Three challenges for Canada’s foreign ministry in the face of Trump

As Chrystia Freeland sets out to establish a relationship with the Trump administration, there are three serious issues within her ministry that need dealing with. 

By: /
25 January, 2017
Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, speaks to the media while he and his cabinet take part in a two-day Liberal retreat in Calgary, Alberta, Canada January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Bolin
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Trump ascendancy carries with it much anxiety and uncertainty, but of this we may be confident: on Jan. 20, under dark skies, the world collectively entered terra incognita

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with his cabinet in Calgary this week to assess options, and has tried to act pre-emptively by shuffling his cabinet. Liberal Party stalwart Stéphane Dion was abruptly replaced by the celebrated and cosmopolitan Chrystia Freeland.  

This was not unexpected. As foreign minister, Dion was engaged and knowledgeable, but emotionally tone deaf and intellectually rigid. He delved deeply into issues, read his briefs, and wrote many of his own speeches, but was not at ease as a communicator. He lacked an integrated policy agenda and as a result seemed locked perpetually in reactive mode. Unlike the more easily defined, tractable issues which he had previously mastered — climate change (Kyoto Accord, Green Shift) or the constitution (Clarity Act) — at Global Affairs Canada (GAC), he was unable to find his footing or leave his mark.  

Some files — Saudi military sales, human rights, arms control and disarmament, non-proliferation — were seriously mishandled. And his would-be ideological centre-piece, “Responsible Conviction,” was both obscure and never joined-up to a concrete plan similar to Lloyd Axworthy’s Human Security Agenda.  Adapted from the work of Prussian sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, such a maxim undoubtedly appealed to Dion’s academic and bookish bent, but it was way over the top in Ottawa and stillborn politically.

Enter urban sophisticate Freeland, an accomplished author, public speaker and journalist, at home in Davos and well connected in major capitals. She is acutely attuned to the neoliberal political economy of globalization, and to the over-arching importance of addressing its downside — distributive inequality and intensified polarization. 

Although her fit with the prevailing mindset in Washington is not natural, concern over the fate of the shrinking middle class may provide common ground for discussions with her U.S. interlocutors. Moreover, given the preponderance of former military figures in Trump’s cabinet, the naming former Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie as her Parliamentary Secretary, with special responsibility for Canada-U.S. relations, appears inspired.

In this volatile, unpredictable and complex operating environment, the Freeland appointment may have been a necessary response to the incoming Trump administration, but it will not be sufficient. In terms of action, how might Canada’s new foreign minister best minimize risk, manage vulnerabilities and maximize opportunity? 

Not easily. There are at least three major issue areas which require significant work.

1. Rebuilding the capacity of Global Affairs Canada.

Whatever international policy initiatives may be contemplated by the Trudeau government, they are unlikely to succeed without the rebuilding of Canada’s diplomatic, development and defence capabilities. Canada’s international policy institutions all are seriously run down and underfunded. By any measure, this country is not paying its fair international share. GAC in particular was savaged during the Tories’ decade of darkness, and its yawning human resource (recruitment, training, professional development) and financial deficits were not addressed in the last federal budget. 

A patient who has been on life support for many years is in no condition to get up and run a marathon. Reinvestment is essential, not least in expanding Canada’s network of representation on the ground in the U.S., which was dramatically enlarged during the first decade of this millennium but has since been cut back. If faced with ambivalence — or worse, hostility — in Washington, shared-interest partnerships with other levels of government, NGOs, business, think tanks and universities will be a sine qua non. Mutuality, after all, is the mother of best cooperation. 

2. Defining Canada’s foreign policy goals.

What exactly is Canada trying to achieve in the world beyond election to the UN Security Council in 2021? If Canada is “back,” then where are we going? These important questions remain largely unanswered. Defence and development reviews are underway, but what of diplomacy, immigration, trade and commerce? What sort of signature initiatives — like the land mine ban, International Criminal Court, conflict diamonds or the Responsibility to Protect doctrine — might be developed to support a new program? A comprehensive international policy review, including attention to Canada’s brand, is long overdue.

3. Creating a larger vision for Canada on the world stage.

Without charts and a destination, Canada will remain adrift. This is the time for a national conversation about grand strategy — where we are, where we want to go, and how we can get there. Only with a clarified big picture can long-term plans can be drawn up, benchmarks established, and contingencies — the “what ifs” and fallbacks — mapped and, if necessary, implemented. Even the most brilliant splatter is no substitute for shape and direction.

As it happens, the enduring message from contemporary America just might be that Plato was right after all: Democracy can too easily be hijacked by demagogues, devolve into mob rule and degenerate into tyranny

Even under the best of circumstances, and that excludes the present, that outcome would be a disaster. If Canada is to be in a position to survive the protracted instability which lies ahead, or, better yet, to turn adversity into opportunity, the rust-out, drift and incoherence must be corrected.

An earlier version of this article was published on


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