The Trump ascendancy carries with it much anxiety and uncertainty, but of this we may be confident – on 20 January, under dark skies, the world collectively entered terra incognita.
PM Justin Trudeau is meeting with his cabinet in Calgary this week to assess options, and has tried to act pre-emptively by shuffling his cabinet. Liberal Party stalwart Stephane Dion was abruptly replaced by the celebrated and cosmopolitan Chrystia Freeland.
A study in contrasts
This was not unexpected. As Foreign Minister, Dion was engaged and knowledgeable, but emotionally tone deaf and intellectually rigid. He delved deeply into issues, read his briefs, and wrote many of his own speeches, but was not at ease as a communicator. He lacked an integrated policy agenda and as a result seemed locked perpetually in reactive mode. Unlike the more easily defined, tractable issues which he had previously mastered – climate change (Kyoto Accord, Green Shift) or the constitution (Clarity Act) – at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) he was unable to find his footing or leave his mark. Some files – Saudi military sales, human rights, arms control and disarmament, non-proliferation – were seriously mishandled. And his would-be ideological centre-piece, “Responsible Conviction”, was both obscure and never joined-up to a concrete plan similar to Lloyd Axworthy’s Human Security Agenda. Adapted from the work of Prussian sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, such a maxim undoubtedly appealed to Dion’s academic and bookish bent. But it was way over the top in Ottawa and stillborn politically.
Enter urban sophisticate Chrystia Freeland, an accomplished author, public speaker and journalist, at home in Davos and well-connected in major capitals. She is acutely attuned to the neoliberal political economy of globalization, and to the over-arching importance of addressing its downside – distributive inequality and intensified polarization. Although her fit with the prevailing mindset in Washington is not natural, concern over the fate of the shrinking middle class may provide common ground for discussions with her US interlocutors. Moreover, given the preponderance of former military figures in Trump’s cabinet, the naming former Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie as her Parliamentary Secretary, with special responsibility for Canada-US relations, appears inspired.
The 3Cs: Preparing for the Trump transformation
In this volatile, unpredictable and complex operating environment, the Freeland appointment may have been a necessary response to the incoming Trump administration, but it will not be sufficient. In terms of action, how might Canada’s new Foreign Minister best minimize risk, manage vulnerabilities and maximize opportunity?
Not easily. There are at least three major issue areas which require major work.