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Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy is rooted in nostalgia

Everything that is attractive about the prospect of Justin Trudeau leading this country, and everything about that prospect that is worrying, can be found in the Liberal Leader's nostalgic approach to Canada in the world.

Until recently, we had little idea of how Mr. Trudeau planned to manage foreign affairs should he win the next election. That's understandable; Canadians vote federally based on domestic issues: the economy, social policy, the environment. Any new leader will naturally focus first on these concerns.

Except that much of what appears to be domestic policy is actually foreign policy as well. Will the economy be better or worse off if we ratify new trade agreements with European and Asian nations, as the Conservatives advocate? Will meaningful action to fight climate change improve Canada's tarnished environmental reputation?

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Stephen Harper has discarded decades of Liberal and Progressive Conservative foreign-policy conventions. Canada under the Conservatives has reduced its role in multilateral forums, such as the United Nations and the Commonwealth. The Canadian reputation for even-handedness has given way to a stout defence of democracy in the face of possible aggression, whether in Israel or Ukraine. Humanitarian aid has become economic development aid. Trade has become the top priority at Foreign Affairs. And on Mr. Harper's watch, Canada abandoned its Kyoto commitment to combat climate change.

What does Mr. Trudeau think of all this? We got a pretty good answer to that question when he met the editorial board of Salam Toronto, an Iranian-Canadian newspaper, a few weeks ago. You can watch that half-hour interview here.

The first topic, naturally, was the Harper government's decision to close the Canadian embassy in Tehran and to expel Iranian diplomats from Canada. Mr. Trudeau strongly disagrees with the move.

"I'm of the school of international relations that says it's important to talk to each other," he told the meeting. "It's especially important to talk to regimes you disagree with." And he decried the "weakening of Canada's fairness and openness to the world."

He went on to outline what he called "the three pillars" of Canadian foreign policy, as he thinks it should be practised. The first he termed "classic diplomacy," which involves increasing Canada's engagement in multilateral forums, while trusting diplomats to represent this country's interests.

For too many years, under the Conservatives, diplomats have been turned into "partisan mouthpieces, and they get all their talking points from Ottawa," Mr. Trudeau lamented.

The second pillar, for Mr. Trudeau, is trade. Remarkably, he accused the Harper government of "dragging its feet on important trade files," and then rushing to get them completed in time for the next election.

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The third pillar is development, which Mr. Trudeau described as "the responsibility that Canada has to be creating opportunity and security around the world." He asserted that Canada could play a role in mediating conflict at times and in places when other countries could not, "because of Americans' imperialistic connections, because of Europeans' colonial powers."

"Canadians have been seen as being able to help," he concluded. "And over the past years we've lost that a little bit, and it's very important for me to get back to it."

Although he is young and exudes energy and optimism, Mr. Trudeau's appeal to Canadians is anchored in nostalgia – for a time when Canada was a fairer place, when we were seen and saw ourselves as more equitable, more conscientious, a compassionate society at home and a good neighbour in the world.

But there are problems with Mr. Trudeau's approach. First, it's a bit much for any Liberal to call someone else a laggard on trade. Mr. Trudeau's predecessors opposed free trade with the United States, reluctantly ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement only because it was a done deal, and then fled from any meaningful new agreements in the face of opposition from domestic interests. That was, for example, why Liberal governments backed away from a trade agreement with South Korea, which the Conservatives finally concluded earlier this year.

Second, Mr. Trudeau echoes one of the less pleasant aspects of Liberal foreign policy: a reflexive anti-Americanism coupled with a smug assertion of Canadian moral superiority.

But most important, the foreign policy that Mr. Trudeau wants to return to is based on a Canada that no longer exists acting in a world that no longer exists. If the Liberal leader is going to convince Canadians that he can be trusted to defend Canadian interests and to represent this country before the world as prime minister, then he will need to demonstrate a greater depth of understanding of this reality than he displayed at the Salam Toronto interview.

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This last point is such a large one, and so fundamental, that I'll examine it in a separate column, tomorrow.

John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.

Along with other CIGI experts, Mr. Ibbitson will be contributing at www.cigionline.org/blogs, where this post was originally published.

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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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