“Canada’s Back” Can the Trudeau Government Resuscitate Canadian Diplomacy?

Blogger’s Note: The Liberal government headed by PM Justin Trudeau has launched defence and development reviews, but little is known of its intentions regarding diplomacy, international policy or grand strategy.  This is the final installment in a three part series on Canada’s role and place in a changing world – where we were, where we are, and where we may be going.


Part III:

Looking forward – What a changing world means for Canadian diplomacy and international policy

The first installment in this series set out the defining features of the transition from the Cold War to the globalization age. The second explored the implications of shifting power in an increasingly globalized and  heteropolar world order.

Since the last burst of Canadian international activism – the rolling out of Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s Human Security Agenda 1996 – 2000,   the operating environment for diplomacy has continued to evolve. Moreover, it has been a long time since Canadian leadership helped bring to fruition the Land Mine Ban Treaty, International Criminal Court, the Kimberly Process to curb trafficking in “blood diamonds”, and efforts to regulate the trade in small arms and address the problem of children in conflict.  The Canadian-convened International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty produced its influential Responsibility to Protect report in 2001, but in subsequent years this country has been largely absent from the world stage. With the exception of the Harper government’s controversial foray into maternal, newborn and child health and participation in ill-starred military interventions in Afghanistan and Libya, Canada’s once ubiquitous presence in the international arena became spectral.

The Trudeau government is fond of proclaiming that “Canada’s back”, and has taken some significant steps, both symbolic and substantive, to modify this country’s international engagement. That said, apart from the questionable involvement in Syria/Iraq and provocative deployments to the Baltic states, much of the heavy lifting has yet to begin.

As a point of departure, it will be incumbent upon Canadian policy makers to recognize that in the globalizing heteropolis, security is no longer a martial art. Instead, it is a function of long term, equitable and sustainable development – an imperative by no means limited to what was once referred to as the Third World. Security and development have become indivisible, two sides of same coin, with the welfare of the human person, rather than the state, as the central referent. It is all about the elimination of fear and want, and the meeting of basic needs in the absence of violence and unreasonable obstacles. Responsibility for advancing security and development, like the challenge of balancing asymmetrical power, must fall upon diplomacy rather than defence. The military is both too sharp, and too dull an instrument with which to address complex global issues.

Today, the most profound threats to mankind’s survival – as well as the possible solutions – are intimately related to science and technology. Climate change, diminishing biodiversity, urbanization, environmental collapse, pandemic disease… these “wicked” transnational challenges require the application of knowledge-based, technologically-enabled problem solving. Canada, however,  is woefully unprepared to respond.

What, then, to do?

  1. Launch a comprehensive international policy assessment, rolling in the ongoing defence and development reviews, and include politics, commerce and immigration. The 2005 international Policy Statement, despatched with extreme prejudice by the Conservatives following their election in 2006, provides a useful model. Engage Canadians in national conversation about grand strategy, identifying areas of both capacity and constraint in the quest to chart where we are going and how we will get there.
  2. Re-invest in diplomacy and development. Bring Canada’s world view into alignment with the government’s domestic vision. As the globalization nation, target inequality and polarization by assisting with governance, public administration, the rule of law, democratic institution-building and human rights support. Multilaterally, focus on the achievement of the UN SDGs. Get back into public diplomacy, international peacekeeping training, and return to active participation in peace support operations. To resume diplomatic leadership, initiate the negotiation of an international convention governing the management and stewardship of fresh water resources.
  3. Recast the mandate, mission and structure of Global Affairs Canada to create a central agency for the integration of international policy across government and the management of globalization. Functioning at a higher level will require some fundamental re-engineering, as well as legislative To better generate intelligence and to take full advantage of the vital connection to place, the reform package should feature a more flexible approach towards overseas representation, and a more prominent role for missions abroad.
  4. Re-build and reinforce relationships in Asia Pacific, which is re-emerging as the dynamic centre of the global economy. Canada’s connection to this vital region was severely mismanaged and run down by Conservatives, not only with giants China and India, but also with the promising ASEAN countries. Jump start the reconnection by making better use of Canada’s large Asian diaspora communities. Some useful new thinking on Canadian strategy has already begun.
  5. Champion international science and technology. Today, the planet’s most pressing perils have little to do with ideological rivalry, territorial ambition, religious extremism or political violence. The Trudeau government has pledged to restore science advice, but little is known about its commitment to science diplomacy, which should be the centre-piece in any resumption of progressive diplomatic activity.


Much was lost during the decade of darkness, but in adversity lies opportunity. For Canada to come back meaningfully on the world stage, our diplomacy and international policy will need a new look for fall.