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On foreign policy, Trump and Trudeau are birds of a feather

Opinion: A former diplomat on how both Trump and Trudeau are espousing weak foreign policy—and how that might be a bigger problem for Canada
Bruce Mabley
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 13, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 13, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group, a Montreal-based think tank devoted to analysis of international politics. A former Canadian career diplomat and academic specializing in Islamic law and politics, he was decorated by the French Republic as Chevalier des Palmes académiques.

On the surface, U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau couldn’t be more different. Trudeau talks a good liberal game that pleases the ears of most Canadians, almost as if ex-president Barack Obama were speaking to them; Trump, meanwhile, caters to the far right, rebuking traditional media, minority groups and just about everyone who disagrees with him. Trudeau embraces every opportunity to flaunt a tasteful social conscience while publicly embracing climate change, Indigenous peoples, youth issues, and taxing the rich; he vowed to return Canada to the world stage when the Liberals won power in 2015. Trump, meanwhile, has risen to power by offering an isolationist, nationalist vision of America’s future.

But despite their manifold differences, Trudeau and Trump actually have a lot in common when it comes to foreign policy development and execution: neither of them seems to have a clue.

For many Americans, Trump’s lack of foreign-policy know-how is by no means a startling revelation. Ever since he took office, there has been a generalized mess around just about his entire agenda, from repealing and replacing Obamacare to building a wall with Mexico. On foreign policy, Trump delights in repeating simplistic, long-winded monistic analyses and solutions of complex situations; just look at his handling of the North Korean imbroglio. But despite grand gestures, including foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s June speech to the House of Commons outlining ambitious policy goals, Trudeau also seems to share Trump’s feckless and incoherent approach to foreign policy.

Let us look at the two leaders’ recent speeches at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which are as close to foreign-policy “State of the Union” addresses as any other public document, giving us a good idea of which issues they intend to pursue. Trump spent the better part of his time lavishing praise on his own supposed domestic achievements: strengthening the U.S. military, blasting North Korea, undermining the P+5 Iranian nuclear agreement and criticizing a couple other dictators. It appears that Trump’s foreign policy is to undo Obama’s few accomplishments abroad while continuing to rail against traditional international foes. Nothing new there, except that many of his achievements have never materialized.

But there was nothing new in Trudeau’s speech, either. He spent his time lecturing a sparsely populated crowd of diplomats and onlookers about Canada and the nature of Canadians, giving a perfunctory tip of the hat to climate change and “generous” Canadian foreign-aid assistance. The fact that his government cannot apply the law of the land at the border with increasing numbers of economic refugees at its door was lost in his messaging that Canada is a welcoming place for newcomers. No international conflicts were meaningfully addressed: not Syria, not Afghanistan, nor Turkey, Ukraine, Myanmar, North Korea or the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was a particularly uninspiring performance that felt most inappropriate since its content had little to do with actual foreign policy. And it certainly didn’t prove that Canada was UN Security Council material; securing a seat among those 15 countries is a stated goal of the Trudeau government.

MORE: Will Trudeau’s feminist foreign-aid program work?

Then there are the specific U.S. and Canadian policies around conflict zones that we’ve seen in action—or, rather, in inaction. On North Korea, Trump has shown an incomparable level of incompetence hitherto unseen in an American president. Instead of actively pursuing a diplomatic pathway, the only one currently available to the United States to control the conflict—there is no solution short of complete Chinese buy-in—Trump spent his time arguing with “Rocket Man” and brandishing threats of military action. Ultimately, others will have to clean up his foreign-policy mess on Korea while U.S. allies look on with worried stares of disbelief. Canada, though, has remained mostly sidelined, and while John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, recently mused about helping to broker a peace, Canada has not appeared to do much but keep quiet.

MORE: As the North Korean crisis escalates, Canada must step up

Then there is Syria, a debacle to be sure—and no one is expecting a miraculous solution soon. After taking military action following Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-facilitated chemical strike on his own people, Trump has done little on the file, apart from the usual tweeting and other aimless verbal attacks. As for Trudeau, he apparently believes that accepting Syrian refugees is the same thing as having a policy on Syria. And while the Trudeau Liberals have helped fund the Commission on Justice and Accountability—the Canadian-founded group that has done extraordinary work amassing war-crimes dossiers on Assad and other top officials—they cannot boast of a recent policy document with any new vision on who Canada supports in Syria.

MORE: Why Trump’s strikes on Assad are a good thing—and not enough

On the P+5 Iran deal that Obama helped broker, the “master of the deal” himself said that it was a bad agreement and announced plans to revoke it. In doing so, U.S. foreign-policy makers have deliberately provoked Iran and inserted more instability into a fragile region that includes Iraq, Syria and the Kurdish autonomists. This senseless and potentially needless foray into a zone of crisis and conflict is leaving a mess of significant proportions not only in the region, but between the U.S. and its European allies, too; Trump seems to have forgotten to get the other European leaders on board with his revocation plan.

For Canada, all is quiet on that front—there’s been not a word on what Canada will do in Iran. A case could be made that the Trudeau Liberals took an unusually independent stand from Stephen Harper’s regime when, in a rare example of Canadian initiative, former foreign minister Stephane Dion met Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarf at the UNGA in 2016 to attempt to restart dialogue and to discuss the potential opening of an embassy in Tehran as well as the detention of Canadian professor Homa Hoodfar. However, events overtook the process: Dion was removed from his post, and Trump’s attacks on the P+5 accord muddied the political waters, making Canada cautious about creating a hornet’s nest in Washington, especially given the delicate re-negotiation of the NAFTA accord. Ceding to the United States in this case merely proves that there’s nothing new to report on Iran in the Canadian foreign-affairs playbook.

MORE: Canada finally takes a stand on Iran

During Trump’s campaign for president, he specifically mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his pet projects for dealmaking. In fairness, he said it would be difficult—but then again, Trump sees himself as a master of the art of the difficult deal. Very little has happened since. Meanwhile, when the pro-Israeli Harper government was unseated in the fall of 2015, many Arab states hoped for a more even-handed approach from Canada’s new Liberal government. After all, after the Canadian governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin demonstrated a more even-handed policy with respect to UN Israeli and Palestinian resolutions and votes, one can now detect a dramatic loss of equilibrium. Now, there is a striking similarity in the voting pattern between the Harper and Trudeau years on the file; although a few important ambassadors were changed, the vast majority of senior and middle management at Global Affairs has remained the same, with no renewal or reform to the department’s arcane hiring and promotion practices. At Global Affairs, the Middle East branch was recently divided into two regional groupings, the Gulf countries and the Levant. This is nothing new—except that for some unknown reason Jordan got thrown in with the Gulf countries. Miscues like these do not go unnoticed by Arab representatives in Ottawa.

But in cases where a president or prime minister has no foreign-policy vision, America’s political system is more flexible than Canada’s. Their elected Senate and the House of Representatives have foreign-policy mandates; Congress, for instance, validates State Department nominees for ambassador posts in public hearings, while any initiative in foreign policy by the President involving money can be blocked by Congress. On the other hand, although many Canadians would challenge this assumption, a British-style parliamentary democracy allows for much less freedom of action when the ruling party, with a clear majority in the House of Commons, is suffering from a form of policy paralysis. Political parties and party discipline play a far more important role here.

One wonders now where Security Council seat votes will come from given the nombriliste perspective that Trudeau is giving Canada’s foreign-policy outlook. His UNGA speech was a case in point; it features an outlook very similar in its lack of content to President Trump’s all-embracing, no-time-to-focus, dealmaker approach. Trudeau’s approach appears to be an embrace of selfies and photo-ops while abroad, avoiding any substantive discussion of international issues. Either he does not sufficiently understand the issues or, like Trump, he has a found convenient way to distract the traditional media and reap political hay at the same time. Different strokes for different folks—but they’re still two sides of the same coin.