Canada’s ‘undeclared’ foreign policy needs more focus: former diplomat

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once confidently declared that Canada’s back on the international stage. Five years later, though, some wonder where the country is exactly.

That is the assessment of foreign policy analysts like Bessma Momani, who says Canada’s foreign policy “is a bit undeclared.”

“People know us as a welcoming country, a tolerant country … so I think the foreign policy is viewed as generally tolerant, if not passive,” Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview with Global News.

But is passive what Canada is going for?

The Trudeau government has proudly promoted its feminist foreign policy to “advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” according to a government of Canada website.

Read more: Canada’s foreign aid to Afghanistan had some success but many failures, internal review says

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There is also an emphasis on female entrepreneurs. In his last foreign trip before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau told an audience in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that when women and girls have access to education, they lift up the communities.

“But all too often, they’re still missing out on those opportunities. Moving forward together towards greater prosperity means ensuring that no one gets left behind,” Trudeau said in February 2020.

While many believe it’s a worthy endeavour, there is concern the Trudeau government isn’t putting its money where its mouth is.

Canada’s international aid budget is only about $6 billion a year, which equalled 0.27 per cent of the country’s gross domestic income (GDI) in 2019. The OECD target for official development assistance (ODA) is 0.7 per cent of donors’ national income.

That subpar level of spending is why Momani is concerned about the direction Canada has chosen.

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The West Block: Foreign affairs minister opens up about international diplomacy during a global pandemic – Dec 20, 2020

“If you’re looking for a policy that you can achieve your goals with very little financial resources to it, that (feminist foreign policy) is not one that you should put your money into because it is an expensive endeavour and you’re going to face a lot of global resistance to it,” Momani told Global News.

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The June 2019 loss of the United Nations Security Council seat vote was widely seen as a blow to Canada’s brand, according to Randolph Mank, who served as Canadian ambassador to Indonesia and the Canadian high commissioner in both Pakistan and Malaysia.

Significant resources were spent on lobbying other nations for their votes, and now some believe Canada must refocus its attention on another cause.

Mank led Canada’s last major foreign policy review in 2003 and he thinks it might be time for another one.

Commentary: Canada needs a foreign policy review

“We’ve got the ability to make declarations, but we really need is the ability to pursue our interests. And to do that, you have to define them first of all,” Mank told Global News in a recent interview.

In their 2019 election campaign platform, the Liberals promised to establish the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government, something that seems to fit with our country’s past strengths, according to another foreign diplomat.

“I would point to participation in the group that’s trying to bring democracy to Venezuela, but that’s going to be a long, hard slog. And our efforts through the Ottawa Group to reform the World Trade Organization, to bring the United States back into it,” Colin Robertson, who has served as the Canadian consul general in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and New York, told Global News in an interview.

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Robertson’s advice would be for Canada to focus on climate change, democracy and the digital economy. Similar priorities have been announced by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Read more: Biden to face difficulties in U.S. foreign policy after Trump’s presidency

“A lot of the success of Canadian foreign policy is aligning ourselves to where U.S. presidents are going and then being helpful because the U.S. is still the leader of the free world,” Robertson said.

With the country still battling the COVID-19 pandemic and setting a course for an economic recovery, the government is likely unwilling to devote resources to a reset on foreign policy. That review might also have to wait until after the next election of a majority government so the department has the confidence it won’t be forced to change direction if there’s a change in government.

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