By: Matthew Fisher, National Post
The Trudeau government has a bit of a pacifist streak, a peacekeeping fetish, a romantic nostalgia for Pearsonian internationalism and a distrust of the security arrangements that have kept Canada safe since the Second World War.
Canadian troops donning blue berets and marching off to Africa for the first time in two decades are part of a seismic shift by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to prioritize working with the UN to solve international disputes rather than collaborating with traditional allies.
The Liberals’ lack of ardour for working with such treaty partners as NATO or NORAD precedes the current prime minister’s term by many years. But with peacekeeping now dominating the conversation in government circles in Ottawa, there is less enthusiasm for those alliances than ever.
While there is no talk of Canada quitting NATO or NORAD — the rote platitudes about a profound and abiding commitment are still uttered — the prime minister and his closest advisers are clearly more comfortable working with the UN than the country’s old partners. This conviction arises partly from the insecurities some Canadians have about their southern neighbours and partly from a desire to stake out international diplomatic turf that Canada can claim as its own.
Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty ImagesPrime Minister Justin Trudeau greets UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he arrives for a conference on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Montreal Sept. 17, 2016.
The change in focus can not only be seen in Ottawa’s rapture with the UN and French Africa — which Liberal Quebecers such as Trudeau the Elder and Jean Chrétien always had a soft spot for — but in the government’s giddy promotion of trade and friendship with China, whose “basic dictatorship” Trudeau the Younger has said he admires, and which is likely construed from the U.S. point of view as a move away from Washington.
It has been repeated like a mantra recently that China is now Canada’s second-most important trading partner, after the United States. Usually left unsaid is that Canada is only China’s 13th-most important trading partner. Similarly forgotten in the rush to become close to China’s Communist regime — and put aside its appalling human rights record and current mania for building fighter and naval bases on sandbars in the South China Sea — is that Canada’s trade with the U.S. is still about 10 times greater and represents the largest trading relationship in the world.
As for Trudeau’s “bromance” with Barack Obama, it is fun while it lasts. The friendship ends with the U.S. presidential election next month. It will almost certainly be followed by more complicated relationships with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
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It was obvious that Trudeau’s bond with Obama was wearing a little thin after the president told Parliament a couple of months ago that he expected Canada to continue pulling its weight in NATO. That polite public reading of the riot act was followed almost immediately by Trudeau’s announcement that a Canadian-led combat force would soon be sent overseas to act as tripwire along the Russian border in the Baltics.
The announcement came as a shock at NATO headquarters in Brussels. As one delighted senior official told me, Ottawa had done everything it could for months to avoid making such a commitment.
The lack of interest in NATO comes as the alliance faces many stresses and tests because of Russia and fractures in the European Union. If NATO comes apart, don’t expect Canada to try to help much to keep it together.
On NORAD, it looks as if Trudeau is determined to buy a new fighter jet that will not have the latest capabilities that the American and other NATO aircraft have. While privately unhappy about this, the Americans are unlikely to publicly criticize Canada. That is because continental air defence is so crucial to Americans that they will simply take over Canada’s northern air space and put our new, small fleet of second-tier fighter jets in the rear with the gear.
The Liberals’ preference for the UN, which has been underlined by Trudeau’s pursuit of a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, began long before he decided to follow his father into federal politics. The Chrétien government wisely declined to be part of George W. Bush’s ill-starred coalition in Iraq and the reason at the time was because the operation did not have the UN’s blessing. The Chrétien and Martin Liberals later agreed to send troops to Afghanistan, but that was a UN-sanctioned mission.
Stephen Harper had a famously different view of the UN than Trudeau. Although Canada continued to be one of the UN’s biggest financial supporters during Harper’s years in power, he criticized it frequently as ineffectual and corrupt and for being dominated by unsavoury officials from countries that are dictatorships.
Harper sometimes denounced the UN but mostly ignored it. He preferred to co-operate with the Five Eyes (the intelligence-sharing alliance with Britain, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.). He signed on to American- and NATO-led bombing campaigns against Iraq, Syria and Libya; sent F-18s on a NATO mission to defend Lithuania; and put Canadian military trainers on the ground in Ukraine, Poland and Iraq.
Until now, the Trudeau government’s warm embrace of the UN has not produced benefits or damaging consequences. But the change of direction must be causing bewilderment and anxiety in Washington and other Western capitals and perverse delight in Beijing and Moscow.