On the face of it, this week’s pronouncements on Canadian foreign and defence policy by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked a stunning change of direction. It was elected in 2015 on dovish promises to stop Canadian participation in bombing missions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and return to classical peacekeeping. During their first two years in office, the Liberals cut defence spending to less than one percent of GDP and dithered endlessly over where to send peacekeepers. But this week, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a startlingly hawkish speech announcing that Canada would henceforth use “hard power” to defend itself and stop “free riding” on American military protection. A day later, Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced a massive arms build-up over the next 20 years. What’s next, mandatory military service and a nuclear weapons program?
Don’t hold your breath. Freeland’s rhetoric was not aimed mainly at Canada’s enemies but at its friends – fellow progressives among the western powers who have concluded that they’re on their own as long as deranged President Donald Trump is making a mess of everything in Washington and turning the liberal world order upside down. As for Sajjan’s shopping list – warships, weaponized drones, more troops and special ops fighters, and more fighter jets than even the Harper Conservative “warmongers” wanted – almost all of it is backloaded to after the next election and beyond.
To be fair, Minister Freeland is probably made of sterner stuff than her predecessor at Global Affairs, the owly professor Stephane Dion. He lost his job and was banished to diplomatic obscurity in Europe just a few months ago, perhaps because he wouldn’t or couldn’t man up and lead the Liberal charge in this new martial direction. Freeland, by contrast, had been refreshingly belligerent in defending her Ukrainian kinsmen from the depredations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And there’s no sign of the bleeding-heart Trudeau Liberal who was mocked when she took offence at the mere discussion of radical Islam on Bill Maher’s Real Time or when she left CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) talks on the verge of tears.
Despite his squishy feminism and earnest preference for sunnier ways, Trudeau has occasionally shown some backbone, and a temper, such as when he beat up Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in a charity boxing match and charged across the floor of the House of Commons, elbowed a female NDP MP out of the way, and frog-marched another MP to his seat for a vote. So it may not have been too difficult for the hawks in his cabinet to convince him that the doves should be caged. Especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued her recent invitation to the western powers to dump Trump and form a new alliance without the U.S., at least until America comes to its senses on international trade and climate change.
Still, what’s a liberal urban millennial hipster to make of the government they voted for? They didn’t sign on for hard power and an arms build-up (or oil sands pipelines, but that’s another story). Chances are they like Freeland standing up to Putin and Russian aggression, as long as it doesn’t cost any blood or treasure. And they may be reassured that Trudeau still holds “legendary revolutionary” Fidel Castro in high esteem. If the new foreign and defence policy puts some daylight between Canada and Trumpland, so much the better. And on the promise that mattered above all the ones he’s broken, he is apparently going to deliver on the legalization of marijuana.
Freeland and Sajjan have probably not gone rogue. Indeed, the boys and girls in short pants in the Trudeau PMO are undoubtedly just as top-down in managing the ministries as they were in Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s time. However tempting it is for conservatives to go on believing the former drama teacher is in way over his head, it is highly improbable that he takes instruction from his top ministers.
Besides, the proposed shift in policy is not as dramatic as the flurry of announcements would suggest. For one, multilateralism is at the core of Canada’s foreign policy, and is not a new concept. Whether governed by Liberals or Conservatives, as a middle power Canada has no choice but to subscribe to multilateralism. However, Canada’s multilateralism may evolve and become more reliant on NATO and other non-American western allies.
In her speech, Freeland called out Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and questioned his commitment to carry the mantle of American global leadership. But even if Freeland’s jab at Trump makes progressives feel good, America will nevertheless remain central to NATO and western strategic planning. On the flipside, despite criticizing Trump, the Canadian government is effectively capitulating to his demand that other NATO nations “pay up.”
Some say they won’t believe the Liberals renewed commitment to Canada’s military until they see concrete results. As Conservative MP and former Canadian military helicopter pilot Erin O’Toole put it, “future behavior is judged by past action, and the Liberals have repeatedly cut defence and backed away from global work with our allies.” He makes a fair point. Canada indeed pulled out of the aerial combat mission against ISIS (although the Liberals did substantially increase Canada’s on-the-ground support for Iraqi troop training), and the most recent federal budget gutted current defence spending even more.
Freeland has provided some hope for those who favour a Canadian foreign policy based on a principled approach and unwavering commitment to NATO. But they will likely be disappointed unless the Liberals are confident a plurality of Canadian voters are on board with talking louder and carrying a bigger stick on the world stage. They rarely are, and this week’s announcements were all talk. Acquiring the bigger stick and using it will be the real test of this apparent Liberal volte-face on foreign and defence policy. The better bet is that it will last no longer than the Trump presidency.