Business Not At All As Usual: Putting the Trudeau Government’s Foreign and Defence Policy Statements into Perspective

In the past, there was a certain clockwork regularity to the process of reviewing Canadian foreign and defence policy: when a new prime minister came to power, aspects of Canada’s international policy would immediately be reviewed. Lester B. Pearson published a defence review in 1964 after the Liberals won the 1963 election. After he won the leadership of the Liberal party in 1968, Pierre Elliott Trudeau published a foreign policy review in 1970 and a defence policy in 1971. When he became prime minister in 1984, Brian Mulroney published a foreign policy review in 1985 and a defence policy in 1987. After the Liberals regained government in 1993, Jean Chrétien issued foreign and defence policy reviews in 1995. His successor, Paul Martin, Jr. published his International Policy Statement in 2005. Stephen Harper published a defence policy in 2008, but broke the tradition of launching a foreign policy review: he decided that there was no need for a foreign policy review.

In theory, articulating periodic statements of a country’s foreign and defence policy makes a great deal of sense, even for a non-great power like Canada. After all, world politics is in a constant state of evolution, and subjecting policy to a formal review provides an opportunity to take account of changes and to subject the accepted verities of one period to scrutiny. Policy reviews set up a feedback loop that enables a government to adjust its international policies to ensure that its global strategy — and its spending — will keep pace with change.

This might be the theory, but all of the foreign and defence policy reviews launched by Canadian leaders since the 1960s — and the statements of policy issued at the end — were not designed for any strategic purpose. That much is clear from the fact that not a single prime minister between 1964 and 2015 ever revisited the foreign or defence policy reviews launched at the outset of his ministry, even though Pierre Trudeau was in office for 16 years, Chrétien in office for ten years, and Mulroney and Harper for nine years. Rather, the primary purpose of these reviews was purely political: to demonstrate just how different the new government was from its predecessor.

When Justin Trudeau and the Liberals came to power in November 2015, he immediately launched a review of defence policy. Like Harper, he chose not to launch a foreign policy review.

In early 2016, it looked as though history was going to repeat itself: the Trudeau government would publish its defence policy review later that year. It would of course establish that the defence policy of the Trudeau Liberals was indeed different from the defence policy of the Harper Conservatives. While in opposition the Trudeau Liberals had made much of returning Canada to a mythical peacekeeping past, and after taking power in 2015 the new government had bruited the idea of a major deployment of peacekeeping troops to an operation in Africa, widely anticipated to be Mali. It was expected that the defence review would embrace that return as a key feature of Canadian defence policy for the next decade.

It was expected that following a cross-country consultation in the summer of 2016, the review would be published in the fall. The new defence review, in glossy four-colour format and featuring catchy slogans ripped from a Mad Men episode, would then prominently adorn desks in National Defence Headquarters — and then be promptly forgotten about for the remainder of the Trudeau fils ministry.

And then the normal sequence of events was disrupted by the rise of Donald J. Trump, whose hostile takeover of the Republican Party was followed by his election in November.

The Trump insurgency was seen by the Trudeau government in Ottawa as a major threat to Canadian interests. For Trump promised to overturn the key pillars of Canada’s approach to global politics since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Of considerable concern was Trump’s constant slagging of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete” during the election campaign; his disparagement of traditional American friends and allies for “ripping off” the United States by not spending enough on defence; and his denigration of international trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular.

The response of the government in Ottawa to Trump’s rise was immediate. Trudeau shuffled his cabinet, giving the foreign affairs portfolio to Chrystia Freeland, the trade minister, and sought to involve a number of former policy-makers, including Brian Mulroney, in the formulation of policy towards the United States.

The shift also had an impact on the defence review. The Trudeau government slowed the review right down to a crawl. The timing of the defence review release was pushed back, first beyond Trump’s inauguration in January, and then, when the new president made it clear that his America First rhetoric in 2016 was not just a campaign shtick, into the spring.

In the meantime, the idea of a major African peacekeeping operation was taken off the table. Instead, the government moved ahead with a major deployment to Latvia as part of a broader effort by NATO at reassurance in Central Europe. It continued a major operation in Iraq with the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

It was not until June 2017 that the defence review was ready for release. However, the Trudeau government decided that the defence review needed to be placed in a broader foreign policy context, so on 6 June, two days before the release of the defence review, the minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, rose in the House of Commons to deliver a major foreign policy speech that sought to frame Canada’s broad approach to global politics in an era when American leadership and support for the liberal international order could no longer be taken for granted.

Then, on 8 June, the minister of national defence, Harjit Sajjan, unveiled the government’s defence policy. To be sure, the Mad Men approach was still evident — Canadian defence, the review assured us, as all about being Strong, Secure, Engaged (“strong at home, secure in North America, engaged in the world”).

But this was a defence policy written for the Trumpian era. It promised a massive increase in Canadian defence spending. It promised that the size of the Canadian Armed Forces would be increased. It promised that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) would be modernized.

And in the minister’s announcement, no mention was made of returning to Canada’s peacekeeping past. Instead, Sajjan insisted that Canada needed to play a stronger role in NATO, particularly in the face of Russian aggression, and in Iraq, in the face of the rise of violent extremism.

In short, the foreign and defence statements of the Trudeau government of June 2017 were unlike any other in Canada’s history. The defence review might have started off like all other defence reviews of the last half-century — written primarily for domestic political, not strategic, purposes. But in an era when business-as-usual assumptions about global politics can no longer be counted on given the stream of insurgent covfefe tweets from the president of the United States, the Canadian defence review ended up, along with Freeland’s foreign policy address, being highly strategic.

Posted on The Contact Report (, Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, 13 July 2017

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