“Canada’s Back”: Can the Trudeau Government Resuscitate Canadian Diplomatic Leadership?

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 first of 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 I:

Cold War Comfort  – The Way We Were

In the wake of a series of disturbing events which have left many fearing a generalized descent into chaos, it all seems so long ago and far away. Yet surviving baby boomers and most Gen-xers will remember the elegant simplicity and terrifying symmetry of the Cold War years, 1947-91. Best understood as a binary construction, the Cold War featured a planet divided neatly between the the Free (First) and the Communist (Second) Worlds, each with their respective client states and spheres of influence (in the Third World).  Competing  blocs were led by a metropolitan centre – the USA or USSR – and he world atlas of the day was dominated by large swathes of red and blue.

With its purges, parades and powerful, iconic imagery, the Cold War occupied vast tracts of the collective imagination. There were air raid sirens, basement and backyard bomb shelters, “duck and cover” exercises in public schools and regular headlines warning us of the ubiquitous  Communist threat. Rabid finger-pointing reached an apogee during the McCarthy hearings, and fear-mongering attained levels not to be seen again until after 9/11.

Beneath the gleaming surface of missiles, warheads, and intercontinental bombers on 24-hour standby, deterrence, containment and Mutually Assured Destruction ensured that the “Red Menace” and the “Capitalist Imperialists” remained at bay, albeit with daggers drawn. First strike, throw weight, launch on warning… power was measured in the kilotonnage of warheads and influence calibrated in numbers of hardened silos and submarine launched ballistic missiles. Terrifying prospects – ranging from urban incineration to radioactive clouds and black rain, to endless nuclear winter – made it difficult for  most people to “stop worrying and love the bomb”.

Ironically, that heavily armed peace provided the basis for almost a half century of Cold War comfort.  The apocalypse was averted. International relations, if  dumbed down and punctuated by proxy wars and occasional near catastrophes such as the  Berlin Blockade or Cuban Missile Crisis, were for the most part stable and orderly, patterned and predictable. Then as now, military establishments thrived, demonstrating convincingly that they work best when not used.

Still, a hoard of treasure squandered and plenty of blood was drawn.  Death squads and rebel groups were armed and trained. Nasty regimes were propped up, elected ones subverted, and whole generations deprived of their most basic rights. But many events seemed part of a script. Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between East and West Berlin was made famous in popular spy novels and films. The capture of a US Navy vessel, the USS Pueblo, during an intelligence mission off the North Korean coast, and the alleged attacks by the North Vietnamese against US destroyers, which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the ill-fated American military intervention across Southeast Asia, seemed to come right out of central casting. From time to time, sparks flew around the perimeter and conflicts – in Korea, Cuba, or Vietnam -threatened to escalate into something larger and more dangerous. In the end, however, most of the confrontations  abated and lid was screwed back on.

Subtle, it was not. Yet the bipolar world order model set out the agreed strategic geography and rules came to be easily enough understood. As the Cold War ebbed and flowed, with periods of détente interspersed with moments of intense drama, there developed a certain degree of familiarity and continuity.

That was the way we were, and at minimum the long superpower standoff did offer some scope for diplomacy. Canada rarely failed to step up to the plate.

As a helpful fixer, honest broker and pioneering peacekeeper, Canada played an over-sized international role in the second half of the 20th century. From the fashioning of post-war multilateral institutions to Suez, from North-South relations to the Earth Summit (UNCED) to the Land Mine Ban, Canadian diplomatic activism was palpable.

That all changed, however, under the Harper Conservatives. During that period the revolving door foreign ministry endured seven mainly indifferent, and sometimes antagonistic ministers. Over the course of a decade of retrogression and retreat, the Boy Scout morphed into a warrior nation wannabe, and Canada’s once widely respected brand was spoiled.

And now? Last fall, at Davos, in the UN, and elsewhere, PM Trudeau placed the international community on notice that “Canada’s back”.  Delivering substantially on that pledge will not be easy. While there have been changes in tone (the UN), approach (listening and lingering rather than lecturing and leaving) and direction (climate change), we have not yet seen much heavy lifting.

If this country is to resume the kind of diplomatic initiative for which it was once renown, including  the bid for a seat on the Security Council in 2021, full account will have to be taken of the three fundamental features of the transformed operating environment. These attributes will condition, if not determine the success or failure of future Canadian forays.

Those challenges, which  include intensified globalization, shifting power and the emergence of a  heteroopolar model of world order, will be examined in the next installment.