David Carment – Justin Trudeau’s First Real Test

This article was originally posted on iAffairs Canada on Nov. 18, 2015.

The recent attacks in Paris and the bombing of Russian Flight 321 over Egypt lay bare the obvious fact that Canada’s new leader faces some very tough foreign policy choices. That ISIS claims credit for both attacks is only part of the issue. Trudeau came to power in part on scaling back our war against that group. Were we to pull out of that air campaign, which some have suggested is mostly symbolic anyway, Trudeau and his advisers might conclude that is sufficient and that Canada would be better protected from the horrendous attacks that have plagued France and others.  But there are bigger risks ahead. The first is that ceasing our bombing campaign against ISIS will be inconsequential to Trudeau’s overall objective of bringing purpose to an undefined military strategy.

To suggest that ending the bombing will bring an end to “mission creep” or make Canadians less vulnerable is misleading. Canada is, after all, already supporting the much more important ground war against ISIS led by the Kurdish Peshmerga, much to the dismay of both Iraq and Turkey. We are, for all intents and purposes, through our Canadian advisers and trainers on the ground, helping to create a  Kurdish state carved out of parts of Syria and Iraq. Withdrawing Canada’s air capability is meaningless, if we continue to support the ground war.  Trudeau cannot afford to let his rhetoric run ahead of reality. His supporters elected him precisely because of his claims to transparency and openness.

Second, Trudeau risks having his broader foreign policy agenda on the environment, refugees and trade sidetracked by his security agenda. The Paris attacks can only strengthen those critics who claim that Trudeau is wrong to revisit Bill C51 and those who argue it is a mistake for Canada to pursue a more even handed approach in the Middle East. Crises it seems, will inexorably impose upon even the most earnest among politicians, painful and even unpopular decisions.  Political leaders cannot out-run events. They can only respond to them.

When asked how far he was willing to go in imposing the War Measures Act in the face of an apprehended insurrection, Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre – famously quipped “just watch me.”  Pierre Trudeau came to power on the strength of his record as a Minister of Justice and advancement of civil liberties, but even that record was not enough to insulate him and his party from making unpopular and heavy handed decisions during the FLQ crisis. George W. Bush was elected on a platform of US disengagement from the world. His National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice intoning, that America no longer had an interest in being the “World’s Policeman.”  Barack Obama was presumably destined to be the President that would rebuild America’s economy, its unity and its purpose.

Instead, we have witnessed two of the most interventionist presidents in American history, and a country fixated on military campaigns stretching from North Africa right through to Pakistan for the better part of two decades. Canada for better or worse has followed lock step with America over that period. Even George Bush’s war effort in Iraq in 2003 was backed up by Canadian forces even though publically Jean Chretien’s Liberal government did not acknowledge that effort.

Third, Trudeau the younger’s arrival in Paris for the climate talks at the end of this month will put him in the unproven position of restrained leadership, where the discussion will be as much about the current security climate as it will be climate change. Under tight protection, the man who revels in mingling with the public and moving unpredictably though large crowds will meet only with those whom his security advisers allow him to. His movements will not only be guarded, so too will be what he says. His policy advisers will keep a close watch on how the leader phrases his responses to recent attacks afflicting our allies. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Trudeau suggested that we spend more time focusing on the “root causes” of terrorism. Notwithstanding the fact that Canada already contributes considerable funding to address such problems Trudeau’s points were refreshing and different. He seized the narrative and offered a distinct perspective that set him apart from his political rival Stephen Harper, who spoke of the need for retribution and punishment of those responsible. Now in a position of leadership, Justin Trudeau can either seize the narrative or be seized by it. He can let the security agenda dominate his next four years in power or, as promised, he can take Canada in a new direction.

David Carment is a Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). In addition, Professor Carment serves as the principal investigator for the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project (CIFP). He is editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (CFPJ) and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

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