The revelation by Time Magazine this week that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appeared in brownface when he was 29 years old at the school where he was, perhaps appropriately, a drama teacher, and another incident in which he sang the Banana Boat song in blackface, has ricocheted around the world with predictable consternation at home and disbelief and mockery abroad.
The New York Times put the brownface story above the fold on the front page and ran it as the third-ranked story for hours Wednesday on what may be the most read news web site in the world. The BBC, which competes with the New York Times for that top news web spot, placed Trudeau’s multiple blunders at the top of its front page for most of Wednesday and then elevated it number one again Thursday morning when Global News revealed the existence of a video of the prime minister in blackface.
There have been predictions aplenty that Trudeau’s already deeply troubled goal of winning a seat on the UN Security Council is dead. After all, 54 of the 193 UN votes for that coveted Security Council position are held by African nations with another 13 votes coming from the Caribbean.
It was also immediately noted that Trudeau’s mindless theatrics will likely cost Canada dearly next time it tries to claim the moral high ground with North Korea, Iran, Russia, China and the U.S. For Beijing and for Donald Trump, in particular, these most recent revelations will be like manna from heaven, though the Chinese leadership and the U.S. president might miss the Biblical allusion.
Even The Hill, the Washington political insider’s daily, which seldom take much interest in Canada, has been making a deal of Trudeau’s racist makeup outrages.
If Twitter, that bastion of sane and insane public opinion, is to be believed, some Canadians are deeply concerned that the odious antics of the one-time defender of “peoplekind” might harm Canada’s reputation internationally.
WATCH BELOW: Late-night talk show takes jab at Trudeau’s blackface
In fact, after a burst of positive media coverage in his first two years in office, appearing in such places as the cover page of Marvel Comics as a superhero in Maple Leaf regalia, receiving high praise from the respected New York Times foreign affairs columnist, Nicholas Kristof, and garnering even higher praise from Rolling Stone magazine, Trudeau’s international standing has been in freefall for some time. Anyway, it was always based far more on Trudeau’s appearances than substance.
There was, of course, the cringe-worthy song and dance routine that Trudeau performed in India in February 2018, where he used his wife, Sophie, and their children as props, and for some reason felt it necessary to bring along an Indian chef from Vancouver to feed his hosts in India. Rather lost in that frenzy, the Modi government was actually far more upset over Team Trudeau twice inviting a convicted Sikh terrorist to public events with the Canadian prime minister in India and his tolerance of what Delhi considered to be pro-Khalistan Sikhs in his entourage.
Japan and Australia, which like India are generally regarded as Canada’s natural allies, were “gobsmacked” and felt “screwed” when Trudeau stiffed them at the East Asia Summit in Vietnam in November 2017. Their leaders were left with nothing to do at a news conference where they thought Ottawa was going to join them in signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. This big gaffe got little traction at home but still resonates in Tokyo and Sydney.
Ditto for an arguably more serious mistake. Long before the Huawei extradition saga, and China’s kidnapping of two Canadians to try to win the release of the Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of Chinese communications giant, Trudeau, whom the Chinese media has dubbed “Little Potato,” travelled halfway around the world in December 2017 aboard an RCAF Airbus to announce the formal start of bilateral talks to Ottawa-Beijing trade talks only to have Premier Li Keqiang cancel a joint news conference at the last moment because Trudeau had boasted about wanting to include human rights, work rules and gender equality in the trade discussions.
On the other hand, Trudeau did not win any accolades from his progressive backers, either, for failing to criticize China for throwing as many as one million members of its Uigher Muslim minority into reeducation camps and has tiptoed around the question of the Hong Kong police’s rough treatment of protesters demanding democracy in the former British colony.
Trudeau also got nowhere at the G7 after naming gender equality and women’s empowerment among Canada’s top priorities. Trump wanted nothing to do with such projects and, as a German diplomat told me at the time, the Merkel government was astounded that Canada considered this a major international issue when Brexit, Europe’s refugee crisis and what to do about Russia and China were on other leaders’ minds.
Other than the ephemeral dream of a trade deal with the Red Dragon, Trudeau’s major foreign policy initiative was to declare during the last election campaign that Canada would return to its roots as a leading peacekeeping nation. For a long time that formed a central part of the mantra that “Canada is back,” but after three years of dithering about how to do as little as possible while appearing to do something, only a few hundred blue berets were sent to Mali to provide medevac for UN forces there.
Even this small contribution ended up being a debacle. The highly trained, highly professional pilots, doctors, nurses and medics that Canada sent there were frustrated and deeply disappointed when the UN command in the Central Africa nation chose to only send them out on 11 rescue missions in 13 months. Left unsaid is that after so much hype, and with the troops home safely before the election, Canada has fewer peacekeepers abroad than at any time in many years.
WATCH BELOW: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau addressed the controversy surrounding images and a video of him in racist makeup
Despite all these travails, which make plain Trudeau’s international reputation has been grossly overstated at home for some time, Canadians’ myths about how loved and respected we are have often been slow to die. Against all the evidence, except for modest success on NAFTA, which was mostly about not losing our shirts to President Donald Trump, a poll published only a few days ago (and before the release of the racist images) had Trudeau leading Conservative leader Andrew Scheer by a wide margin as the politician best able to represent Canada internationally.
To paraphrase Donald Trump, when you are a celebrity, you can get away with stuff. Whether this is true overseas is a live question, where memories regarding slights, omissions and failure to deliver on promises are often remembered longer than they may be at home.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas