Multilateralism in the Age of Trump

Canada under the Liberals seems poised to rejoin the world. But how does multilateralism work in the era of Trumpism and Brexit?

Under the recent Conservative dispensation in Ottawa, everything was pretty simple on foreign policy: speak loudly, often stridently, and carry not much of a stick. For the new Liberal government, everything is more complicated. Its electorate and the party membership expect something more. Early gestures—in keeping with the steady, optimistic tone Justin Trudeau projected during the last election—have been met with plaudits internationally. The second coming of Trudeaumania was on full display here in Japan during the prime minister’s May 2016 visit and he thereafter also adopted a new approach to China and at the United Nations General Assembly. Recent Canadian activism on Syria in the General Assembly, in the face of deadlock in the UN Security Council, also displays Canadian diplomatic creativity. Stephen Harper’s stern pronouncements on global dysfunction are not much missed. Even though some of them were insightful, nobody likes a scourge.

For the Liberal government, the easy part has been to eliminate the tone of superiority, which grated on allies and adversaries alike. Harder will be defining a distinctive policy Canadians can identify with that addresses today’s rapidly evolving global challenges. The world seems a less generous place than ten years ago, with Trumpism, Brexit and Angela Merkel more under attack than supported in Germany for her refugee policy. Consequently, for Canada, it will be more difficult than it was then to reposition itself globally.

Curiously, Harper’s shrewder international decisions have been underrated. Having started dead keen on military engagement in Afghanistan, a policy inherited from the previous Liberal government, he realized more rapidly than other western leaders that the campaign of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization there was not working. To his credit, having reckoned with the mounting death toll among Canadian troops and civilians, he acted decisively to cut short Canada’s over-ambitious military role in the Kandahar region, the epicentre of much of the country’s violence.

But, while the Afghanistan operation unfolded under a UNSC mandate—unlike the disastrous U.S.-UK takeover of Iraq in 2003—Harper’s distaste for the UN was palpable virtually from the outset of his parliamentary life. Instinctively inclined to band with anglosphere partners, he would have joined Tony Blair and George W. Bush in that calamitous action when in opposition, although his view changed over time as the scale of the ensuing disaster in Iraq became clear.

As to the UN, it warranted disdain if not contempt. His early stance toward Africa, perceived as actively hostile by African leaders and their diplomats in Ottawa, resulted in the defeat in competitive elections for a 2010 UNSC seat for Canada. During the campaign for this seat, the government prided itself on the principle of “not going along to get along.” It would have required at least some of Africa’s 53 votes to succeed in Canada’s bid. The humiliation of this defeat doubtless further soured Harper on the UN, for which he found only one positive use—as a forum for the promotion and, in part, delivery of his international initiative on maternal, newborn and child health, wisely carried forward by the new Trudeau government.

For those engaged in re-engineering Canada’s foreign policy, Seeking Order in Anarchy: Multi­lateralism as State Strategy, a splendid volume edited by Robert W. Murray, offers helpful perspective. This handsome book features an almost total Canadian cast of authors, across several generations, slicing and dicing multilateralism through a variety of lenses. The authors highlight a distinctive Canadian scholarship of international relations—literate, analytically acute and eschewing the academic fads that have narrowed the focus of political science in the United States. In an attempt to compete with natural sciences, many American IR scholars have espoused quantification and other techniques that, in excess, have proved both reductive and frequently unconvincing. Often mentioned in the volume is the English School of international relations scholarship, a close cousin of the best of Canadian IR scholarship, drawing on history and a multiplicity of methodologies with fine results, including high readability.

An excellent contribution from David R. Black and David J. Hornsby telescopes the practice of Canadian multilateralism through its mostly admirable policy on South Africa. Many years of successive prime ministers, culminating under Brian Mulroney, were strongly committed to defeating apartheid. Mulroney’s sharp disagreement on South Africa with fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher and his determination that apartheid should be overcome remind us that he was an exceptionally engaged and accomplished leader for Canada on the international stage. Black’s pages also remind us of the important role in Canadian IR scholarship of Dalhousie University (particularly that of Denis Stairs, cited in the volume) and of other universities located outside our three biggest cities.

Kim Richard Nossal, from his perch at Queen’s University, has contributed to this volume an incisive analysis of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s track record (2006–15) on foreign and defence policy. In it, he highlights the stark contrast between the ambitious rhetoric of the government and the means deployed to underpin the stated goals.

In the early 2000s, critics … worried that Liberal foreign policy had “metastasized from a do-good to a feel-good foreign policy” … It can be argued that the underlying behaviour that prompted such complaints did not change much with the change of government in 2006, which is why … [it] seemed so “old school”: the rhetorical flourishes that emanated from the Conservative government may have worked well to make those who heard them feel good about their country’s role in the world, but the rhetoric was actually not intended to achieve anything of substance in global politics. On the contrary, under the Conservatives, foreign policy increasingly became about nothing more than winning at the ballot box.

Helpfully, Mount Royal University’s Duane Bratt points out that Harper preferred some forums over others (e.g., the G7, over the G20 in which Canada’s voice was more diluted and within which Canada’s values were less fully shared). As well, Bratt highlights Harper’s enthusiasm for NATO—suggesting that his multilateral policy displayed those nuances that were attuned to his world view and policy preferences, invariably cast as muscular.

And the great Canadian scholar Tom Keating contributes a fine set of conclusions seeking to reconcile and illuminate the idea and often imperfect practice of multilateralism.

Does a more open, active and philosophically more generous Liberal foreign policy necessarily need to be more expensive? Not necessarily.

Hugh Segal’s tonic book, a much more personal and conversational affair, argues for a foreign policy rooted in values, and provides some examples of how this can work well in practice. When he was involved, it often did.

In Sri Lanka, a murderous 20-year-long struggle between the government and the brutal rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009 in a bloodbath that killed not only many of the rebels and their unlamented leader, but also tens of thousands of civilians. The increasingly thuggish, family-centred government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo proved unapologetic and worked hard to restrict political freedoms. Reprehensibly, the Commonwealth, in part by rote, chose to convene its 2013 heads of government meeting in Colombo, and it was against this backdrop that Segal’s tenure unfolded when he was a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group in 2010 and subsequently was charged with updating the Commonwealth’s role as Canada’s special envoy to lobby for implementation of the EPG’s conclusions.

Because most Commonwealth governments take a dim view of insurgencies and because the Tamil Tiger leadership had been so widely reviled, many Commonwealth capitals were indifferent to Sri Lanka’s political drift away from robust parliamentary traditions and went along with the plan. But the Queen, who serves as head of the Commonwealth, stayed away, as did the prime ministers of India, Canada and Mauritius. Segal, a Canadian senator at the time, had formed a convivial partnership with John Baird, then Canada’s foreign minister, and the book documents how well their mutually reinforcing advocacy worked to embarrass those providing comfort to Rajapaksa. Baird was at his best partnering with Segal, at his worst when his near pathological distrust of public servants and rhetorical bombast were on display.

Segal’s lines, fluent, lively and drawing on deeply held convictions of a distinctly progressive conservative variety, provide a bird’s-eye view of foreign policy that accrued credit for Canada. He reminds us that ideas matter, as does well-designed strategy. In providing both to the Harper government, he proved a fine representative for all Canadians on the world stage.

Where does this leave the Liberals on foreign policy? As Trudeau did domestically, so he has changed the tone internationally, from one of bare-knuckle “realism” to one of optimism and engagement. His government’s embrace of Syrian refugees captured the international imagination. We know that many consultative processes have been launched in Canada and that the UN is again in favour with the government. Meanwhile, Canada has ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the government is seeking to have it implemented country-wide, as is also happening elsewhere. But how will Canada convince UN members it has changed its spots?

Away from the headlines in Canada, there has been a growing recognition in western capitals that they have let the UN down by essentially resigning from UN peacekeeping after the serial disasters of Mogadishu, Rwanda and Srebrenica. They mostly left the task to the less well-equipped, sometimes less-well-prepared troops from developing countries, many of which are uncomfortable with the increasing adoption of mandates by the UNSC calling for the use of force when civilian lives are threatened.

This was the backdrop for the summit on peacekeeping that U.S. president Barack Obama convened at the UN in September 2015. He was seeking to encourage a return of western militaries to an activity that, while often risky, is also necessary to prevent local difficulties in geo-strategically insignificant countries from degenerating into violence, sexual predation, massacre and even genocide, and to fight regional instability and terrorism. Obama challenged those attending to recognize that standing back was hardly noble, particularly on the part of those equipped with most of the world’s high-end military capacity.

The new Canadian minister of defence, Harjit Sajjan, has been wrestling with the dilemma. There are no easy answers. A recent essay in The Globe and Mail by J.L. Granatstein points to sensible benchmarks for Canadian participation in specific UN peacekeeping operations. However, none of the current UN deployments fully meets all of them. Even the Golan Heights observer mission, which Canada anchored for many years, became a local theatre of war after Syria descended into interlocking civil conflicts in 2011. Should we hold back indefinitely, while our NATO allies are returning to the UN front lines? Should we rather take on some risks and work from within one or several of those peacekeeping missions to make them safer and more effective by deploying the high-tech capacities Canada possesses (that will fade into redundancy unless used), rather than thousands of infantry troops? This will be a tough call for the Cabinet, and an announcement seems imminent.

The UN has long been the preferred negotiating forum of developing countries on economic and trade issues. It is no secret why: they are in a majority and could outvote others on these issues in the General Assembly. As well, given the UN’s central role in decolonization, they experience the UN as theirs. Does this pose a risk to Canada? Hardly—the UN reaches most decisions by consensus and, besides, no major decisions leading directly to large price tags are negotiated at the UN. So we risk very little by re-engaging with the UN on such issues. And should we ignore developing countries, many of which emerged from colonial subjugation deeply wounded? I hope not.

The UN’s work in the development field has taken on a much more lucid tone in recent years. Its conference on financing for development in Addis Ababa in 2015 recognized that the primary financial vectors through which development occurs are those of internal resource mobilization, investment, trade and remittances sent home from workers toiling abroad. International assistance plays a more marginal role, albeit a critical one for the least-developed and conflict-affected countries. This took too long to be accepted, but now that it has been, sensible, useful work to implement the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is under way. Poverty will always be with us, in each of our societies. But extreme poverty, illiteracy, the denial of education, the absence of basic health services, water privation and much more can be vanquished.

The catastrophists, populists and soap-box artists will always find much about the UN to criticize. Like many supporters of the UN, I certainly do too. However, the key question is, how, in an era of renewed great power rivalry, but also an era of development progress, the UN could do better and in more targeted ways. On this grand challenge, Canada can make a very positive difference through ideas and targeted funding of development and peacebuilding programs.

We should play to established strengths, including our normative entrepreneurship, most evident recently through the ambition for Canada of then foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy in the late 1990s, which largely yielded the International Criminal Court and the Anti-Personnel Landmines Treaty, along with other initiatives such as the international commission that proposed the principle of responsibility to protect, and an enhanced focus within the Canadian government on economic factors in civil wars. All of this cost very little, and was widely noticed and mostly praised internationally.

More needs to be done on the normative front, not least on the vexed issue of migration, a phenomenon with which humankind has been at grips since its emergence and that today has become neuralgic in parts of Europe. When on a large scale, it is also viewed with apprehension in other parts of the world. Refugees benefit from a convention and a range of other laws. Migration (within regions and countries more often than it occurs intercontinentally) has been little addressed normatively. On this issue, Canada’s credibility is strong, although we need to recognize more than we generally do that our particular geographic situation has allowed us to regulate immigration more easily than has been the case for Europe or even Australia. As well, given events in Syria, respect for international humanitarian law is eroding. This trend urgently needs to be reversed.

Whether the world needs more Canada is debatable, but it has a more familiar Canada back. Our ideas, experience and potential action in a variety of fields marked by human distress, drawing on our civilians and uniformed capacities, are welcome internationally, and they need not break the bank. Now the government needs to decide how to deploy them.