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Trudeau's foreign policy vs. Harper's: There is little difference

What a splendid job Justin Trudeau is doing in carrying out Stephen Harper's foreign policy. Both men should be so proud.

There's been a lot of Liberal rhetoric about Canada being back on the world stage after a decade of Conservative darkness. Some of us aren't sure fighting wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, or being in the front lines of delivering aid to quake victims in Haiti and Ebola victims in Africa, or joining trade negotiations in both the Atlantic and the Pacific constituted an absence. Whatever. Justin Trudeau promised that his Liberal government would revive Canada's reputation as a caring nation committed to doing its share, and he's kept his word.

Canada is indeed doing its share – the same share that it contributed under the Conservatives.

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On Wednesday, the Liberals announced funding for sexual and reproductive health programs overseas, which builds on the maternal health initiative that Stephen Harper spearheaded in 2010. The Conservatives refused to fund abortion services; the Liberals, commendably, are filling that gap.

Related: Canada spending $650-million on reproductive rights, including fighting global anti-abortion laws

This week, Ottawa extended for another two years the military mission launched by the Conservatives to help Ukraine defend itself. On Justin Trudeau's watch, Canada is not only staying in Ukraine – it will also lead a battle group stationed in Latvia to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states. Canadian hostility to Vladimir Putin's ambitions is as pointed under the Liberals as it ever was under the Conservatives.

The Liberal government did end the air combat component of the mission against the Islamic State in Iraq. But the Liberals have preserved and expanded other components, such as aerial surveillance, training and medical aid. Canadian troops have even been spotted in the front lines. This country is every bit as committed to the fight against the Islamic State under Mr. Trudeau as it was under Mr. Harper.

Mr. Trudeau was determined to return Canada to its traditional role of peacekeeping. But thus far, we can't seem to find a peace to keep. The Liberals are cautious about contributing to peacekeeping efforts in Mali for the same reason the Conservatives refused a UN request to lead the mission in Congo: both are potential quagmires.

On trade, the Liberals secured the agreement that the Conservatives negotiated with the European Union. Now that the Trump administration has torpedoed the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Liberals hope to pursue trade agreements with Asian nations on a bilateral basis. The Conservatives signed Canada's first Asian free-trade agreement, with South Korea, and launched talks with India, Thailand and Japan. Conservatives and Liberals were once at daggers-drawn on the question of free trade; now each seeks to outdo the other in landing new deals.

Closer to home, Mr. Trudeau likes to boast that he has approved more pipelines than Stephen Harper ever did. It's a disingenuous claim, but no matter: Conservatives will be delighted that the Liberals have given the green light to expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from the oil sands to the Pacific Coast, even as President Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration's veto of the Keystone XL pipeline. Thanks to the joint efforts of Conservative and Liberal governments, we might even have a pipeline glut.

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Justin Trudeau also finds himself imitating Stephen Harper's approach of promising renewed and improved relations with the United States, only to end up in a defensive effort to limit damage from a potentially hostile administration in Washington.

The Liberals have been more aggressive than the Tories in welcoming Syrian refugees, though the Conservatives were actually ramping up plans to increase the intake in the final months of the Harper government.

And Mr. Trudeau's supporters will point to his government's commitment to fight climate change, which would be more impressive had the Liberals not adopted the Conservatives' targets for lowering emissions.

But all in all, it is virtually impossible to distinguish Justin Trudeau's foreign policy from Stephen Harper's. Such seamless bipartisan co-operation deserves high praise, though one suspects the current government might be uncomfortable receiving it.

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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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