Malaysia and author of Guerrilla Diplomacy

The largely unanticipated accession of Donald Trump to the American presidency has occasioned an explosive reaction from the commentariat

Let us suspend disbelief and assume, if only for purposes of discussion, that civility and rationality will somehow re-assert themselves south of the border. In that spirit of impossible optimism, I offer several recommendations for the new administration.

First, launch a comprehensive international policy assessment, rolling in defence and development, and including politics, commerce and immigration. Engage Americans, who so evidently long to be heard, in a national conversation about grand strategy, identifying areas of both capacity and constraint. In the quest to chart where the U.S. is going — particularly in the wake of disastrous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — propose concrete measures on how it might get there.

Second, re-invest in diplomacy and development. Target inequality and polarization — and the tendency of globalization to privatize benefits while socializing costs — by assisting with governance, public administration, the rule of law, democratic institution-building and human rights support. Achieve this by getting back into public diplomacy. Multilaterally, find a way to salvage the U.S. position on climate change and focus on the achievement of the UN SDGs. 

Third, recast the mandate, mission and structure of the State Department to create a central agency for the integration of international policy across government and the management of globalization. Functioning at a higher level will require some fundamental re-engineering, legislative action, and a more sophisticated approach to the use of social and digital media. To better generate intelligence and to take full advantage of the vital connection to place, the reform package should feature a more flexible approach towards overseas representation, and a more prominent role for U.S. missions abroad. The State Department is a singularly underutilized asset. Use it or lose it.

Air strikes cannot save a warming planet.

Fourth, re-energize the “pivot” by accepting the inevitability of shifting power and re-building and reinforcing relationships in the Asia-Pacific region, which is re-emerging as the dynamic centre of the global economy. America’s connection to this vital region has been mismanaged and neglected, not only with giants China and India, but also with the promising ASEAN countries. Jump start the reconnection by making better use of the U.S.’ large Asian diaspora communities. A variety of think tanks have produced some useful new thinking on future American strategy; a decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank would help to anchor a larger regional reset.

And, finally, but perhaps most importantly, champion international science and technology. Today, the planet’s most pressing perils are rooted in science, driven by technology, and have little to do with ideological rivalry, territorial ambition, religious extremism or political violence. Think climate change, diminishing biodiversity, pandemic disease, management of the global commons, and genomics, to name a few. Little is known about the Trump government’s approach to science advice or its commitment to science diplomacy. Both should be accorded a central role in American diplomatic activity. 

This sweeping array of S&T-driven, transnational issues together constitute a new threat seta distinctive group of complex and vexing problems for which there are no military solutions. Expeditionary forces cannot occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy. Pandemic disease can overwhelm any garrison. Air strikes cannot save a warming planet.   

It would send a re-assuring signal to the planet if President-elect Trump actively supported an accelerated and intensified commitment on the part of the U.S. to knowledge-based, technologically enabled problem-solving. The place to start would be to endorse whatever progress emerges from the COP 22 climate change negotiations which conclude this week in Marrakesh.

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