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Was Trump to blame for the lackluster foreign policy debate this election?

International issues such as climate change were discussed, but foreign policy was largely absent this campaign. As this was the first election with Trump next door, were all leaders playing it safe?

By: /
18 October, 2019
Supporters of various federal parties gather before an English language federal election debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
By: Stéfanie von Hlatky
Associate professor and director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University  

With five weeks of campaigning and three televised leaders’ debates already over, the 2019 election season is coming to an end. The official debates spoke volumes about where foreign policy fits in this campaign — party leaders jousted on three brightly-lit stages, clinging to their podiums, and barely anything was said about Canada’s foreign policy. Global issues were raised, such as climate change and migration, but debates on specific foreign policy or defence topics were eschewed.

Now that Canada sits uncomfortably in US President Donald Trump’s shadow, have candidates decided it’s safest to be evasive about foreign policy?

On the big-ticket items, such as relations with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s record risks being interpreted as siding with Trump and endorsing his attempt to rip up NAFTA, his trade war with China, and his unequivocal support of Saudi Arabia. Candidates have been treading carefully, especially during the televised debates. When it has occurred, sparring on foreign policy issues has not necessarily paid off, either. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer continued to criticize the new NAFTA deal (CUSMA/USMCA) even though other Conservative voices, namely his predecessor Rona Ambrose, have pushed back, essentially defending Trudeau. Since the US president is deeply unpopular in Canada, with only 25 percent expressing confidence in the leader last year, exercising caution largely makes sense.

“Even the most creative foreign policy ideas that candidates could propose might sound like magical thinking in the age of Trump.”

To be sure, Trudeau is in no position to brag. He has not exactly been able to reign in Trump’s bad behaviour: he burned a lot of time and energy on the negotiation of CUSMA, an adventure he would have preferred to avoid altogether; he was publicly humiliated in Charlevoix last June when Trump disavowed the G7 communiqué; and he quickly found himself isolated among his global peers with his government’s denunciations of China and Saudi Arabia, prompting The Economist to describe Canada as a “mid-sized democracy” trying to survive “in the global jungle.”

It’s hard out there for a middle power. Even the most creative foreign policy ideas that candidates could propose might sound like magical thinking in the age of Trump and his club of illiberal honchos, in power in various capitals, from Riyadh to Moscow and now Ankara. These bad hombres have Trump’s ear while Trudeau is sitting alone in the cafeteria. Canada’s best option is to wait this out and continue to show up where its presence is welcome: at the United Nations and at NATO. Not exactly a compelling campaign pitch, is it?

So here we are, on the eve of the October 21 vote, with little to get by when it comes to gaining an accurate picture of the candidates’ foreign policy intentions. From the debates, we were told that Jagmeet Singh would stand up to Trump, Maxime Bernier thinks the United Nations is a waste of time, Elizabeth May is keen on continuing Canada’s so-called feminist foreign policy, and Yves-François Blanchet thinks Canada has tiny biceps and therefore should not attempt to flex its muscles in the presence of China.

What about our two top contenders for the job of prime minister? Trudeau shared a few vague bullets on foreign policy through his platform, but appeared to avoid the topic as best he could during all of the on-screen debates. Scheer, for his part, dragged his feet and only made his platform available online as advanced polls were opening on October 11. We already knew, however, that Scheer wants to reduce the foreign aid budget by at least 25 percent to put more money in Canadians’ pockets. The optics of this plan are terrible for a country as rich as Canada. If Canada cannot set aside $6 billion to help out countries who are less well-off, it probably does not belong in the G7.

The silver lining of party leaders not highlighting Trudeau’s foreign policy legacy or going into depth about international politics is that we did not see the kind of fear mongering we see in democracies overtaken by populism: on Iran, the adversarial relationship with Russia, the rise of China, or the mutating threat posed by the Islamic State. Another encouraging development is that, compared to previous elections, there has been more sustained attention to climate change from all parties, an area where domestic and global politics are inextricably linked.

In the end, we know voters rarely cast their ballot with foreign policy in mind. Voters tend to remain focused on pocketbook issues. However, trade wars and diplomatic crises can affect Canada’s bottom line. Therefore, foreign policy leadership is paramount in an international arena that has grown inhospitable over the last four years, starting with our neighbour to the south.

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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