If only Stéphane Dion had saved Canada’s foreign policy

Paul Wells: A curious new book from Stéphane Dion’s former advisor offers—along with some real gossip—insight into Trudeau as a foreign-policy PM

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan at the NATO summit in Warsaw, Friday July 8, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

“In Geneva and New York, in March, June and September 2016, I attend several bilateral meetings between Dion and about 30 foreign ministers from other countries,” Jocelyn Coulon writes in his curious new book about Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy, Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau (published last week in French only by Québec-Amérique).

Dion, of course, is Stéphane Dion, who in 2016 was the foreign minister in Justin Trudeau’s rookie Liberal government. Coulon—a political scientist and occasional Le Devoir columnist who has the distinction of being the Liberal Tom Mulcair beat in an Outremont by-election in 2007—was working as an advisor in Dion’s office.

Coulon’s beats included helping to organize a peacekeeping mission for Canadian soldiers in, probably, Africa and helping Dion to campaign for Canada’s attempt to win a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The vote will be held in 2020. The term would run from 2021 to 2022. When they call these seats non-permanent, what they mean is that you end up spending more time campaigning for one than you do occupying it. The available seat is reserved for a member of the UN’s Western European and Others Group (WEOG, and I am not making that acronym up). The competition is stiff: Ireland and Norway, who have the advantage of being in Western Europe. We’re the Others.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives famously lost a vote for a Security Council seat in 2010. On the assumption, universal among opposition politicians who find themselves in power, that his predecessor had failed at something easy, Trudeau announced in March 2016 that he would try again to get on the Security Council.

Coulon writes what everyone assumed: that the attempt to organize a robust UN peacekeeping mission for Canada was synonymous with the campaign for a Security Council seat. His book is about the two projects, the rough ride both had in Trudeau’s Ottawa, the dismissal of his patron Dion, and the bitter conclusions he’s drawn about Trudeau as a foreign-policy prime minister.

Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau made quick headlines for a single fun revelation: Trudeau never had a formal, single-purpose, one-on-one meeting with Dion during Dion’s 14 months as his foreign minister. This is at once hard to believe (Dion was his foreign minister!) and easy to believe (have you met Stéphane Dion?).

But the book is worth a look, not only for the gossip, but for its insights into government process in general; the prime minister; Dion; and its own author’s preoccupations, which colour the rest.

I should get back to the quote I launched this column with. Thirty meetings with other foreign ministers in six months! Each time, the goal was to nail down a country’s vote at the General Assembly for Canada’s Security Council seat. Each time, Dion went in prepped with a briefing note from his officials, which you can be sure he’d read, and a list of potential irritants between the two countries. Each time he asked his counterpart how Canada could help that minister’s country. Requests were noted and fast-tracked for concrete action.

READ MORE: Is it time to change up Team Trudeau?

The whole process sounds amazingly transactional. Each time Dion asked whether he had the country’s vote. Of the 30, Coulon writes in a present tense that’s common for non-fiction books in French, “a good 15 of them give positive answers to Canada’s candidacy. Yet there are many negative and undecided responses.”

Why? Because four years before the vote for a two-year seat on a decision-making panel whose ability to decide anything is chronically hobbled by its permanent members’ veto, Canada was already woefully behind in campaigning. The way the math has evolved in recent decades, Coulon writes, no applicant for a non-permanent Security Council seat can ever assume a lock: “As soon as three Western candidates or more contested one or two vacant seats, member states’ votes were split almost equally among them.” This should have inspired some humility about Trudeau’s ability to outdo Harper in the modern UN, but the early psychology of any new government makes such introspection unlikely.

Who’d have the swing votes? The 54 African members. Hence the idea of getting back into peacekeeping.

In Coulon’s mind, the UN campaign and the peacekeeping mission were facets of the same job. But even though Trudeau had played host to then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at a lavish official dinner at the Museum of History in February of 2016, within months he was getting listless. The African Union Heads of State invited the new prime minister to address their summit meeting in Kigali. He declined. The invitation was never renewed.

The peacekeeping mission isn’t going great. Trudeau and his defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, had concocted a “reliable partner” strategy for defence, designed as a shield against political accusations the Liberals would never give a soldier a mission. Reliable against terrorism: equipment and military trainers in Iraq against ISIS. Reliable for NATO: a Canada-led battle group in Latvia. Reliable for the UN: Peacekeepers in Mali. But Coulon, who hates the Latvia mission, complains that the generals “offered up a proposal that was detailed down to the last pencil” for the NATO gig, but could never come to ground on details of a UN deployment.

Coulon has the peculiar ability to list the reasons why things don’t work out his way without noticing that they constitute a pretty good list of reasons. Why are NATO countries less frequently involved in peacekeeping missions than they used to be, he wonders. Well, because the nature of peacekeeping has changed, and because NATO itself has gotten into the peace operations business, his inner Danny Torrance voice tells him. “NATO’s engagement, for example, offers three advantages for western countries: first, the organization is more homogeneous than the UN, and its members have worked together since 1949; second, NATO can deploy considerable military assets to support its robust mandate; third, using NATO ensures American participation in an intervention.”

Almost any military commander would view that as a slam-dunk list of excellent reasons to allocate scarce resources to a NATO-led mission over a UN-mandated force, but Coulon has little room for such calculations in his analysis. First because he wore the UN and peacekeeping hats, and his book is largely a mystery: Why didn’t this government take the UN and peacekeeping seriously enough? Second, because he is pretty plainly working through some issues with his two former bosses.

Dion was the Liberal leader who hand-picked Coulon as his candidate in Outremont in 2007. Coulon was Stéphane Dion to three decimal places: a political scientist who liked a good scrap, took preparation seriously, and was maybe not tippy-top on the people skills. It worked out poorly.

At precisely the same time, Justin Trudeau was sniffing around the party’s Montreal ridings for a way to get into the Commons. Dion could barely stand him.

READ MORE: China is a bigger threat than Russia—but you won’t hear Trudeau say it

A decade later they’re all working in Ottawa. Hijinx ensue. Coulon had waved his hand until he landed a spot on the foreign-policy advisory committee Trudeau’s staff had organized to figure out what the young leader would say on such files. Marc Garneau and Andrew Leslie were also on the committee. It met seven times in 2014 and 2015.

Trudeau “is particularly diligent,” Coulon writes. “He always arrives on time and takes the time to listen to every intervention. He’s there to learn.” In Coulon’s book, Trudeau needs it. “His questions or his interventions remain quite summary. They never go off the beaten track and never question the dogmas of Canadian politics and defence since the end of the Second World War.”

Dion, on the other hand, is a titan among men. “When Dion enters the cabinet in November 2015, Trudeau knows the reputation of his new minister. Dion is more than a fighter and a redoubtable orator. He is a man of ideas, a stickler for details. He argues endlessly. A former minister in the Chrétien and Martin cabinets, he is the first in his class.”

This passage leads a reader to imagine a warning sticker that could handily be affixed to the cover of every copy of Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau: “Warning: The author thinks Stéphane Dion is a redoubtable orator.” What’s odd, from an author whose first public brush with Liberalism and Justin Trudeau came in 2007, is any reflection on Dion’s catastrophic tenure as the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. I mean, it was really bad. Everyone who worked with Dion in those days will tell you the leader bore a substantial part of the responsibility for what was the worst popular-vote score the party ever won, ever since Confederation, until Michael Ignatieff did worse three years later.

Surely what happened after Dion’s first stretch as a cabinet minister, from 1996 to 2006, forces a rethink of his potential in his second stretch. And if history is no guide, the man’s own behaviour, as reported by Coulon, should be cause for reflection. At the end of August, 2016, Trudeau removes Dion as chairman of the cabinet committee on the environment. Takes him off the committee altogether, in fact.

The chairman gig goes to Mélanie Joly, “an inoffensive politician and a featherweight in the cabinet,” Coulon writes. “Surely this is Dion paying for his run-ins with the Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, who had already proposed, at one of this committee’s meetings, a policy comparable to that of the Conservatives. It’s a first warning shot fired in [Dion’s] direction. The humiliation is public.”

Perhaps this should have occasioned some serious introspection about working style. I bet it did, elsewhere in Dion’s office. But for Coulon, who finds the boss a redoubtable orator and his boss a summary intervenor, there can only be one villain. Dion throws himself into planning the UN peace operation. Dion wants a big Canadian deployment to Mali. Sajjan… seems to agree? Hard to say. The two are briefed before a cabinet committee meeting on Dec. 1. The committee signs off on the Mali plan. “Patatras! The prime minister’s entourage panics. Everything is going too fast, they say in his office.” (I wouldn’t translate patatras if you paid me. It’s like crash, bang, sort of.)

This is the second time the Trudeau PMO has interfered in Dion’s plans. Early on, Trudeau’s first foreign-policy advisor, Roland Paris, physically drives down to the Pearson Building to warn Dion against delivering a speech on foreign-policy priorities. The government doesn’t have any priorities yet, he says in effect, and it might be misleading to suggest it does, so could you just remind everyone about our accomplishments to date? Dion ignores him. It’s not clear why Dion wants to coordinate more closely with the PM, since there is no evidence this government’s centre is interested in an activist minister, or at least in this one.

In January of 2017, Dion finally got that meeting, and it was so Trudeau could tell him he was out of cabinet. (Chrystia Freeland sent Coulon, and most of Dion’s advisors, home a month later.) He was offered simultaneous postings as Canada’s ambassador to Germany and the European Union, “a stupid idea improvised by Trudeau’s entourage which elicits sarcasm from Foreign Affairs and indignation at the EU and in Berlin.”

Here, Coulon has it exactly right. The posting in Brussels was eventually cancelled, and Canada’s excellent ambassador to the EU, Dan Costello, was allowed to continue. But the weirdness of sending Dion to two capitals at once had already left a mark; only last month an EU ambassador told me it’s been “a disaster.”

Perhaps more than anyone suspects. Coulon has two idées fixes: that the United States is not a helpful presence in the world or model for Canadian foreign policy, and that Russia is misunderstood. It’s not always clear how much Dion shares these ideas, but he did move Coulon to Ottawa after all.

“Dion has mixed feelings about NATO,” Coulon writes. “He admits the Alliance is a pillar of Canada’s and the West’s security architecture, but he thinks its expansion to the east was a mistake after the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. He also believes NATO is highly aggressive towards Russia. I share this point of view entirely.”

You know who doesn’t? The democratically-elected governments of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all members of the European Union and of NATO thanks to democratic processes that took place while the whole world was watching. Coulon, who puts great stock in a great post-war continuity in Canadian foreign policy, is sorely vexed that he can’t find any evidence that any Canadian prime minister had a problem with Baltic membership in the EU and NATO. “What’s striking in a reading of the memoirs of Mulroney and Chrétien is the total absence of reflection on the consequences of the expansion of NATO to the east. Neither is the least bit preoccupied with the strategic consequences or the interests of Russia regarding enlargement. They don’t anticipate in any way the future consequences of such a gesture. They ignore all the geopolitics of the gesture: the more NATO enlarges to the east, the more it approaches Russia’s borders, and the more Russia feels threatened.”

The feelings of three European democracies into which Mikhail Gorbachev rolled tanks in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed figure nowhere in Coulon’s geopolitics. Chrystia Freeland’s more hawkish instincts he attributes to her Ukrainian roots, which is probably fair in part, but he has a hard time explaining how Mulroney’s and Chrétien’s Ukrainian roots led them to view post-Cold War Europe much as she does.

He does go on about how Ukrainian Canadians vote with an eye to events back home, but again, this isn’t precisely new: Canadians of Italian, Indian and Chinese extraction tend to keep an eye on their respective old countries too, as have, historically, French and English Canadians, ahem. Instead of wishing Canadians wouldn’t view the world through an ethnic lens, perhaps it’s not too much to ask foreign-service professionals to recognize that in a democracy, motives are always complex and that “polls and the media” are not a less legitimate influence on governments’ decisions than the sage counsel of diplomats and of academics on furlough.

I think I’ve made it clear where I part company with Coulon’s analysis.

We’re left with a few big ideas about Trudeau as a foreign-policy prime minister.

First, he sure isn’t Pierre Trudeau. The old man was fascinated with North-South dialogue; the younger finds it tiresome or, at least, excessively distracting from the Canada-U.S. thumb trap. That Trudeau would have passed up a chance to address the African Union is fascinating. That his second foreign minister spends nearly all her time on the smallish portfolio of issues that might reasonably be discussed on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show is too.

But it’s possible for a prime minister to have his agenda hijacked by events, as Stephen Harper’s was for years after the 2008 bank crash. Maybe the Justin Trudeau who wanted to make the UN and peacekeeping a bigger priority decided he couldn’t afford those projects after Donald Trump got elected.

But whatever the reason, it’s hard to find evidence that Trudeau wants to be an audacious foreign-policy prime minister. Whatever you think he should do on trade with China, he seems to want to do that thing and its opposite. His trade triumphs so far consist in salvaging, not without difficulty, two agreements with big trade blocs that Harper negotiated. His last few foreign trips have, to be kind, amounted to showing up and saying “Hi!’ For its glimpses into the processes of this government, in the early days when so much seemed possible and so little was already actually happening, Coulon’s book is valuable.