Not all Happiness on the Foreign Policy Front

News flash to the Trudeau government: There are disappointed Canadians out there, and the numbers are growing. If you’re looking for reasons why public support for the government in the foreign policy area is falling off significantly, you’ll find them reflected in the government’s record over the past year.

Since announcing last September at the UN that Canada was back, ready to re-engage, almost a year into the government’s mandate, there’s not much to signal the government’s real return. What’s the problem? Let’s lump this issue into three convenient groups.

First, there is the money question. The development assistance review of last summer was hobbled at the outset by the government’s decision not to increase the aid budget significantly. It’s not surprising that there is now dissent from significant voices in the development community. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) also continues to limp along with small programs and a significantly curtailed diplomatic presence because the government has yet to address the real structural requirements of an international engagement strategy.

Our military contributions abroad remain modest, and Canada’s return to peacekeeping, if it happens at all, looks like it will ignore the most recent UN lessons about peace operations; namely, that they address political rather than military problems, and require a substantial civilian component, backed up by adequate support resources. There are tough budgetary issues here and in several other areas, but no one seems to be addressing them or talking frankly to the Canadian public about them.

Second, there is the policy vacuum. Getting back in the international game involves the discussion, adoption, and articulation of sound policies in many areas, in East/West relations, the Middle East, conflict zones, etc. It also involves re-building some of the policy capacity and policy instruments that either atrophied or were eliminated in the Harper years, like GAC’s policy planning staff, the post-conflict reconstruction program, or our cultural relations initiatives abroad. Here, again, the record has been too few initiatives and no significant results.

Comforting tweets are no substitute for real policies backed up by policy instruments that can deliver on Canadian ideas and strengths. Does this reflect a communications problem in GAC or the PMO? Possibly, but suspicions are growing that tweets are only masking the inability of the government to articulate new ideas clearly.

Third, there’s a lack of dexterity in the government’s response to international events at a time when governments need to be quick on their feet. The recent Trump pronouncements offered opportunities to make sensible, non-antagonistic, constructive statements on immigration and refugees.

Granted, recent cabinet changes have been well received, and it’s early days for several ministers, but Canadian reactions to events abroad in recent weeks have triggered only a bevy of platitudes tossed into the Twittersphere. To whom are these intended to appeal? In the meantime, the government is losing its real audience, those other countries and leaders who are doing the heavy lifting on refugees, humanitarian relief, and other issues, and Canadians who believe that sound policies, well-considered, well-delivered, with timely messages of real relevance to Canadians, will count over the long run.

To those watching the evolution of the Canadian Foreign Service, there is an added irritant. Never has a government chosen to salt key Canadian diplomatic posts this quickly with this many ex-ministers, ex-officials, or party friends. The latest decision — accompanied by a PMO explanation that makes no sense — is to send the ex-Foreign Minister to assume three distinct jobs: ambassador to the European Union, ambassador to Germany, and coordinator of the government’s European policy. Coming at a time when the EU and Berlin jobs are difficult and demanding, for entirely different reasons, and when we have no discernible European policy besides our potential free trade deal, this decision will win support nowhere. Not in Brussels, certainly not in Berlin, and not among foreign policy specialists who know better. The EU or the Germans would do the government a favour by turning this proposal down.

It’s worth asking how and when this pattern will change. Possibly recent cabinet changes will bring fresh perspectives and new ideas. It’s also possible that the real urgency of the current international situation will finally sink in, and that we’ll move beyond anodyne appeals to the party base or saccharine tweets to the faithful. In times of anxiety and instability, Canadians could use a dose of solidity and rationality. What the government needs is a mid-course change of direction on the foreign policy and communications fronts, boosted by a little more nimbleness by our front-line leaders. The time for consultations is over. Let’s get on with governing.

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