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  • Roland Paris

The Promise and Perils of Justin Trudeau's Foreign Policy

In Norman Hillmer and Philippe Lagassé, eds., Justin Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy (Palgrave, 2018), pp.17-29. Abstract: Justin Trudeau’s brand of internationalism, which blends liberal idealism and interest-based realism, has worked well for Canada in the past and stands to do so in the future. However, two perils loom. The first is the danger of a rupture in relations with the United States, whose unpredictable president has denounced some of America’s closest partners and questioned the value of existing trade accords, including the NAFTA. The second is less visible, but related to the first: the urgent demands of managing Canada-US relations could overshadow other important international priorities, which also require the attention of the prime minister and his cabinet. It remains to be seen if the Trudeau government will translate its ambitious foreign-policy vision into correspondingly ambitious action and results.


The absence of a plan to reinvest in the diplomatic and development instruments of Canadian foreign policy pointed to a broader question facing the government: how serious was Trudeau’s commitment to pursuing the ambitious foreign policy that he had repeatedly promised? This remains an open question. The prime minister himself is an internationalist—he believes that Canada should play an energetic, constructive role in the world. ... Yet, halfway through his first mandate as prime minister, it is unclear how he intends to translate these aspirations into a programme of action that would meet his own call for global leadership.... Canada has often provided this type of international leadership in the past. Louis St. Laurent played an important role in the creation of NATO after the Second World War. Lester Pearson was instrumental in developing the institution of peacekeeping. Pierre Elliott Trudeau tried to build a new dialogue between the developed and developing worlds and to achieve a global agreement on arms control, efforts that were not ultimately successful,but he did bring about a historic opening in Canada’s relations with China. Brian Mulroney negotiated the Canada-US and North American free trade agreements, concluded an acid rain accord, and was instrumental in the campaign against South African apartheid. Jean Chrétien and his foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, achieved an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines and played an important role in creating the International Criminal Court. Even Stephen Harper, who questioned Canada’s liberal internationalist traditions, launched a global initiative on maternal, newborn, and child health that achieved significant results and continues to this day. In all of these cases, Canadian leaders left their marks in international affairs by investing their own political and diplomatic influence in special initiatives to address specific international challenges.Justin Trudeau is now in a strong position to do the same. He benefits from an international profile and positive global reputation that may exceed that of any previous Canadian prime minister. He could use these assets to mobilize a broad coalition of like-minded countries, private foundations, advocacy groups, international agencies, and individual citizens in an organized campaign to address one or more of the global issues that matter to him.... Managing Canada-US relations is a vital interest, but it should not come at the expense of pursuing a strategic and energetic foreign policy beyond North America. This will require sustained attention from the prime minister and his cabinet, along a commitment to achieve substantive rather than merely symbolic results. Trudeau, in short, still needs to convert this ambitious foreign-policy language into concrete initiatives and achievements, translating aspiration into action....

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