John Ivison: Joly's 'pragmatic diplomacy' is just another Liberal foreign policy fantasy

The mix of boasting and romanticism is painfully embarrassing when contrasted with Canada’s capabilities on the world stage

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Every few years, a Liberal foreign affairs minister comes up with a new rallying cry that they dearly hope will become synonymous with a doctrine named after them.

Lloyd Axworthy gave birth to “responsibility to protect”; Stéphane Dion pioneered “responsible conviction”; and, Mélanie Joly has now proposed “pragmatic diplomacy.”

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In a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on Monday, Joly purported to lay out a new road map for Canadian foreign policy. It came across sounding more like a script from the sitcom Veep, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character, Selina Meyer, campaigned on the slogan: “Continuity with change,” chosen by the writers because “it was hollow and oxymoronic; it said absolutely nothing but seemed to have depth and meaning.”

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Much the same could be said for “pragmatic diplomacy.”

“We must be pragmatic and resist the temptation to divide the world into rigid ideological camps,” Joly said. “The world cannot be reduced into democracies versus autocracies.”

Tell that to Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff, who said in a Canadian Forces concept document obtained by Postmedia that China and Russia already consider themselves at war with the West, and the Forces must change to prepare for a long-term conflict. “We must accept this reality and adjust accordingly,” he said.

Joly’s contention is that Canada can play an outsized role by acting as a broker with countries in the global south who don’t want to side with the democracies or the autocracies, a kind of international marriage counsellor who would sympathize with spouses who helped to burn down the family home.

The global affairs minister’s inspiration was, she said, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose statue she saw gracing the halls of North Macedonia’s foreign ministry, a product of the former prime minister talking to non-aligned countries during the Cold War.

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“Canada is seen as a credible partner to engage countries in peace and stability,” she said. “To me that’s pragmatic diplomacy — keeping allies close, while being open to different perspectives as we encourage others to take a chance on peace. We cannot afford to close ourselves off from those with whom we do not agree.”

Where to begin? Is Canada really viewed as a credible partner? Leaked Pentagon documents from earlier this year revealed that not only was the U.S. concerned about Canada’s widespread military deficiencies, but other allies, including Germany, Turkey and Haiti, expressed their own frustrations. What’s more, Canada currently has zero credibility when it comes to the world’s most populous nations, China and India.

Joly said that she is “a door-opener, not a door-closer” and, “with rare exceptions,” she will talk with anyone.

She later added that Canada will demand that every country respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of others, “a defining principle of the UN Charter.”

Yet countries like Brazil, South Africa and India have all declined to criticize Russia at the UN, abstaining from crucial votes. Does that display a respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty?

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In her speech, Joly said the other principle guiding foreign policy is the defence of Canadian sovereignty. “We will increase our investments in our military through the defence policy update” that Defence Minister Bill Blair, is finalizing, she said.

Quite how that will be accomplished, given the government has said it will cut nearly $1 billion from the defence budget as part of its spending review, remains to be seen.

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Far from being pragmatic, Joly’s doctrine is prototypical Liberal foreign policy — a mix of boasting and romanticism that is painfully embarrassing when contrasted with Canada’s capabilities.

In 2004, veteran diplomat Allan Gotlieb gave a lecture in which he laid out the tension inherent in Canada’s foreign policy — an “idealistic vocation to promote democracy and reduce inequalities in the world and a realpolitik that puts the national interest ahead of all other considerations.”

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Governments have generally mixed both elements, but Liberals have tended to be dominated by the first trait; Conservatives by the second.

Gotlieb was critical of Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy for “swinging erratically” between the poles of aggressive realism and feel-good idealism.

He said Brian Mulroney’s bedrock principle was that the U.S. was an ally, not a power against which one sought a counterweight.

Under Jean Chrétien and Axworthy, he judged that Canada was once again an agent of change.

Stephen Harper was a case study in prickly realpolitik. When he came to power in 2006, he rejected multilateralism and the idea of Canada as an honest broker. He famously said he would not go along just to get along and defended Israel’s response in a 2006 conflict as “measured.”

In Harper’s linear mind, Israel was attacked and had a right to defend itself, as Canadians would have done in similar circumstances.

He abandoned the sense of moral superiority that permeated many of Canada’s international statements and positioned the country as a reliable ally, with the ability to assume responsibilities, which it did admirably in Afghanistan.

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Influence on the global stage was earned by leading, not lecturing, he said. “Canada is back, not because of rhetoric or electoral promises but because we are rebuilding our capability,” he said at a time when the Conservatives were in the middle of a four-year period of increasing military spending as a percentage of GDP.

Those words would ring hollow in the wake of the financial crisis, and a series of austerity budgets that saw five years of cuts to spending as a share of the economy. By 2014, it had tumbled below one per cent of GDP.

In early 2016, new Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was touring the world, reassuring world leaders that Canada was back and was ready to resume its compassionate and constructive voice after the Harper years — a presumption, given this country suffered 158 fatalities in Afghanistan, one of the highest casualty rates per capita among coalition members.

Trudeau promised to restore Canadian leadership to multilateral organizations like the UN and committed to take part in international peacekeeping missions — a high-water mark in rhetoric outpacing reality.

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Dion said that foreign policy would be principled but less dogmatic, with Canada playing the role of “fair-minded and determined peace-builder” by restoring relations with countries like Iran and Russia.

The foreign minister then talked about common interests with Russia in the Arctic, naively assuming he could negotiate with Vladimir Putin, who had already invaded Crimea.

Needless to say, “responsible conviction” lasted about as long as “pragmatic diplomacy” is likely to endure.

In her time as foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland offered glimpses of a more muscular approach, backed by hard power, rather than flower power.

As President Donald Trump flirted with isolationism, she suggested that Canada was obliged to step up, and she was clear that diplomacy and development needed to be backed up by capability.

Yet the increases in defence spending that followed in the “Strong, Secure and Engaged” policy document have failed to keep pace with the deteriorating geopolitical situation.

At the time, Freeland asked the question: “Is Canada an essential country at this time in the life of our planet?”

Notwithstanding the self-congratulatory statements emerging from the Global Affairs Department, the answer is a resounding “no.”

National Post

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