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Trudeau ‘masterful’ at soft power, falling short on hard power, says ex-diplomat Rowswell

The Liberal prime minister started off strong on the world stage, but has fallen out a global leadership role in the past few months, says the president of the Canadian International Council.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Chinese President Xi Jinping have led their countries during diplomatic feuds and trade wars concerning all three during the past few years. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade and courtesy of Gage Skidmore
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown himself to be one of the best-ever Canadian leaders at projecting “soft power” on the world stage, but his government’s lack of focus on “hard power” is being called into question as Canada sits in the crosshairs of the world’s two superpowers, says a former longtime diplomat.

“This is now where you’re seeing criticisms of us not having invested in hard power, because in this much more dangerous environment, many Canadians are looking to our position to the world and thinking, ‘My God, we have great powers now—obviously in much more of a conflictual situation with each other—but they are also being quite adversarial with us,’” said Ben Rowswell, the president of the Canadian International Council, a Toronto-based foreign affairs think tank, and a former high-level Canadian diplomat in Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and adviser in the PCO.

“China is really openly hostile to us now, and even Donald Trump himself, the president of the United States, looks on Canada as an adversary. So can we really rely on the rules-based international order as the principal strategy for Canada?” he said.

Canada needs to draw up a new strategy for foreign affairs that takes into account the shift in its relationship with the world’s two superpowers, and the way both of those powers have challenged the international rules and norms that form the basis of the soft power that Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) Liberals have yielded so well, he said.

Mr. Trudeau’s government has enjoyed “remarkable stability” compared to those atop other Liberal democracies, said Mr. Rowswell, pointing to the daily drama in the U.S. under Mr. Trump, the Brexit paralyzing the U.K., German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fight to hold onto power, protests besieging French President Emmanuel Macron, and the political gamesmanship in Australian federal politics.

The new strategy is needed to decide, “who do we band together with, and with what objectives?”

“There is now I think a bit of a sense that, where Trudeau had been leading on foreign policy issues, now events are starting to get out ahead of him, and his government is perhaps following a bit more,” he said.

Trudeau a master of soft power

“I think that Justin Trudeau really excels at exercising one form of power: that’s the power to convince other countries to want to work with us; the power that gives us the benefit of the doubt; the power that reinforces the rules-based international order,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured alongside Rwandan President Paul Kagame at a United Nations event, has excelled at rallying other countries around common causes, says a former diplomat who served under Liberal and Conservative governments. PhotPograph courtesy of United Nations

“There has rarely been, in Canadian history at least….someone who is so masterful at wielding that kind of [soft] power,” he said. “[Mr. Trudeau] has a clear vision for what Canada’s interests are, he’s got an ability to communicate that vision, he’s got an ability to line up what Canada does in the various crises that were dealt with, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, China, Venezuela.”

“He does not excel at hard power. He doesn’t invest a lot of time, effort, or resources into building up Canada’s hard power assets,” said Mr. Rowswell, including not just military spending, but the way Canadian forces have been deployed, and the government’s stagnant foreign aid spending.

Mr. Trudeau started off his term in 2015 with a strong foreign policy strategy and garnered momentum that lasted for several years, said Mr. Rowswell. The picture has looked less rosy since the end of the USMCA trade negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico in the fall, however, as Canada has become embroiled in a dispute between the U.S. and China after arresting Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The United States is seeking her extradition on allegations she helped her company to violate sanctions against Iran.

Defence, aid don’t live up to Liberal hype

Mr. Rowswell was Canada’s representative in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009-2010 under the previous Conservative government. “I had a pretty good view, up close and personal, of what Canadian military power can be mobilized to accomplish,” he said.

“With the 3,000 troops that we had, all concentrated in one single province in one single country, compare that with now,” he said, pointing to the fact that the roughly 2,000 Canadian Forces personnel currently deployed abroad are spread across missions throughout the world, including Ukraine, Latvia, Iraq, and Mali.

“In military terms, you’re not projecting a tremendous amount of power by dividing your forces in that way,” he said.

David Perry, a military analyst and vice president with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, however, said the Canadian Forces have been deployed by the Trudeau government in much the same way they were under the previous Conservative government after the Afghan war, and for much of recent Canadian history.

“Under this government, there has been far more continuity in our engagement in the world,” he said, noting the Liberals have carried on missions they inherited from the last government in Latvia, Ukraine, Iraq, and naval missions in support of NATO.

The Mali peacekeeping mission is the one notable Liberal military venture, he said. “The radical degree of change that this government has promised has not been delivered upon.”

The Liberals promised during the last election campaign to ramp up Canada’s contribution to international peacekeeping. The one-year mission in Mali, involving eight helicopters and about 250 members of the Canadian Forces, is the only major peacekeeping mission Canada has involved itself in since the Liberals came to power.

Mr. Perry said Mr. Trudeau has seemed to be less personally involved with the Canadian Forces, visiting Canadian troops less often than other prime ministers, and that could affect the way his government is perceived when it comes to its enthusiasm for military might.

“That gives the appearance of this government not being as interested in those types of hard power activities, even if, in substance, they’re not as different,” he said.

Canada’s foreign aid budget has remained relatively stagnant as well, limiting another form of hard power, said Mr. Rowswell. Spending money in other countries is a direct way to pull on economic levers there in a way that benefits Canada, he said.

Canada spent about 0.26 per cent of its gross national income on foreign aid in 2017, about the same as the year before adjusted for inflation, well below UN targets and Canada’s aid spending from previous decades, according to statistics from the OECD and an analysis by University of Ottawa professor Stephen Brown.

Diplomats energized by 2015 policies

Mr. Trudeau ran on the strongest foreign policy platform of the leaders in the last election, said Mr. Rowswell, and started off his term in 2015 with a bang by agreeing to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees in relatively short order, a move that “caught the world’s imagination” and gave Mr. Trudeau momentum on the world stage that lasted through the next two years.

Respondents in a 2017 Ipsos poll of 18,055 people in 25 countries named Canada at the top of the list of countries they saw as having a positive impact on world affairs at the time, with 81 per cent saying they thought Canada fit that description. Australia, Germany, and the United States were the next countries down on the list. Canada was given the same 81 per cent score in a similar Ipsos poll in 2016 that asked which countries would have a positive impact on world affairs in the next decade.

Mr. Trudeau started his term by telling Canada’s top diplomats they were free to speak their minds when warranted, and called them all to a meeting in Ottawa.   

“There was a real sense of energy at the time” among Canadian diplomats, said Mr. Rowswell.

“Trudeau came in with this really quite traditional, but coherent approach to foreign policy, which was to embrace the role that Canada had played in the rules-based international order. It was one that was very familiar to foreign policy practitioners such as myself.”

Soft power, in international relations, means being able to convince other countries to line up behind international commitments or objectives in your interest. Mr. Trudeau’s work on the Paris Climate Agreement, Syrian refugee crisis, his personal involvement in Canada’s bid for a UN Security Council seat, and his government’s role hosting the upcoming Feb. 4 Lima Group international meeting on Venezuela are all examples of the Trudeau government wielding its soft power, said Mr. Rowswell.

The Trudeau government also took the right approach with its pragmatic all-hands-on-deck effort to managing the U.S.-Canada relationship after President Donald Trump was elected, he said.

The Trudeau government did well in the deal it struck after Mr. Trump forced a renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement, said Matthew Kronby, trade lawyer with Borden Ladner Gervais and former top trade lawyer for the Canadian government who oversaw the Canada-Europe Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement negotiations.

“It’s not materially worse than the existing NAFTA, and in some respects it’s actually an improvement. So I give them a lot of credit for that,” he said, noting that Canada was at a disadvantage in the negotiations, up against a much larger trading partner in the U.S. that had shown itself willing to overturn the table of trade law norms that it had built in decades past under the Trump government.

The Trudeau government deserves some credit for finishing off the CETA and TPP trade agreements with Europe and a host of Pacific countries, he said. On the other hand, Mr. Kronby said he believed the government has allowed its response to U.S. steel tariffs to be dictated too much by domestic political pressures—though he acknowledged he represented some clients with a stake in that matter—and said the Trudeau Liberals may have been naive in trying to force China to accept progressive language around gender and labour rights in trade talks, though the latter is now a moot point with the two countries at odds.

Former Conservative defence and foreign minister Peter MacKay said Mr. Trudeau’s handling of foreign affairs, and trade in particular, had put Canada in a worse position than it was before the Liberals took power in 2015.  

“We’re kind of at the back of the room now for a lot of these countries who we were attempting to improve our relationship with,” he said, listing China, Saudi Arabia, India, and the United States as examples.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) and Global Affairs Canada started a diplomatic spat with the Saudi government last year by tweeting in protest of the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi. Canada’s government had courted Saudi business and investment before the feud.  

Election puts climate rhetoric, record to the test

Mr. Trudeau has been among the most vocal champions of curtailing greenhouse gases among world leaders, even if his own policies haven’t always lived up to his rhetoric. With the Liberal government’s carbon tax shaping up as a key election issue, Mr. Trudeau has a chance to win a mandate to push even further on that front abroad, said Mr. Rowswell.

“If he wins a new mandate from the citizens of Canada on what many outside of Canada would see as relatively ambitious climate change policies, that’s going to really invigorate his potential role on the international stage. And I think the question at that point will be, is he willing to don that mantle, and what will he do with that leadership?”



Peter Mazereeuw

Peter Mazereeuw is a deputy editor for The Hill Times covering politics, legislation, and the Senate.
- peter@hilltimes.com

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