Trump’s agenda seems concentrated on drama, disruption and appeasing his stridently anti-internationalist base in recent months. Where does this leave America’s closest ally? At present, Canadian foreign policy is driven by three main factors: an all-encompassing focus on managing U.S.-Canadian relations, a fragile domestic coalition and managing uncertainty.
It’s all about the United States
Relations between the United States and Canada are so crucial that they often are treated as domestic rather than international affairs in the media. While the British may speak of their “special relationship” with the United States, almost every Canadian department and ministry interacts with their U.S. counterparts on a near-daily basis — something no other country can claim.
But the Trump administration highlights the obvious drawback to this arrangement: Domestic upheaval in the United States produces upheaval in Canada as well. And managing the fallout of the Trump administration has been all-consuming in terms of time, energy and effort when it comes to Canadian foreign policy. There simply is little capacity to go forward on the more internationalist vision of the Trudeau government — and the global leadership role outlined in the Liberal Party’s 2015 campaign.
There is a fragile cross-party consensus in Canada — but it might be fraying
Up to this point, the center-right Conservative Party and center-left New Democratic Party are in general agreement on the need to work together to address the threat of real economic damage Trump’s trade policies may bring to the Canadian economy. Although they may agree with the Trudeau government on little else, opposition Conservative politicians have been playing a role in the “doughnut strategy”– an attempt to work with all levels of the U.S. government in securing support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Recently, all parties in the Parliament unanimously condemned Trump’s tariffs, and they support retaliatory trade moves.
However, this consensus is fragile. The patience of Canadians and the opposition political parties won’t last forever. Canada’s next federal election is in the fall of 2019. If there is no NAFTA deal or if Canada’s economy is suffering from Trump’s policies, political parties are likely to capitalize on that — and sell themselves as the better deal-getters.
Alternatively, parties could make a play to Canadian nationalism and their ability to stand up to Trump. News that former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit the White House to meet with officials was greeted with raised eyebrows.
Trudeau has seen a boost in his popularity after the Charlevoix spat, but it is not clear what impact the election will have on Canada’s negotiating position.
Trump has left Canada dealing with significant uncertainty
Canadian foreign policy is driven to a great extent by the uncertainty resulting from Trump’s attacks on the international order. Canada’s prosperity and security are directly tied to a rules-based system, and multilateral frameworks such as NATO and the World Trade Organization. However, these frameworks have simultaneously come under attack from the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe and against electoral systems, an aggressive China in the Pacific, the rise of populism in the West and, of course, Trump’s policy of disruption.
Canada might be able to play a bigger international role — if it wants to
There’s another possibility — and perhaps a silver lining. The decline of U.S. global leadership also creates opportunities for Canada.
There are some small signs that countries that previously may have looked to the United States are looking to Canada as a partner. In 2017, Central and South American countries invited Canada to join the Lima Group, a multilateral group of countries formed to confront the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. (The United States has participated in these talks, but it has not formally joined the group.) There are trade talks between Canada and the European Union. And Canada and the remaining Trans-Pacific Partnership countries are working on ways to manage a rising China that seems increasingly willing to use its economic and military might to achieve its goals.
Canada’s popular foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, has addressed this evolving international landscape in two major speeches that outline the Trudeau government’s response to the new challenges to the global order. While trade diversification is part of the answer, Canada has three other major strategies:
First, a promise to increase defense spending to facilitate a more active role in the world. Already Canada has taken steps to enhance its independent cyber-offensive and -defensive capabilities, taken a leading role in NATO’s Operation Reassurance in Latvia, supported coalition efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and made a small contribution to the ongoing U.N. peace enforcement mission in Mali — albeit mostly to keep a domestic political promise about peacekeeping. And Canada is playing both a public and private role in trying to address the humanitarian disaster of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
A second step has been to preserve the idea of international cooperation by trying to broker consensus on noncontroversial issues where it is possible to find agreement. For example, Canada’s G-7 goals included protecting the oceans and increasing funding for girls’ education in developing countries.
Third, to address the challenge of populism, the Trudeau government is embarking on a domestic campaign to sell the merits of the international order. Although lost in the shadow of Trump’s theatrics, this was a major theme of the G-7 summit. Within Canada, Trudeau’s government has tied most of its domestic policies to the idea of growing “the middle class and those working hard to join them” — and this now includes foreign policy as well. But there is a real sense of the need to demonstrate globally how international summits lead to direct, positive outcomes for domestic populations.
All of this is easier said than done. With their country surrounded by three oceans and a (mostly) benign neighbor to the south, Canadians generally treat foreign policy and security issues as an afterthought — as do their political parties, for the most part. It is not clear that Canadians are willing to spend the money necessary to play a greater role abroad.
But it is clear, on this Canada Day, that the country is confronting new questions about its role in the world, and as America’s neighbor.
Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a former national security analyst. She is @stephaniecarvin on Twitter.