Opinion: New assertive Canadian foreign policy

Opinion: New assertive Canadian foreign policy

The last decade has seen a dramatic transformation of Canada’s reputation and assertiveness abroad. Recent comments from Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau highlight just how fundamentally its foreign policy discourse has changed.

Since Conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006, what used to be regarded as America’s liberal and polite northern neighbour has turned increasingly assertive, and, some would say, un-Canadian abroad. His government has taken a tough stance on democracy in China and Russia, significantly increased defense spending and initiated plans to militarize the Arctic, although largely through policy papers rather than actual policy. Not only has the government very effectively changed an international reputation built up by decades of diplomacy. They have also successfully reformulated the foundation for the domestic foreign policy debate.

Liberals drift to the Tories

The Canadian transformation was recently highlighted when Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau offered his strong support for Israel during the offensive in Gaza. Condemning Hamas as a “terrorist organization” for their attacks on civilians, he emphasized Israel’s “right to defend itself and its people” and its “commitment to peace” at the same time as the White House expressed concerns over the mounting civilian casualties.

That the Liberal Party, traditionally the advocate of a balanced approach to the Middle East, is increasingly falling in line with the Tories extends further than the recent conflict in Gaza. Despite Trudeau’s talk of returning to Canada’s role as an “honest broker” in foreign affairs there has been little real opposition to the activist role played by Ottawa in world politics, most recently by Canada’s aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric in the face of the Ukrainian crisis.

Remaking reputation

The domestic foreign policy establishment has argued that the Harper government has “undermined decades of solid work at fashioning a balanced foreign policy” by its policies on Israel, foreign aid and peacekeeping. Traditionally seen as a liberal supporter of multilateralism, soft power and international peacekeeping, Ottawa under Harper instead been talking bilateralism, trade and military projection power.

They recently announced a highly publicized closure of CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency. Rather than being an independent government agency focused on aid, they will now be part of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, with the key priority being foreign trade. While the business community has been supportive of a stronger emphasis on economic relations abroad, the decision came as a blow for many Canadians’ international self-image.

A lasting change

Next year’s federal election might see Trudeau replace the increasingly unpopular Harper, but his foreign policy legacy is likely to stay. Canada’s post-war history has been marked by liberal achievements: from John Humphrey writing the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, playing a key role in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa, establishing international treaties such as the ban on anti-personnel mines, or helping establishing the International Criminal Court.

Recent history has been marked by assertiveness and international criticism, highlighted by the unprecedented failure to secure a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010, which was widely attributed to the new tunes from Ottawa.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).