National Column: Defensive action against new U.S. reality

by Chantal Hebert

Tuesday’s Liberal foreign policy statement and Wednesday’s national defence reset are interlocking pieces of the same political puzzle. To examine one in isolation from the other is to risk distorting the picture.

In different but related ways, both reflect a Donald Trump-imposed shift in Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

To measure the magnitude of that shift, compare the equivalent address delivered a little more than a year ago by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s predecessor, StÈphane Dion.

If one were to put the two speeches side by side, one would be hard-pressed to find evidence that they were delivered in the name of the same government over the short span of 14 months.

In a lecture at the University of Ottawa in March of last year, Dion sketched out what was then the government’s foreign policy approach. Only in passing did the text of his speech mention the United States. Ditto for Canada’s military obligations. And his remarks did not include a single reference to trade.

Dion did introduce a concept called “responsible conviction” as a new Liberal guiding foreign policy principle. In short, he argued that to be responsible, Canada had to be flexible in its pursuit on the international scene of its principles.

Based on Freeland’s homily, the words “responsible conviction” disappeared from Canada’s foreign policy lexicon along with the minister who coined them. It was not the only striking difference between the two speeches.

Although Freeland never mentioned Trump by name on Tuesday he was in the subtext of her entire speech. There were 19 references to America and/or the United States. Trade came up a dozen times – as did the military.

Freeland delivered her speech in the Commons, an occurrence so rare that veteran Parliament Hill watchers could not remember the last time that had happened. A government that picks a centre stage venue like the House is not one trying to fly under the radar.

Highlighting, as it did, a long list of fundamental differences between the foreign policy approach of the Trump White House and Canada, Freeland’s speech was rightly described as Canada’s most assertive foreign policy declaration since the advent of the new administration.

But whether that was a product of inevitability rather than a deliberate drawing of a line in the sand is an open question.

After all, at this time last year the foreign policy tenets Freeland enunciated on Tuesday were largely taken for granted on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. From trade to climate change to the war against Daesh, those tenets were common to the two countries and, quite literally, went without saying.

It should, moreover, be noted that this is hardly the first time Canada has stuck to a multilateral course on a top-of-mind policy issue in the face of a go-it-alone White House. The most recent example would be Jean ChrÈtien’s 2003 refusal to join the U.S.-led offensive on Iraq. Under the Liberals, Canada also signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change even as the U.S. declined to do so.

If Freeland articulated a new concept this week, it would be her contention that Canada needs to step up its military spending to help fill a Trump-induced vacuum in international leadership.

The government’s contention is that by pivoting to a military spending policy that’s in line with one of the most vocal demands of the current White House, it is doing only what it must to mitigate the administration’s potential damage to a multilateral world order.

That same theme was omnipresent on the occasion on Wednesday of the belated unveiling of a revamped defence policy. Over the next two decades, the government is committing to pour billions of dollars it did not budget for into the defence department.

National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan could not say where the money for all the new spending would be coming from. His policy paper is longer on spending choices then on strategic ones. But he was at pains to stress that the policy was based on made-in-Canada choices and not a response to external pressures.

You decide whether this week’s one-two Liberal foreign and defence policy punch showed the Trudeau government has an iron hand inside the velvet glove it has been sporting in its dealings with the Trump administration. Or whether the government is simply recasting its efforts to stay in the White House’s good books in a manner that minimizes the risks of raising hackles in Canadian public opinion.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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