By Patrice Dutil, July 13, 2023
It is hard to imagine a time when Canada’s presence in the world was more negligible than today. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited Washington on June 20 and then flew on to Egypt. There is no sign that thought was given in New Delhi to make even a symbolic stop in Ottawa. Evidently Modi was not impressed by Canada’s new Strategy for the Indo-Pacific region that promised focused attention on his country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2018 trip to India was nothing less than a diplomatic fiasco. The Canadian delegation had blundered by including a BC businessman convicted for trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister and Trudeau was ridiculed for dressing up in traditional Indian garb. Canada’s visit inflicted real discomfort and apparently the relationship is still in disrepair.
And yet it should not be. For fifty years, from 1955 to 2006, Canada donated almost $2.4B to India, supporting it through some of its darkest days. Canada is India’s 9th largest trading partner, importing $7B in goods and services from that country, and exporting $7.4B. There is every reason that a strong, even exceptional, relationship should exist between Canada and India. That the relationship has disintegrated beneath even a ceremonial stop-over in Ottawa is deeply concerning.
Modi’s recent flyby is hardly the only time Canada has got the cold shoulder in recent years.
In late 2021, Canada was left out of AUKUS, the defence and security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA focused on the acquisition of nuclear submarines. Even though AUKUS will be discussing plans highly relevant to Canada’s future security for the foreseeable future (Canada, most observers agree, needs nuclear submarines to police its waters in the arctic), the door has been closed.
A few months later, when Norway organized international talks with the Taliban in January 2022, Canada was not invited. (The US, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union attended). How was this even possible? Canada was at war with the Taliban from 2001 to 2011. 158 of Canada’s soldiers died there and we spent almost $4B in international assistance to the region. In the normal course Canada should have had a seat at the table.
In June 2023, Canada also declined to take place in NATO’s Air Defender 23 event, its largest ever air defence exercise. In its absence, Canada ranked alongside Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Iceland.
These successive diplomatic snubs point to real rot in how the government is defining its priorities. Earlier this year, Minister Melanie Joly was caught bragging about being invited to facilitate a peace process between separatist groups and the central government in Cameroon. Cameroon denied that they had invited a mediator and Canada’s diplomats were humiliated.
At the same time, Ottawa also strained its relations with the Dominican Republic over a bizarre plan to open an office there to coordinate assistance to Haiti. Santo Domingo denounced the plan publicly and Canada backed down and instead committed to boosting its offices on both sides of the Dominican-Haitian border. Despite calls by the USA and France to do more for Haiti, Canada’s diplomacy has accomplished next to nothing.
Where the government does feel comfortable is nitpicking flaws in the domestic policy of other countries. Over the past few months, Justin Trudeau was ridiculed for lecturing his Italian counterpart on her government’s LGBTQ policies. Undaunted, he did it again when the Polish prime minister visited Canada in early June.
Meanwhile, of course, leaks from Canada’s intelligence community outlining that Beijing has no trouble involving its agents on Canadian soil to sway opinion and, perhaps, votes, were met with blame shifting and stonewalling by the government.
What is going on here?
Even in the days of the British Empire, prime ministers such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Sir Robert Borden were engaged in the affairs of the world and were respected in the capitals that counted then: London and Washington. Mackenzie King’s government oversaw a massive turn towards the global community during the Second World War and the postwar era that saw the emergence of the United Nations. Louis St-Laurent engaged Canada in the affairs of the world, from fighting the Cold War in Korea and in numerous other countries, supporting those who fought the influence of the Soviet Union and simultaneously launching official development assistance and numerous peacekeeping activities. St-Laurent even visited India in 1954, and addressed the Indian parliament. Historically Canada presented a realist, straight-forward diplomacy that articulated the values of a shared humanity. No posturing or costumes were necessary.
Canadian prime ministers did their best to match those efforts over the next fifty years. Brian Mulroney’s tenure was particularly noteworthy.
Governments should get better at diplomacy as they age and gain experience. But something has gone amiss and Canada’s diplomacy does not match its strengths. Canada is the world’s second largest country, the eighth largest economy, the 35th most populous. Its military budget makes it either the 10th largest or the 15th largest, depending on the year (it is roughly comparable to Australia, Brazil, Italy, Israel, Iran, and the UAE). Canada would easily rank in the top ten if it lived up to our defence spending commitments (2% of GDP) required by NATO membership.
But those strengths are squandered. Canada consistently pretends to stand for values but the record shows that the world has had enough of listening to Canada’s empty virtue signalling. This was obvious when Canada’s bids to win elections to the United Nations Security Council were rejected by the world community in 2010 and 2020, but it is equally evident in its bilateral relations. The reality is that over the last thirty years, Canada’s prime ministers have not been ambitious in foreign policy matters. Jean Chrétien was too focused on cutting the government’s budget and slashed the budget allocated to foreign affairs. Paul Martin’s government seemed literally frozen, unable to articulate a coherent policy. Stephen Harper’s priorities were narrowly cast and Justin Trudeau’s idea of foreign policy has been nothing more than a mixed bag of well-intentioned but poorly received pronouncements and postures mostly designed to appease a portion of his electoral coalition.
At the same time, Canada has had no less than 16 ministers over the past thirty years—the average tenure less than two years in the job. The vast majority of them, including Ms. Joly, have never studied nor been involved in foreign affairs before attaining the important portfolio.
Our prime ministers and their chosen ministers have been lackluster in the pursuit of a strong foreign policy for decades. Ottawa’s foreign policy machinery has grown deaf and unable to communicate with the world and as a result, Canada’s strength has waned. From Top to bottom, a radical new approach is urgently needed for Canada’s foreign policy.
Patrice Dutil is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. His latest book is ‘Statesmen, Strategists and Diplomats: Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Making of Foreign Policy’ (UBC Press).