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Timing is everything for a Canadian foreign policy review

by Randolph Mank

May 26, 2021

As published in the Hill Times

While the global pandemic could be seen as the catalyst for reviews everywhere - and it has indeed inflamed other global risks - the political moment has not yet arrived here.

Having been one of the quarterbacks of the last Canadian foreign policy review some 20 years ago, I empathize with government leaders and officials facing calls now for another one. Today's insiders must see these calls as profoundly lacking in situational awareness. We're in the middle of a pandemic after all. And the Trudeau government is well into its second mandate, with an election expected within a year.

Things looked different at the beginning of the millennium. Fresh from re-election for a third mandate, then prime minister Jean Chrétien issued instructions to his foreign minister to conduct a foreign policy "update." Below decks at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, we wondered how an update differed from a review but, with no answer, got on with it anyway. We took the previous review, 1995's Canada in the World, as the baseline, recruited more policy experts to the team, established a new unit to consult with Canadians, and launched an elaborate series of consultations across all government departments.

By way of context at the time, we were coming off a period of highly focused multilateral diplomacy in the 1990s, during which Canada had been advocating new global norms and values around human security including the use of landmines. Some of us saw the need to rebalance our foreign policy by focusing on well-defined vital interests pursued through key bilateral relationships to complement our multilateral diplomacy. This was informed by practice, not theory. During a previous decade working in and on our relations with Japan, I, for one, had observed Canadian ministers and officials sometimes more interested in persuading counterparts to support our global initiatives at the UN, than in trying, say, to increase market share for Canadian products or boost investment in the interests of job creation.

While the 1995 review had treated Canada-U.S. relations almost as an afterthought, we argued that it was time to recognize it as the central reality, while also deliberately diversifying our bilateral relationships, namely with G7 partners, plus China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. As a centrepiece, we suggested practical measures to modernize the Canada-U.S. border and make it more efficient for trade, while cracking down on illicit activity. We also suggested updating the bilateral security relationship by strengthening our NORAD and NATO commitments.

As sensible as we thought these proposals were, they were summarily rejected when first presented to the political level. While U.S. relations are obviously important, average Canadians don't want to hear about it, they advised. They want to hear about our proud traditions of peacekeeping and promotion of human rights. We were sent back to the drawing board.

By a tragic twist of fate, the awful attacks of 9/11 followed soon after that. The first reaction of our U.S. neighbours was to close the border with Canada, in the mistaken belief that the terrorists had come across it. Trucks were backed up for miles at borders, many laden with perishable goods. Quickly, the government realized that restoring the open border and keeping Canada-U.S. relations on track was indeed the key priority above all others. We and other departments were asked to come up quickly with relevant initiatives, which were then announced as $7.7-billion in new spending in the emergency budget of December 2001.

Taking over the G7 chair at the same time, Canada had also been literally directed by the U.S. to make counterterrorism and global security key deliverables in 2002. We were also off to war in Afghanistan. For those of us working on it, this meant that the actual substance of our foreign policy had thus, by force majeure, been updated with a sharper focus on vital interests, somewhat along the lines we had originally suggested.

But once a review process has started, it's difficult to stop. Forward momentum demanded a final document, nicely bound and published. A Liberal leadership struggle ensued. A new foreign minister was appointed in 2002. Those of us involved played on for two more years before being replaced by a fresh team in 2003. They, in turn, persevered to produce an International Policy Statement, finally published in 2005. But, with the Harper government's victory at the beginning of 2006, the document was promptly shelved and ignored, five years after its start.

So let this be a cautionary tale: timing is everything in foreign policy reviews, as in much else. The U.K. has recently conducted on driven by its historically important exit from the EU. The new U.S. administration is also shifting some foreign policy emphases.

Canada's case is different. While the global pandemic could be seen as the catalyst for reviews everywhere - and it has indeed inflamed other global risks - the political moment has not yet arrived here. The government is bound by its Strong, Secure, and Engaged defence and Feminist International Assistance policies generated earlier in its mandate. While I was among those previously calling for an overarching foreign policy review, one launched now would either be straightjacketed by these policies or risk incoherence with them.

In any case, changes are happening fast in the global arena. We don't need a review to take actions. Canada continues to track closely with the U.S., which is where our vital interests still lie for now. When the political timing is right, however, the government will have much to grapple with if it wishes to set forth meaningful new directions through a foreign policy review.