Enough has already been said and written about the problems of the prime minister’s recent foray to India. The critics have justifiably not been kind. Even if we discount some of the more partisan allegations, there is substance to the central point that this was an ill-conceived and amateurish re-play of diaspora politics. Although it’s a stain on the prime minister and his government, the more important point is its significance for Canadian foreign policy.
The India trip is conclusive proof that certain people in the PMO are out of their depth in government. They may know something about electoral politics, but running an election is far different than running a country. And on the latter score, they’re largely responsible for the growing dissatisfaction of Canadians with the government on a host of issues. The problems created by an overbearing, controlling PMO, viewing every issue through the lens of political advantage, are no different in the Trudeau government than they were under Stephen Harper. That approach produces shallow policies and an untenable focus on communications rather than substance. It’s inherently ill-suited to balanced, serious governance. The PMO gang gambled on making diaspora politics the keynote of the India visit. They lost — to Canada’s longer-term detriment.
The problem with this trip goes far beyond the immediate damage to Canada’s potential relationship with India. Early on in the Trudeau government, cute socks and a photogenic entourage made headlines and opened doors. There’s no problem with that when kept in perspective, and it added a bit of pizazz to Canada’s normally staid image. But leaders also have to gain the respect and trust of their peers. This trip made the prime minister look superficial; a characteristic fatal to an international agenda. And it’s an impression that he must reverse before the forthcoming G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec. The world doesn’t need more of this.
The second and larger point about the visit, if it wasn’t already obvious, is that the India trip confirmed that Canadian foreign policy is essentially a Potemkin village. Behind the facades of visits, speeches, and photo ops, there’s not much there. A visit to one of the world’s rising powers should have been taken seriously, with thoughtful preparation leading to solid conclusions. This one wasn’t. Even worse, there was apparently little or no appreciation of the Indian government’s sensitivities, which should have been the starting point for visit planning.
Unfortunately, the India trip also reflects a larger issue; namely, the government’s faltering foreign policy performance, outside of its strength in Canada–US relations. Let’s give credit to the government for throwing energy and resources into the US file, even though we’re essentially playing defence against an erratic Trump administration that makes moving forward on any issue challenging. But other foreign policy files lie dormant. The government’s plan on peacekeeping is a continuing mystery. The development file received a slight shot in the arm with additional funding announced in the budget, but only enough to keep it from falling even further behind our peer group. Prior to the election of 2015, the prime minister assembled a distinguished group of foreign policy experts to act as an advisory panel. What happened to the bright ideas? Where is that group now, and what do they think?
What needs to be done? The avalanche of criticism over the India visit should signal to all around the prime minister that it’s time for a foreign policy re-set. This must be done before the G-7 summit and well before the United Nations votes on Canada’s bid for a Security Council seat, which is now more in doubt than ever.
The most obvious first step is change. After fiascos like the India visit, new blood must be brought in. The government should take those tough decisions now, and use the occasion to emphasize that it has a thoughtful, long-term game plan, led by ministers with appropriate mandates. It’s time for a serious statement about the road ahead, with perhaps a bit of contrition thrown in.
The second requirement is to put someone in charge of non-US foreign policy. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is up to her eye-balls in NAFTA and Canada–US relations in an odd division of ministerial duties in Global Affairs Canada (GAC) that leaves a lot of work undone. It’s tough to argue for pulling her from the US file. Instead, re-set the Global Affairs house over the short term to make her Minister of Canada–US Relations, an extraordinary appointment to meet the exceptional challenges we face south of the border. Then appoint a different person to handle global engagement and tackle a host of issues that badly need attention, from peacekeeping to the increasingly precarious state of East–West relations, to our relations with Africa, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region.
Third, to help the government re-build foreign policy, launch that long-overdue renewal process in Global Affairs Canada (that I’ve mentioned before). GAC is mired in a crisis long in the making, with no credible exit strategy, no concept of rejuvenating an emaciated foreign service, and bogged down by a top-heavy, inexperienced management cadre obsessed with process over substance. Changes must be made. A governing board should be put in place to ensure that renewal efforts are carried forward with sufficient vigour.
What the government doesn’t need is a raft of new strategy papers, a response that amounts to hiding an operational problem behind a creative writing exercise. We know what the problems are. Fix them.
The next few months are important. The government has time to reverse the currently adverse polling numbers, but only with a significant improvement in performance and a better communications strategy than Twitter feeds and photo-ops. The India trip may be the eureka moment for Justin Trudeau. Now it’s time for the prime minister to act.