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What should the Liberal Party’s foreign policy platform look like?

A former Liberal advisor on why the party should help vaccinate the world’s refugees and think twice about rebuilding Canada’s military.

Written by: as told by Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images /
21 August, 2021

If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals win the upcoming election, what should their foreign policy be? As someone who has advised a Liberal foreign minister and darkened my hands on the greasy machinery of government, I have a few observations to share from the sidelines.

Five years ago, I started working as a policy advisor to Stéphane Dion in the early days of the Justin Trudeau era, when Liberals were cheerily intoning the slogan “Canada is back” with a straight face — no one more earnestly than I. Since then, the distinction between what Justin Trudeau has done and what Stephen Harper would have done has proved harder to discern than I might have imagined.

“The idea of a “Liberal” foreign policy is often a pretense, useful for Question Period and election campaigns.

Trudeau, like Harper, has aggressively pursued international free trade agreements. Trudeau has spent more on the military than Harper’s Conservatives did. Trudeau authorized a military deployment to Latvia (to deter Russia) and operations in the Middle-East (to combat ISIS) but did relatively little to increase Canada’s contribution to peacekeeping, which hit historic lows last year following a limited mission in Mali. Spending on foreign assistance has remained modest, about what it was in Harper’s day, despite a recent uptick. Yes, Trudeau has trumpeted a “feminist” foreign assistance program, but before that Harper championed maternal health (minus support for family planning, but still). 

There have been divergences, of course — notably on Canada’s approach to climate change and in the number of refugees admitted — but in many respects, Canada isn’t “back.” We are pretty close to where Harper left off.

Depending on where you stand on these various issues, continuity will seem a good or bad thing. Perhaps the larger point is that the idea of a “Liberal” foreign policy is often a pretense, useful for Question Period and election campaigns. It is better to focus on trying to do the best thing, rather than the distinctively Liberal thing.

* * *

So, where do we go from here? 

We can begin by reminding ourselves that successful domestic policy can be the best foreign policy. As the planet warms and intolerant populism spreads, Canada can offer a model of a functioning liberal democracy that actually manages to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Canada is aiming to welcome more than 400,000 immigrants and refugees a year. Let us continue to strive to be a place where many ethnicities, nations and languages can co-exist and thrive. If we can successfully integrate wave after wave of newcomers, if we can improve social mobility and alleviate inequality, if we can navigate the transition from being majority white country to a majority non-white country with a minimum of social upheaval, if we can tame our fossil fuel emissions while maintaining economic prosperity — then we will have done a service not only to ourselves but to humanity. 

Yet striving to get our own house in order will not suffice, and Canadians rightly expect more. It is true we constitute a tiny fraction of the world’s population and that our relative influence is ever diminishing as power shifts to Asia. We are also an extraordinarily wealthy country, blessed in manifold ways, and if we focus on our comparative advantages we can make significant contributions.

To guide us through the hundreds and thousands of decisions that together constitute a foreign policy, Canada requires a grand strategy. The 2017 speech delivered in Parliament by Chrystia Freeland is as good a guide as any. She reminded us of the importance of a rules-based international order, because in a world governed by the law of the jungle Canada will find itself on the menu. And she affirmed Canada’s commitment to multilateralism, since our wellbeing largely depends on sticking with a peloton of like-minded countries. 

Freeland rightly observed that Canada must adapt to the trend of waning American leadership. (The election of Joe Biden is no definitive answer to this diagnosis, as Trumpism lingers and competing powers rise.) Increasingly, Canada will need to find ways to avoid becoming collateral damage in jousting between the United States and China, as in the ongoing Meng-Michaels affair. 

Though Freeland provided a shrewd assessment of our current geopolitical environment, a central conclusion she reached — that Canada needs to invest heavily in augmenting our “hard power” — should be subjected to renewed scrutiny. The cost of upgrading our military is enormous, measured in the tens of billions, and this is where the government of Justin Trudeau is headed. (Annual defense expenditures are projected to increase by a whopping 70 per cent by 2026, relative to 2016 spending). Yet the actual value of such an approach, for us and for others, is questionable. The most likely threats Canada faces — climate change, cyber-attacks, yet more pandemics — are not problems that are solved by soldiers, jets or ships. Sure, defense spending creates jobs (often in vote-rich parts of Canada), but there are other ways to stimulate our economy.

“The most likely threats Canada faces — climate change, cyber-attacks, yet more pandemics — are not problems that are solved by soldiers, jets or ships.

It was said during the Harper era that our military contributions in Afghanistan would translate into greater sway in the global halls of power. Whether this actually happened, or whether it was worth our blood and billions, is dubious. The West’s 20-year military misadventure in Afghanistan, currently unravelling with such dramatic swiftness, should give us further pause as Canada considers how to invest our finite resources. 

During Donald Trump’s presidency, he put Canada under heavy pressure to increase our defense budgets. In response, Trudeau and Freeland were justified in assuming a more hawkish posture, particularly as they navigated treacherous NAFTA re-negotiations. Yet that time has passed, and the same justification no longer obtains. 

In 2019, Justin Trudeau proposed the sage principle that we should “match what Canada does best to what the world needs most.” Is hard power really what Canada is best positioned to offer the world? I suspect not. Yes, we need a military to keep us safe and sovereign at home, and we must contribute to our most vital security alliances. Beyond that minimum, skepticism is warranted. 

* * *

Elections offer a chance to present new ideas to affirm Canada’s role in the world, and maybe even to inspire. In addition to reconsidering our commitment to hard power, what does our current moment call for? I have two further suggestions. 

First, Canada should lead an effort to vaccinate every refugee in the world. 

More specifically: Canada should convene a global summit next year to raise the necessary funds and orchestrate a plan to vaccinate every refugee by, say, the end of 2022. It is the right thing to do, the right message to send, and in our broader interest. We have seen the world’s wealthiest countries obtain a sufficient vaccine supply for all citizens who want one. Canadians with family or friends in Latin America, Asia or Africa are painfully aware of how extraordinarily lucky we are.

This is merely the latest crass illustration of the world as it is: unequal and unfair. Now, though, Canada can use its privilege to help ensure that some of the world’s most vulnerable populations get vaccinated, to better reflect the world as it should be. 

There are more forcibly displaced people today (82 million) than at any other time since the Second World War, and they have been pushed to the back of the vaccination line, as the World Refugee and Migration Council notes. Canada cannot meet the need alone, but we could play a key role in assembling and financing a broad coalition to get the job done. By focusing on refugees, Prime Minister Trudeau could return to a theme which won him global acclaim in 2015, while advancing a broader conversation about vaccine equity. 

Second, Canada should help ensure that our companies do not use child or forced labour in their global supply chains

In most parts of the world, multinational companies have more power to do good or ill than the government of Canada does. By virtue of their purchasing power, businesses have leverage over their suppliers. That is why more should be done to ensure companies do not use or benefit from child or forced labour (sometimes called “modern slavery”), a scourge which still afflicts 175 million people across the world. Canadian consumers are too often unwittingly complicit in such abuses.

Back in 2015, the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act, which requires companies listed on London’s stock exchanges to disclose the measures they are taking to keep their supply chains free of child and forced labour. California passed a similar law in 2010. Canada should do the same. 

Indeed, Liberal MP John McKay proposed such a law in 2018, as did Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne in 2020. Erin O’Toole recently promised to revive a similar bill in the House of Commons if the Conservatives form the next government. Instead of ceding this terrain to their rivals, the Liberals should embrace an opportunity for bipartisanship on a concrete measure with real potential to do some good. 

Elections should be a time to debate and weigh such ideas. Unfortunately, during the last federal campaign in 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau declined to participate in a scheduled debate about foreign policy. This suggested that he did not have much to say on the subject, or, more likely, that he did not think voters particularly cared. This was a pity. Canadian foreign policy can make us more or less safe and the world more or less just.

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