There’s probably never a perfect time for a foreign policy review or reset. After all, the world just doesn’t stop and wait for us to get our act together.
On the other hand, Canada is probably long overdue for a serious conversation about foreign policy. The perfect storm of the last few weeks has illustrated the seriousness gap that exists between the challenges we face globally and our commitment to meaningfully addressing them.
For as much as the Trudeau government was embarrassed by its failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), perhaps that defeat was a blessing in disguise. Canada’s campaign was never about any bold or principled view of foreign policy, but rather about selling the Trudeau brand on the world stage.
We’re probably also more than a little guilty of believing our own hype about how respected Canada is around the world.
Winning the seat would have glossed over many of these problems. The government would have held it up as a triumph of foreign policy and these myths about our relevance and the benefits of the temporary UNSC seat would have lulled us back into complacency.
As it turned out, we barely had time to even digest the news of the UNSC vote.
Just two days after Canada’s loss, the Chinese government decided to escalate the situation concerning Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by formally charging the two men with various espionage charges.
It is patently obvious that the Two Michaels have been arbitrarily detained and arbitrarily charged. They are hostages, essentially, in China’s attempts to bully Canada into releasing Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and ensuring that she is not extradited to face charges in the U.S.
It was important for Prime Minister Trudeau to, as he did, reject any idea of a “prisoner swap” with China. Trudeau was correct to note that there is no equivalence between Meng’s plight and that of the two Michaels, and he was also correct to note the danger that would face other Canadians abroad were we to cave to China and vindicate its tactics.
But while Trudeau’s clarity on the matter was welcome, there’s still the question of what he is prepared to do — and what he can do — to free the Two Michaels. He also must decide on whether to allow Huawei to be involved in building Canada’s 5G network. There’s been some disturbing revelations recently about China’s interference in Canada — what will our response be to that?
That’s not to say there are easy answers to these questions. Much of this is going to involve closely working with allies, and even that comes with its own set of complications.
The arrest and the initiation of extradition proceedings against Meng is entirely legitimate. But given that we’re helping the Americans in their efforts to bring her to justice, it’s fair to note that the Americans have not been entirely helpful — or at least not the one who currently matters the most.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did issue a statement earlier in the week describing the charges against the Two Michael as “groundless” and demanding that China release the two men. But U.S. President Donald Trump had previously mused about using Meng as a “bargaining chip” in trade talks with China, and former national security adviser John Bolton has revealed that Trump had actually offered her release to China.
Here again, there are no easy answers for the problem of a capricious and imprudent U.S. president. This is not a uniquely Canadian problem, either.
There will always be international politics for us to navigate, but, conversely, there will always be opportunities for us to step up and to punch above our own weight. If we want allies to stand with us, we must also be prepared to stand with them. We must be a reliable ally and never been seen as a freeloader.
We definitely need some short-term foreign policy adjustments, but ultimately that won’t be enough. A thorough foreign policy review is very much in order.