The Trudeau government’s decision to harness the slogan “the world needs more Canada” comes at interesting times. The gloss of image and photo-ops that accompanied the Liberal electoral victory in 2016 has worn thin. Both Canadian and international publics are taking a hard look at Canada’s international performance and noting the difference between words and deeds. Mid-way through its four-year mandate, the government is now facing criticism about inertia and under-performance in the foreign policy domain.
Granted, the Prime Minister and a few strong Cabinet members have done well where it counts most. They merit high marks for handling critically important NAFTA and Canadian–American issues, demonstrating deftness in playing defence at a chaotic time in global affairs. But broader efforts to put Canada back in the international game have fallen flat. Two years into its mandate, the government has yet to unveil significant “announceables” on Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East, and its peacekeeping odyssey is ill understood, even after a major international meeting in Vancouver that should have clarified it. An attempt to frame a feminist international assistance policy has produced an egregiously shallow policy document that evades the harder issues on which the critics are increasingly vocal.
What’s the problem? Three factors come to mind. First, contrary to most governance models, the small group closest to the Prime Minister seems focused on communications, selling simple messages to key constituencies. It’s becoming increasingly evident, however, that some of the policies behind these communications packages are weak or ill considered (with international assistance policy and peacekeeping as prominent examples).
This is easily rectified. Focus ministerial effort where it counts: on credible, sensible, supportable policies, backed up by evidence and logic, supported by thorough consultations in advance. Communications packages are easily drafted when the underlying policies make sense and can command support.
A second element affecting foreign policy is that the PMO has a limited grasp of the essence of Canadian interests and values abroad. They’re locked into a delusion about a mythical Canadian past, extolling simple Canadian values in a world full of complex problems. At the same time, they avoid most of the hard issues. It’s a problem that can only be addressed through serious policy work, not by issuing communications documents that purport to be policy.
The third and most serious factor is that the current foreign policy lineup simply isn’t doing its job. Global Affairs Canada is drowning, unable to cope with the policy demands, for reasons already examined. But other problems are dogging the government, including the Foreign Minister’s job description, with time-consuming NAFTA trade issues crowding out other foreign policy questions, while stealing most of the job of the Trade Minister. The Foreign Minister is a stranger in her own department; on most files, she seems disengaged and uninformed at best.
These problems deserve remedial action by the Prime Minister if he wants a second mandate. He needs a coherent, well-organized team working on a credible roadmap to meet the goal of getting Canada back in the international game. If the government is looking for ways to get Canadians more engaged in international affairs, quickly and at minimal cost, here are a couple of ideas, in addition to rejuvenating GAC — a prerequisite to any future success. Four can be achieved in the short term; the fifth is a proposal for longer-term action.
Number one, on the peacekeeping front: Focus Canadian efforts where the United Nations sees the greatest need, namely, civilians. Get GAC to read the UN’s key document from its high-level panel, the HIPPO report, and shift the government’s peacekeeping initiatives from the military to the civilian side (where it should have resided since 2016). Canada can make a major contribution with immediate impact and at much less cost than through a military contribution. Get GAC to consult Canadians and Canadian organizations who already know how to do it.
Number two: Dig the concept of the Canada Corps out of the files for 2004 and get it done, as the Paul Martin government had intended. The Canada Corps offers opportunities to address many international challenges, using Canadians and Canadian NGOs as a base. It’s a relatively low-cost option with wide public appeal. Form an implementation team linked to GAC, headed by a distinguished outsider.
Number three: Support the Paris/Biggs report on Canadian students and global education. The logic and timing of the new report are impeccable. It’s an opportunity to show that the government can react quickly and sensibly to a good idea. Form an implementation team linked to the PCO, with multi-department support.
Number four: Get the government back to doing what Canada once did well. Start with landmines and cluster munitions. Consult widely with Canadian and international NGOs, and move to align Canadian government deeds with its words, correcting its sad recent record. Don’t accept GAC excuses on funding and mandates; the job is easy to do where there is governmental will.
Number five, a long-term step to drive policy development: Line up a roster of speaking opportunities in Canada and abroad over the next six months for all three GAC ministers. Prepare a slate of statements and policy documents on geographic themes like Africa and Latin America, and on functional issues, like international security, human rights, and a feminist foreign policy. Then do it.
As a reality check, pull out a few Denis Stairs articles to immunize ministerial speechwriters against the dangers of delusional thinking and smug complacency that give Canada more credit than we deserve as we claw our way back to international respectability.
And keep it simple. The time for posturing is over. We need fewer tactical missteps, like the Prime Minister’s strange speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. Don’t insult Canadians and NGOs by talking about doing more with less. Ditch the temptation to fall back on slogans and toss away the selfie stick.
The government can do a lot better. Canadians are waiting.