PM AWOL on for­eign pol­icy

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - TERRY GLAVIN Com­ment from Van­cou­ver Is­land

In the cus­tom­ar­ily cyn­i­cal way that fed­eral election cam­paigns are or­ches­trated, it makes per­fectly good po­lit­i­cal sense, from a Lib­eral party point of view, that Justin Trudeau has refused to par­tic­i­pate in Thurs­day evening’s Maclean’s-Ci­tyTV fed­eral lead­ers’ de­bate. It isn’t in the pub­lic in­ter­est to be­have this way, of course, but the Lib­er­als aren’t keen on ex­pos­ing their in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter to any cam­paign mi­lieu, if they don’t have to, that they aren’t ef­fec­tively stage-manag­ing.

It makes even bet­ter sense, cyn­i­cally speak­ing, that Trudeau is refusing to sub­ject himself to the rigour of the Munk De­bate on For­eign Pol­icy that the other lead­ers are at­tend­ing Oct. 1 at Roy Thom­son Hall in Toronto.

There will be an empty chair in the place where Trudeau should be. This will make him look bad enough, but al­most cer­tainly not as bad as Trudeau would make himself look in the at­tempt to de­fend his for­eign pol­icy record, let alone ar­tic­u­late his plans ahead. For­eign pol­icy is a sub­ject the Lib­er­als would rather we not be thinking about at all.

Trudeau will join the other lead­ers for the govern­ment-ini­ti­ated Cana­dian De­bate Pro­duc­tion Part­ner­ship events — the English-lan­guage de­bate on Oct. 7, and the French-lan­guage de­bate on Oct. 10. Trudeau has also com­mit­ted to a sec­ond French-lan­guage fed­eral lead­ers’ de­bate Oct. 2 hosted by the TVA net­work, to which El­iz­a­beth May, whose Green party is do­ing quite well in Que­bec, has been left strangely un­in­vited.

For­eign pol­icy will come up at least tan­gen­tially in the three de­bates that all the lead­ers will at­tend, if for no other rea­son than it would be near to im­pos­si­ble to have Trudeau, May, Con­ser­va­tive Leader An­drew Scheer, the New Democrats’ Jag­meet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet ad­dress­ing vot­ers’ con­cerns with­out the matter loom­ing darkly in the room. You just can’t hive off for­eign pol­icy from the en­vi­ron­ment, the econ­omy, im­mi­gra­tion and refugees, na­tional se­cu­rity and so on.

It’s a pe­cu­liar thing, the way “for­eign pol­icy” tends to get set apart from other mat­ters of na­tional concern in Canada. It may be partly be­cause Canada didn’t gain full for­eign-pol­icy sovereignt­y from Bri­tain un­til the Statute of West­min­ster in 1931. It’s still con­sid­ered a field “best left to the ex­perts.” Maybe there’s a lin­ger­ing Up­per Canada def­er­ence to au­thor­ity in­volved, too. It could also be that dur­ing all those years when the United States was the world’s pre-emi­nent su­per­power, there wasn’t that much heavy lift­ing for us to do any­way. We’d just fol­low along be­hind the Amer­i­cans, reap­ing the eco­nomic re­wards the Amer­i­cans won by their en­force­ment of a global or­der con­ducive to our in­ter­ests. And in those times when we did fol­low our own course, we’d flat­ter our­selves for our bet­ter judg­ment, no matter how ir­rel­e­vant we were in the re­sult.

What­ever the case, we now find our­selves largely alone and ill-pre­pared for a world that is changing dra­mat­i­cally and rapidly for the worse. Long-stand­ing in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions, covenants and democratic al­liances are col­laps­ing in dis­ar­ray, and the Lib­er­als, who be­gan their term with the boast that “Canada is back,” and with plans to se­cure a wholly ir­rel­e­vant seat on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, are keep­ing Trudeau safely away from the one lead­ers’ de­bate where these global crises will be dis­cussed.

We anointed Trudeau the world’s Vogue mag­a­zine heart­throb cham­pion in the strug­gle over global warm­ing, and here we are, four years later, and there isn’t a hope in hell that Canada will meet its own com­mit­ments to the Paris Agree­ment on green­house gas emis­sions. The mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions we hold up as our best hope are re­duced to tabloid fod­der. Last month’s G7 meet­ing in Biar­ritz ended up more like a par­tic­u­larly dys­func­tional quar­terly meet­ing of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foun­da­tion, with G7 lead­ers scrap­ing up a few mil­lion dol­lars to throw at Brazil to help with the wild­fires de­vour­ing the Ama­zon, and Brazil’s creepy pres­i­dent, Jair Bol­sonaro, in­sult­ing the wife of French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron and barking at news­pa­per re­porters about the G7’s colo­nial­ism.

Mean­while, Macron has de­cided to break with Canada and his fellow Euro­pean Union mem­ber states by ad­vo­cat­ing a rap­proche­ment with Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, along the lines favoured by U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. The idea is to read­mit Rus­sia to the G7, more or less for­giv­ing and for­get­ting Putin’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and his in­va­sion of eastern Ukraine, to say noth­ing of the bloody air war he’s been wag­ing on civil­ians trapped in the few towns and cities in Syria still oc­cu­pied by forces op­posed to Syr­ian mass mur­derer Bashar Al-As­sad.

Democracy is in re­treat ev­ery­where. Among the lib­eral democ­ra­cies, even Bri­tain is in the throes of con­sti­tu­tional paral­y­sis. The re­treat be­gan in the early years of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. It’s be­come a rout with Trump in the White House, and China is tak­ing ev­ery ad­van­tage.

Bei­jing has be­come a bel­liger­ent and ex­pan­sion­ist po­lice state de­ter­mined to dis­place the United States and re­fash­ion the en­tire world or­der to its own pur­poses, draw­ing dozens of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries into its mil­i­ta­rized debt-trap Belt and Road project. The Hong Kong upris­ing is fast be­com­ing a full-scale democratic na­tional lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, and with Cana­dian hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spa­vor still held by Bei­jing, the Trudeau govern­ment has been afraid to choose a side.

The New Democrats and the Greens don’t re­ally have much to show for them­selves by way of fleshed-out for­eign-pol­icy plat­forms, at least not with poli­cies that are suit­able to the times. An­drew Scheer’s Con­ser­va­tives have ar­tic­u­lated a care­ful and prag­matic ap­proach that more or less mir­rors the few use­ful poli­cies that For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land has man­aged to force on the Lib­er­als’ for­eign-pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment. But the main job of any new govern­ment will be the hard work of dis­en­tan­gling Canada from a gen­er­a­tion of China trade en­thu­si­asts in the for­eign-pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment that has left Canada uniquely vul­ner­a­ble among the G7 coun­tries to Bei­jing’s bul­ly­ing and in­flu­ence-ped­dling and sub­ver­sion.

There’s more than enough press­ing is­sues to oc­cupy sev­eral fed­eral lead­ers’ de­bates on for­eign pol­icy, with all the lead­ers in the same room. But what­ever the pub­lic in­ter­est, or the na­tional in­ter­est, it’s not in the Lib­er­als’ in­ter­ests to have even one. So there won’t be.



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