As Mélanie Joly pores over her briefing books and prepares for her next trip as Canada’s sixteenth foreign affairs minister, she could do worse than to read the advice that Jocelyn Coulon gave shortly after the October 2019 election to the “future” holder of the portfolio, as yet unnamed: “As minister, you direct several thousand diplomats who are Canada’s eyes and ears in the world.”
In a lengthy open letter, which first appeared in the pages of L’actualité, Coulon observed that successive governments had been neglecting “an unstoppable source of ideas that must be exploited”; instead, they gave priority to “diplomat-technicians” and marginalized the “diplomat-thinkers.” Ottawa was frequently responding to diaspora lobbies and ethnic communities, while neglecting the national interest, which requires a cold and dispassionate look at world affairs. “Our foreign policy is too often the victim of passions,” he wrote.
“It is false to claim, as you can often read or hear, that Canadian foreign policy is built above all on the defence and promotion of democratic values,” Coulon continued. “If that were the case, we would never have established relations with the former Soviet Union, China, and all the dictatorial regimes, which have for a long time constituted the bulk of the members of the international community.” This country needs to talk to everyone, even those we find disagreeable.
“The United States will remain Canada’s most important economic, diplomatic and military partner for the next century,” he went on. “Don’t give in to the temptation to give maudlin speeches on our determination to be independent of our southern neighbour. You will get applause but won’t be taken seriously, given our total dependence on the United States.”
Settling conflicts, maintaining the peace, the promotion of human rights, disarmament, welcoming refugees and immigrants, and now the fight against climate change — these have been at the heart of Canadian foreign policy. But, Coulon argued, all of them have also been the subject of useless and sterile ideological conflicts, which have damaged our image and reputation. “The challenge of the international order shakes our certainties,” Coulon concluded. “This subject is the most difficult you will have to deal with. It demands a deep reflection in order to understand the causes and respond with answers.”
Good advice or not, it would require a certain generosity of spirit for Joly to heed Coulon, who has been a rigorous critic of the prime minister and who previously described the MP for Ahuntsic-Cartierville as a politician “who posed no threat and was a Cabinet lightweight.” But she has vowed to work with “humility and audacity.”
Jocelyn Coulon is a realist rather than an idealist, one who argues that Canada needs to understand its national interest and deal with global truths rather than preach its values. He began his career as a journalist for Le Devoir, where he displayed a dazzling and encyclopedic knowledge of international affairs, always able to rattle off the names and policy positions of African leaders. He was also a long-time columnist with La Presse. In 2007, he ran for Parliament as a Liberal, losing an Outremont by-election to the New Democrats’ Tom Mulcair. After working for the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy and the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal, he became a campaign adviser to Justin Trudeau and, later, the principal policy adviser to Stéphane Dion when he was foreign affairs minister.
Dion gave twenty-six speeches when he held that portfolio — speeches that Coulon presumably worked on. In them, the minister called on this country to return to its peacekeeping role, to increase its aid and development budget, to begin a new dialogue with Russia, to re-engage with Africa, to deepen ties with China and other Asian countries, and to reinforce multilateralism through the United Nations.
In addition to geopolitical interests, Coulon shares several strengths and weaknesses with his former boss: he is brilliant and widely knowledgeable but brutally dismissive of those who disagree with him or who do not follow his advice. When Dion was dropped from cabinet in 2017 and exiled to Germany as ambassador, Coulon wrote Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau, a rigorous takedown of the PM’s foreign policy, compiling its shortcomings, broken promises, and failures. (In a rare achievement for a non-fiction book written in French, it was translated and published, in 2019, as Canada Is NOT Back: How Justin Trudeau Is In Over His Head on Foreign Policy.)
Coulon was not, however, blind to Dion’s flaws, noting, for example, that he “launched into the files of his colleagues, even taking the liberty of correcting them on occasion.” He had much harsher things to say about the prime minister, writing that Trudeau wavered on reversing Stephen Harper’s total support for Israel and returning to a more balanced position. “One day, he agreed to change Canada’s voting on a few resolutions,” Coulon wrote. “The next day, he disagreed with the idea.” As far as he was concerned, this was a leader who hesitated, procrastinated, and lacked curiosity about world affairs.
Coulon continues the critique with Le Canada à la recherche d’une identité internationale, a collection of pieces published between 2004 and 2020, including that L’actualité open letter. Throughout, he argues that we have abandoned the international role established for us by Lester Pearson and continued by Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien, and that Justin Trudeau has instead followed the path laid out by Harper.
As he has done before, Coulon mercilessly recounts the current prime minister’s sorry record, and he describes Canada’s damaged relationships with India, China, Russia, and the United States. His various topics reflect the position he held in Dion’s office, where he had particular responsibilities for multilateralism, peace operations, and Africa. He returns to these themes often, in pieces written both before and after his job in government.
Occasionally, the passage of time has not been kind to Coulon’s insights, such as when he urged Harper to avoid Stockwell Day for a foreign policy role and count instead on “brilliant MPs like Rahim Jaffer and Jason Kenney.” Another risk in publishing material like this is the danger of parroting oneself. Coulon reminds us again and again of Trudeau’s failure to deal with Africa and repeatedly attributes Canada’s inability to secure a coveted Security Council seat in June 2020 to his lack of interest in the continent. And if readers miss the statement that Canada has had “difficult if not execrable relations with the four world powers — the United States, Russia, China, and India” on page 183, they’ll see it again, nearly word for word, on page 186 and once more on page 194.
Like Coulon’s previous book, Le Canada à la recherche d’une identité internationale is an extended and sometimes repetitive lament for our retreat from the world and an argument for a new spirit of engagement. While the case is a solid one, caustic references to the Security Council rebuff as a “spectacular” defeat and “a personal failure for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,” along with descriptions of recent diplomacy as being marked by “imprecision, contradiction and unreadability,” make it unlikely that Coulon can convert Joly and her Foreign Affairs colleagues to his brand of realpolitik.