Canadians are supposed to be the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides of the international community. Canada historically has been an excellent multilateral player in a rules-based international order, the “go to” country to call for peacekeeping, and liberal internationalist to the core.
During the past year, however, Canada has seen its reputation as a steadfast and reliable partner take a sharp turn for the worse. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised after his Liberal Party was swept into office in 2015 that Canada’s “compassionate and contrastive voice in the world” was back. This would be reflected in Canada’s new stance on climate change, “progressive” agenda, expanding refugee programs, and increased participation at international forums.
Many new initiatives were initiated under the Trudeau government. Great effort went into fast-tracking negotiations for a free-trade deal with China. Advocacy for a “progressive” agenda meant including environmental, labor, and gender protections in all future trade agreements. However, the Trudeau Liberals’ idea of “progressive” excluded racial equality: One of Canada’s and the Trudeau government’s biggest problems and a long-standing complaint against Canada dating back to the League of Nations.
The shock of Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States upended Canada’s plans. The government abruptly had to adjust priorities to deal with a new US administration expressly committed to reform and recasting the role of the US in the world. Within the past year, bedrocks of the Canadian-US relationship such as NAFTA, NORAD and NATO have all been questioned by the US with the aim of renegotiating and/or updating all of them. In the confusion that followed, Canada found its long-standing foreign policy, methods and means obsolete.
Canada began the year 2017 with immense confidence in its ability to manipulate the US system and the Trump administration, which Canadian officials regarded as neophyte, incompetent, and overwhelmed by the task. “He’s going to have problems all over the world,” Canadian Ambassador to the US David MacNaughton said in December 2016, and arrogantly pointed to Canada’s value to the US, saying Trump would be “looking to us to show that he can actually get stuff done.”
Canadians initially got away with systematically undermining long-standing US government initiatives such as urging members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to bear a greater share of the defense burden at the NATO Summit in May. But eventually, the Trump administration “found its sea legs.”
Conflict with Trump administration
A very different Trump administration confronted the Trudeau government when Ottawa vociferously protested the anti-dumping complaint against Bombardier filed by Boeing in April. Canada lobbied not only the US Congress and White House and State Department officials, but also the UK government, which in turn protested to President Trump (because Bombardier had a manufacturing plant in Belfast). Canada’s planned purchase of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets for C$6.3 billion (US$5 billion) was suspended and ultimately canceled in retaliation.
When Prime Minister Trudeau met with President Trump in October, Canada’s foreign-policy conflicts with the US dominated the discussion. Trump explicitly called out Canada’s failure to share the defense burden by raising the issue of “mutual defense” and “mutual offense”. Canada’s failure to defend against threats from North Korea, Iran or the looming challenge from China became a major concern. Not participating in the US ballistic missile defense system while expecting US BMD protection for free was another irritant.
But the most contentious problem was Canada’s advocacy for Bombardier and its consequences for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Canada’s government was aware that Bombardier had been in talks with Chinese entities such as the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) to sell out lock, stock and barrel with “everything on the table” including highly sensitive know-how and technologies. Such a sale would have resulted in China gaining a Canadian foothold in an industry dominated by Boeing and Airbus, which are the largest export earners in North America and Europe, accounting for millions of high-paying jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
The intense lobbying campaign by Canada for Bombardier collapsed when the Chinese connection was revealed just before the Trump-Trudeau meeting. Bombardier’s deal would have enabled Chinese companies to import Chinese-manufactured civil aircraft as NAFTA products under existing rules. US and European allies made clear this would not stand.
The Bombardier incident raised grave doubts as to Canada’s motives for refusing to budge on the US demand for tightening NAFTA rules. Unless Canada caves on these issues, NAFTA will almost certainly be terminated in 2018 by the Trump administration.
Across the Pacific, Australia and Japan co-chaired an effort to revive and implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) without the US. Canada, without warning, just before the signing ceremony in Vietnam in November sabotaged the whole deal to the benefit of China. After this public insult to prominent Asian leaders at the presidential and prime-ministerial level, Canadian efforts to gain membership in the East Asia Summit met with uniform scorn and rejection by the same people.
Next, China rejected Canada’s overtures for fast-tracking a free-trade deal by abruptly canceling a pre-arranged press conference between Premier Li Keqiang and Trudeau when they met in December. Trudeau returned to Canada empty-handed, without even a single order for Bombardier’s C-Series, and failing to secure the release of any Canadians held by China. Then the Chinese newspaper Global Times lambasted Canada as “America’s ‘semi-colony.’”
Trudeau’s Liberal Party has made tackling climate change a priority for Canada. But two years into its mandate, the Trudeau government has still not rejoined the Kyoto Protocol, which Canada withdrew from in 2011. Canada’s greenhouse-gas intensity per GDP remains one of the highest in the industrialized world. Prominent Liberal Party members’ aspirations to triple Canada’s population by 2100 would add to this burden.
The Liberals made an all-out effort to admit 25,000 refugees from Syria during their first year in office. But since that time, Canada’s ostensible welcome for refugees abruptly ended when refugee claimants (many from Haiti or Somalia) began coming across the US-Canada border. The number of people making refugee claims (about 9,000 by October) is a tiny fraction of what European Union states such as Germany, Italy and Greece have absorbed, but that did not stop Canada from demanding US cooperation to stanch the flow.
Historically, Canada’s participation in United Nations peacekeeping and cooperation with its allies has supposedly been a major contribution. But Canada failed to contribute to a call for more NATO troops in Afghanistan, and contributions to UN peacekeeping turned out to be well below both historical and current expectations.
Finally, Canada was formally offered the opportunity to co-host with the United States a meeting of United Nations Command “Sending States” in November. Canada unilaterally invited China. Japan, still stinging from Canada’s sabotage and betrayal at TPP-11, rejected Canada’s overtures and declined to attend the mid-December meeting. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, sensing disaster, had to step in to reset Canada’s direction and ensure that the meeting, now postponed to January 16, stays on track.
This past year has seen Canada abuse the trust and credibility Canadians historically have enjoyed with their allies, to the point where basic Canadian motives and intentions are now openly questioned by formerly close allies from the Indo-Pacific region to Europe.
Let’s hope 2018 will bring Canada a fresh start.