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Trudeau's foreign cabinet picks signal climate and trade priorities

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with his Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 4, 2015.

CHRIS WATTIE/AFP/Getty Images

Justin Trudeau intends to blend past Conservative and Liberal foreign policies into a single stream, with Canada once again a responsible environmental actor but also an aggressive free-trader.

By choosing Stéphane Dion as foreign minister, the new prime minister sends three messages. First, as a veteran of the Chrétien era and as a Quebecker, Mr. Dion's appointment signals a return to a more pacifist strain in Canadian foreign policy, with a reluctance to become involved in foreign military entanglements. Mr. Dion will, with conviction, withdraw Canadian forces from the fight against the Islamic State. Future U.S. presidents should expect a skeptical response when asking whether Canada is ready to join in the next military venture.

Unless, of course, that venture has been approved by the United Nations Security Council. Supporting the UN will once again be a priority of Canadian foreign policy, along with other multilateral forums such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. As well, expect a gradual rebalancing over time between the equal right of Israel to a secure existence and the Palestinian people to their own state.

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Above all, combatting climate change is now a top foreign, as well as domestic, priority. In Paris next month, Mr. Dion will negotiate Canada's renewed commitment to combat global warming. He, not Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, will head the cabinet committee on climate change. Fighting global warming has gone from last priority to first, as the federal government transitions from Conservative to Liberal.

The question of climate change "is the most important of the century," Mr. Dion told reporters after the inaugural cabinet meeting. He promised to work with his colleagues "to make sure that Canada will be part of a solution to give to this world a sustainable development."

But foreign ministers are hardly autonomous, especially in this day and age. "Trudeau will probably take a keen personal interest in foreign affairs, and that would include China given his father's legacy," said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

Pierre Trudeau's government recognized China in 1970. "Dion, having lived in France, and with dual citizenship, may be drawn more to Europe, and, possibly, like many Quebeckers, Latin America," Mr. Houlden predicted.

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and current foreign-affairs analyst, observes that Canadian foreign policy has always balanced national interest with what he calls constructive internationalism. Under Stephen Harper, national interest held sway. "Stéphane Dion represents constructive internationalism," said Mr. Robertson: a broad commitment to multilateral engagement, foreign aid (though little is known about the Minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau) and collective security – the Liberal orthodoxy crafted by Lester Pearson.

But Canada's stance won't be entirely Pearsonian – far from it. Mr. Trudeau has signalled in the past his strong support for the new government in Ukraine, a position buttressed by Chrystia Freeland, the new Minister of International Trade, whose background is partly Ukrainian. Canada under the Liberals will remain firmly committed to confronting Russian aggression and defending NATO's eastern flank, a key priority under Mr. Harper.

Ms. Freeland can also be expected to aggressively pursue and expand upon the trade priorities of the Harper government. Her first order of business will be to ratify the trade agreements the Conservatives negotiated with the European Union and the 11 other nations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She will seek to improve trade relations with China, while also pursuing other Asian and Pacific opportunities.

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"He's picked a very high-profile trade minister, who is articulate, savvy, with an international reputation," observes Fen Hampson, director of the Global Security and Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Many diplomats privately complained that, under the Conservatives, trade issues overwhelmed foreign policy. They hoped that with the Liberals back in charge trade would be returned to the back burner, Mr. Hampson observed. But by combining the veteran Mr. Dion with the aggressive newcomer Ms. Freeland, Mr. Trudeau is choosing not to choose between the Chrétien and Harper legacies.

"I think it's going to be a bit of both," said Mr. Hampson. "It's going to be salt and pepper."

At a press conference after the swearing-in, Mr. Trudeau hinted at this Liberal/Conservative duality, when he committed his government to "protecting Canada's interests … and yes, that means promoting our values and standing up for human rights," while also "ensuring that we can be a productive voice on the world stage."

Along with substance, expect also a change of style, an urbane cosmopolitanism that had gone missing in the Harper years and that will emphatically be back under this new team. Everyone who is anyone will be visiting Ottawa for an earnest discussion with (or lecture from) Mr. Dion, a scintillating debate with Ms. Freeland and a quiet but elegant dinner with Mr. Trudeau.

If style matters as much as substance in foreign affairs, then that could be the biggest change of all.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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