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What Trudeau needs to do to sustain international momentum

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from the media following an announcement in Sudbury, Ont. Thursday April 7, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and senior adviser, Dentons LLP.

In most countries, a shift from the right to a centre-left government would mean significant policy change.

But this is Canada, a place where the political spectrum runs from F to M as opposed to A to Z, as a former U.S. ambassador once observed.

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This is especially true in the broad arena of international policy, where the biggest change wrought by the Liberal majority victory has largely been in style and personality – from the dour and secretive Stephen Harper to the optimistic and open Justin Trudeau.

Actual policy – whether foreign, defence, trade or immigration – is mostly unchanged. The shifts, especially on climate and in the embrace of the 25,000 Syrian refugees, represent more of a restoration of traditional Canadian policies than real policy change, including a return to cabinet government and first ministers' meetings.

There is also the promise of re-engagement with China – and the likelihood of a free trade agreement there – as well as re-establishing relations with Russia – beginning with our shared interests in the Arctic. It is clear that this government is progressive but pragmatic – as witnessed by its willingness to forge ahead with the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Mr. Trudeau, more so than Mr. Harper, will be constantly gauging the public mood and appetite for change.

More than most nations, the Canadian sense of self depends on what we do and how we are seen to do internationally. About to mark six months since its election, the Trudeau government and its "sunny ways" enjoys broad support partly because of its visibly activist multilateralism.

But sustaining this momentum will require three things: care, commitment and cash.

The "bromance" with U.S. President Barack Obama should yield dividends on climate, border access and regulatory collaboration and, hopefully, a resolution on softwood lumber. But the Trudeau team's outreach to congressional leadership must continue if we are to deflect the rising voices of protectionism.

Restoring a dialogue with Canada's premiers should help advance our trade and climate goals. But deepening North American integration increasingly depends on initiative from state and provincial governments. Mr. Trudeau should invite premiers and governors to the upcoming North American leaders' summit to showcase his commitment to both trade and climate change.

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Before the summit can take place, the government has to deliver on its promise to lift visa requirements for Mexicans or President Enrique Peña Nieto will not come.

Similarly, international agenda overload is also a significant risk. Recognizing that what brings accolades internationally does not necessarily serve Canadian interests requires tough-minded decision-making. And then there is the ambitious domestic agenda: electoral reform, reconciliation with our indigenous peoples and, eventually, balancing the budget.

Getting this done will require considerable discipline and a senior civil service that is innovative and results-oriented. While there was no love lost between the Harper government and senior officials (mutual contempt best describes the relationship with the foreign service) there was comfort in compliance. Mr. Trudeau should not hesitate to make changes if he is to deliver on his agenda.

Finally, the Pearsonian internationalist reputation Mr. Trudeau aspires to restore depends on investments in hard power as well as soft power. We have yet to live down the reputation, as former foreign minister John Manley observed, of excusing ourselves to go to the washroom when the bill arrives.

For a new government, things have gone very well on the international circuit.

As a public relations device, Mr. Trudeau's post-election message to the world that Canada is back as a "compassionate and constructive voice in the world" was catchy and clever. It clearly differentiated him from Mr. Harper's mantra, that Canada would no longer "go along and get along with everyone else's agenda."

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Mr. Trudeau's multilateral meetings – G20, APEC, the Commonwealth, and then COP21 – went well, and the reviews from foreign chanceries were good, particularly for Canada's "helpful fixing" during the Paris climate negotiations. At Davos, Mr. Trudeau impressed the plutocrats with his energy and his artful remarks about wanting Canadians to be known as much for our "resourcefulness" as our resources, although it is our resources that pay the bills.

From flattering profiles in Vogue and on 60 Minutes to the accolade of APEC "hottie," no Canadian leader has enjoyed this kind of attention since Pierre Trudeau.

Justin Trudeau's celebrity status will fade. If he wants to leave a legacy, he needs creative initiatives buttressed by solid investments in defence, development and diplomacy. As his friend Barack Obama will tell him, the sands of time run quickly.

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About the Author
Former Canadian diplomat

A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is a Senior Advisor for Dentons LLP living in Ottawa, Canada and working with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He is Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. More

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