UN head’s visit another opportunity for Trudeau to rebrand Canada’s reputation

Canada Politics

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with reporters in Davos, Switzerland on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan]

Experts say Canada’s new government has a chance to continue rebranding the country’s international reputation when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visits the nation’s capital next week.

The head of the United Nations is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 11, to discuss topics including climate change and Canada’s role in the humanitarian and military responses to the crisis in Syria.

Trudeau has made significant efforts to distance his approach to foreign policy from that of his predecessor, promising to recommit the country to multilateralism and peacekeeping while pledging to re-examine Canada’s contribution to the fight against the Islamic State.

Paul Heinbecker, formerly Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations and chief foreign policy advisor to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, said the tone of Trudeau’s speeches on the world stage has been vastly different than those of Stephen Harper.

“The previous government was contemptuous of the UN and multilateralism,” he said.

He said the optimistic tone struck by Trudeau on the campaign trail has carried over into the prime minister’s foreign policy.

Trudeau again made headlines around the world after his appearance at the January meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, although many foreign media outlets dwelled more on his youthful visage than the substance of his words.

“I don’t think Canadians were voting for Trudeaumania,” Heinbecker said. “But the rest of the world seems to have caught it.”

Yet Canada’s place as a key part of the international order is far from secure. Last month, defence ministers from seven countries met in Paris to discuss the fight against the Islamic State — and Canada wasn’t invited, which some believed was due to its decision to pull fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition combat mission in Syria and Iraq.

With ongoing problems in military procurement and a relatively small population, Canada doesn’t have the military might of other powers, such as France and the United Kingdom, never mind the United States or Russia.

Yet Heinbecker said Canada still has a role to play in the international system, pointing to Canadian-led initiatives such as the treaty that banned the use of anti-personnel land mines, signed in 1997, and even the G20 collection of states, which he said former prime minister Paul Martin was a major player in creating.

“We have roughly the same population the British had when they ran their empire,“ he said. "There’s lots of things we can do. We’re not going to be decisive in a military conflict, but we have ideas and diplomatic experience to contribute.”

Ferry de Kerckhove, a former high-ranking Canadian diplomat and a now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s school of international affairs, said that while Trudeau’s personal popularity is clear, it’s not as obvious that the international community is paying attention to the change in tone.

“He came in with new rhetoric. The only problem is the rest of the world hasn’t really noticed as of yet,” he said.

The challenge for Trudeau as he meets with the UN secretary general, de Kerckhove said, is setting out a coherent foreign policy that is consistent with Canada’s history of multilateralism in a world where multilateral institutions are becoming less relevant.

"The UN of 1945 was not prepared to handle non-state actors and terrorist groups,” he said.

De Kerckhove said that, while the UN and other international groups have evolved, more decision-making and action is now being taken through voluntary coalitions, such as the one that bombed Libya in 2011 during that country’s civil war.

He noted that Trudeau took office at a particularly tumultuous time, with the spreading conflagration in Syria and Iraq and the accompanying humanitarian crisis across the Middle East just one of a litany of problems, and that some in the government seemed to be maintaining their campaign-trail positivity despite the seriousness of the situation.

“The reality of the world today doesn’t really seem to correspond with this blatant optimism. That’s really where you’ve got a disconnect,” he said.

“I think this government is slowly realizing that the world isn’t as pink and rosy as they would like it to be.”

While the rhetoric is different, de Kerckhove said, it’s not clear just how different Trudeau’s foreign policy will be in practice.

“For a long time, other than Bush’s war in Iraq, we’ve pretty much sided with the Americans,” he said.

“On multilateralism, it’s day and night. But at the end of the day, Canada will do what it is used to doing.”