A week after he was elected prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau visited a church in Toronto to attend the funeral of a friend and national hero: Ken Taylor, the Canadian diplomat who, as ambassador to Iran during the hostage crisis, worked with the CIA to help six U.S. Embassy employees escape the country in 1980. Most Americans learned of the ruse from Ben Affleck’s 2012 film “Argo,” but in Canada, it has long been celebrated as the “Canadian Caper.” “It was a very Canadian thing to do,” eulogized Joe Clark, who was prime minister at the time of the rescue. “We acted on principle, we acted in friendship, and we acted quietly, professionally.”
When I interviewed Trudeau on the campaign trail earlier this year, he brought up Taylor’s gambit as an example of what Canada can do as a country that shares the United States’ values but not its low approval rating. It is “actually very helpful” that Canadians and Americans are perceived so differently, he said, “because there are places in the world where, for historical or ideological or other reasons, Americans are less than welcome.” In those no-go zones, Canada can score small victories.
Stephen Harper, the nine-year incumbent whom Trudeau just dethroned, had a more muscular vision for Canada’s role abroad. He told Vladimir Putin at a G-20 summit in November 2014 to “get out of Ukraine” and later sent Canadian military advisers to train Ukrainian troops. In the Middle East, he contributed fighter jets to the U.S.-led bombing campaigns in Libya in 2011 and Iraq beginning last year. These were odd moves for a country that spends less on defense than any other member of the G-7, and they never accomplished much.
After taking office this past week, Trudeau is now free to implement his retiring, helper-like foreign policy. It is a much meeker role — and exactly the right fit for Canada.
The idea that Canada should act as a global handyman gained currency after World War II. While its southern neighbor was emerging as a global hegemon, Canada found purpose in what came to be known as “helpful fixing.” As a middle power, the logic went, Ottawa could not call the shots in international relations. But it could leverage its diplomatic expertise, fair-minded reputation and moral authority to nudge various global players toward peace. It was a modest role for a modest country — more beaver than bald eagle.
The approach is most closely associated with Lester Pearson, who, as Canada’s foreign minister, earned a Nobel Peace Prize for defusing the 1956 Suez Crisis (in which Israel, Britain and France invaded Egypt) and engineering a neutral force to implement the cease-fire — the world’s first armed peacekeeping mission. As prime minister from 1963 to 1968, Pearson tried to work the same magic in Vietnam. While officially neutral in the conflict, Canada helped the United States behind the scenes, supplying materiel and even intelligence about North Vietnamese bombing targets.
But Pearson desperately wanted to broker a negotiated settlement. In 1965, he made a speech in Philadelphia calling on the United States to pause its bombing campaign in North Vietnam as the first step toward a peace deal. The White House didn’t appreciate this attempt at fixing. The next day at Camp David, President Lyndon Johnson berated Pearson: “You don’t come here and piss on my rug!”
Pearson’s successor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of Justin), came to office determined to put an end to such do-goodery. His government published a white paper explicitly denouncing the helpful-fixer role as “risky” and proposing instead that Canada would be better served by a narrower conception of its interests. In 1968, facing calls to do something about the war between the Nigerian government and the breakaway Biafra region, Trudeau responded with a callous, “Where’s Biafra?”
Yet Trudeau père ultimately embraced Pearson-style crusades, perhaps because he realized that they allowed Canada to punch above its weight. Near the end of his time in office, he embarked on a quixotic, globe-trotting peace initiative aimed at easing Cold War tensions and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Whom did he tap to advise him on the effort? Pearson’s son, Geoffrey, who was the Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union.
By that time, though, Ottawa’s moment of influence had passed, and the initiative went nowhere. The great powers didn’t seem to be listening to Canada anymore. As the country’s strength continued to wane throughout the 1980s and 1990s, so did its ambitions. Canada sent peacekeepers to a long list of war-torn countries, but in smaller and smaller numbers. As a percentage of GDP, foreign aid and military spending fell. Gone were the days when anyone would think of calling on a Canadian prime minister to negotiate an international dispute.
Harper wanted to restore Canada’s swagger after he was elected in 2006, and he puffed his chest most in the battle against Islamic extremism. Besides contributing Canadian military trainers and fighter jets to the campaign against the Islamic State, he reacted coolly to the nuclear deal with Iran and declined to lift Canadian sanctions on that country. This put Canada in the awkward position of refusing to back something supported by the United States, Britain, France and Germany, its allies. Through his words and deeds, Harper seemed to be trying to out-America America. Then, as this fall’s election neared, Harper’s party proposed banning public servants from wearing the niqab, a Muslim face-covering — a desperate move that seemed at odds with Canada’s multicultural values.
As emotionally satisfying and patriotically stirring as Harper’s quasi-neoconservative vision was, it never made much sense for a middle power like Canada. It felt a bit like strapping the body of a monster truck to the chassis of a station wagon. Under Harper, inflation-adjusted spending on both foreign aid and the military declined, so the result was a country that was muscular in rhetoric alone. Harper, for example, made sure that no country, including the United States, had less daylight between it and Israel than Canada did. Yet judged by what really matters — objective things such as military aid — President Obama was far more pro-Israel.
Justin Trudeau’s course correction would move Canada closer to its historical role as a helpful fixer. During the campaign, he pledged to restore relations with Iran. In a phone call the day after his election, he told Obama he would be withdrawing Canadian fighter jets from the campaign against the Islamic State. In lieu of force, Trudeau has proposed humanitarian assistance. He vowed to accept 25,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria by the end of the year and at one point suggested that Canada offer migrants its expertise on “how to face a winter in the mountains with the right kind of equipment.” Conservatives mocked the idea — “Trudeau: Drop parkas, not bombs,” read one tabloid headline — even as thousands of refugees were freezing in Lebanon. Yet there is something deeply realistic about a policy that accepts that while Canada can never destroy the Islamic State, it can help ease the suffering the group has caused.
How will Trudeau’s new foreign policy be received in Washington? Probably, as with most things Canadian, with indifference. The White House has said that it wishes Canada would remain part of the fight against the Islamic State, and all else being equal, it would surely prefer Canada’s half-dozen fighter jets to stay aloft. But given how meager Canada’s military contribution has been, Trudeau’s move won’t fray ties with the White House. Ironically, by reducing the opportunities to offend the United States, Canada’s decades-long decline in hard power has improved relations.
What has always mattered far more for the U.S.-Canadian relationship is trade, and politicians in Canada — unsurprisingly in a country with an economy based on exports — tend to be less protectionist than their American counterparts. Unlike Hillary Clinton, for example, Trudeau backed the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So depending on how Americans vote, it could be the United States’ reluctance to join international ventures, and not Canada’s, that sets back the friendship.
Pierre Trudeau once said of the United States, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Justin Trudeau will never be able to do anything about that fundamental disparity, of course, nor is he likely to extinguish the low-level resentment that underlies Canada’s relations with the United States — a sense that no matter how much Canada helps out in the world, its contributions will never be appreciated. In a speech to a joint session of Congress nine days after 9/11, President George W. Bush thanked a list of countries for their condolences and support, but somehow forgot Canada, even though Canadians had opened their homes to thousands of stranded U.S. travelers. The country felt slighted.
It’s a sentiment Trudeau shares. During our interview, he admitted to watching “Argo” and agreed with Ken Taylor that the film played down Canada’s true role in saving the Americans. “I like at least that they used a Canadian actor in Victor Garber to play him,” he said. “But it wasn’t all the CIA.” Yet as Trudeau also reminded me, Canadians “don’t go around tooting our own horn too much.”
If Canada resumes its role as a helpful fixer, it will be trading attention for efficacy. Expect less tough talk to dictators and fewer photo ops with Canadian combat troops abroad. But Canada should also have more to show for its efforts — even if no one notices.