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Canada John Ivison: Canada has zero street cred on world stage

00:45  28 january  2022
00:45  28 january  2022 Source:   nationalpost.com

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Tom Axworthy remembers the occasion when Pierre Trudeau encouraged Ronald Reagan to broaden his approach to the Soviet Union during a visit to the White House in December, 1983.

Inconceivable as it seemed then (and does now) the Kremlin was convinced that NATO was preparing a first strike, in part because the Americans had unveiled the Star Wars defence initiative and the U.S. president was referring to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”

As Axworthy, Trudeau’s principal secretary, put it: “There was a whiff of Sarajevo in the air.”

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Inside the White House, Axworthy recalls that the Canadian prime minister leaned in and said: “Mr. President, you are one of the great communicators — you can dispel that impression.”

Trudeau emphasized a point that still resonates — never assume that what is unimaginable to you, is unimaginable to everyone else — in this case the prospect of a U.S. first strike.

Trudeau had announced in October that he intended to meet with the heads of the five nuclear states and other foreign leaders to kickstart talks after the breakdown of arms negotiations — against the advice of many of the mandarins at the department of Foreign Affairs, who worried he would embarrass Canada.

Although a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” Trudeau’s governments were focused on domestic issues in their early years. His biographer, John English, quotes a cabinet memo in which Trudeau asked if the Canadian Forces could be used to build highways or solve problems like pollution.

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Yet, by the time he returned to power in 1980, he was intent on launching an ambitious international agenda, including his ill-fated North-South initiative, where he championed developing nations in the face of indifference from leaders like Margaret Thatcher.

 Ottawa – U.S. President Ronald Reagan (c) surrounded by (l-r) President of the European Union commission Gaston Thorn, Japanese Premier Zenko Suzuki, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, French President Frantois Mitterrand, British Premier Margareth Thatcher and Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini during the Summit of the leading industrial countries, in Ottawa, 18 July 1981. (GEORGES BENDRIHEM/AFP/Getty Images) Ottawa – U.S. President Ronald Reagan (c) surrounded by (l-r) President of the European Union commission Gaston Thorn, Japanese Premier Zenko Suzuki, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, French President Frantois Mitterrand, British Premier Margareth Thatcher and Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini during the Summit of the leading industrial countries, in Ottawa, 18 July 1981. (GEORGES BENDRIHEM/AFP/Getty Images)

He got on with Reagan on a personal level and had met the up-and-coming Soviet agricultural minister, Mikhail Gorbachev, during his visit to Ottawa.

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Sensing that his time in office was running out, Trudeau risked failure to get arms control talks started because he felt the world had reached a dangerous crossroads.

But, as English asked: “Would the world pay attention to Trudeau? Did Canada matter?”

The evidence is inconclusive. Trudeau travelled to meet leaders in Europe, Asia and Africa; he visited India to meet Commonwealth leaders, including Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi; he went to China to meet Deng Xiaoping; and to Washington to see Reagan. He might well have gone to Moscow to meet Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, had he not died in January, 1984.

After meeting Reagan at the White House, the president wished him “Godspeed” on his mission, much to the surprise of the Canadian delegation.

The peace effort flagged after the White House visit and English’s verdict is that its impact was marginal, “perhaps a small push on Reagan to follow the direction in which his instincts were already leading him.”

Fen Hampson, Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University, is skeptical that Trudeau shifted opinion in Washington. “We should be careful about putting halos on the past,” he said.

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But the peace initiative was at least a sign that Canada was playing a substantive role on the world stage — and that the great powers listened.

Brian Mulroney loomed larger still in East-West relations. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, and his secretary of state, James Baker, came to Ottawa in 1989 to visit Mulroney and his foreign affairs minister, Joe Clark. Bush said he was looking for advice on how to handle the Soviets and America’s European allies. John Noble, a former director general at the Canadian Bureau for International Security and Arms Control, recalls a task force was struck to come up with ideas that Canada might propose to Bush. The focus became an open skies regime that would permit unarmed military aircraft from NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to overfly the territory of the other side as a confidence-building measure to demonstrate they were not engaged in a military build-up.

Noble said in an article in Policy magazine in 2020 that when he visited Washington with the idea, “it was like pushing on an open door.” Mulroney and Clark travelled to Washington in May 1989 and Bush embraced the open skies idea. “It looked like a no-lose proposition from our side,” the president said later.

By late summer, Baker and Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze had agreed to open negotiations and in November Mulroney visited Moscow for a four-hour discussion with Gorbachev. The Canadian prime minister delivered a private message from Bush that he would not try to profit politically from the fall of the Berlin Wall at Gorbachev’s expense. Mulroney debriefed the president personally on his return.

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The following February, Canada welcomed foreign ministers from NATO and the Warsaw Pact for their first ever meeting in Ottawa, a meeting at which the Americans and Soviets announced a process for German reunification. Noble said he witnessed the “very public dissolution of the Warsaw Pact,” as successive eastern European countries distanced themselves from the Soviets on open skies.

The pact was eventually signed in Helsinki in 1992 and was in existence until Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2020, citing Russian violations. Fen Hampson said the success of Canada’s role was down to the wealth of bureaucratic expertise. “It gave Canada a serious seat at the table,” he said.

The history is compelling but so what?

The pith of it is that Canada is no longer playing the role of middle power interlocutor.

In Hampson’s 2018 book Master of Persuasion, James Baker wrote a preface that complimented Mulroney’s advice at the end of the Cold War. “Under Brian Mulroney’s leadership, Canada punched well above its weight on the world stage,” Baker wrote.

It is hard to imagine that being said about Justin Trudeau, or of his predecessor, Stephen Harper.

“(Justin) Trudeau has been pushed to the sidelines and is not part of high-level discussions,” said James Bezan, the veteran Conservative MP. “When (president Joe) Biden makes phone calls, Trudeau is last on his list. When (global affairs minister, Mélanie) Joly went to Ukraine, she went empty-handed, with nothing to promise other than empty rhetoric.”

The Opposition would say that, but few people have been impressed with Canada’s muddled response to events unfolding in eastern Europe.

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As Russian troops mass on the borders of Ukraine, Trudeau has rejected a request for weapons, saying he believes in a diplomatic solution (instead, he promised to send bullet-proof vests, night goggles and an additional 60 military trainers.)

Yet, while refusing to follow the lead of the Americans and British, who have both sent anti-tank weapons, Trudeau has not risked his reputation on a personal diplomatic initiative. It has been left to French president, Emmanuel Macron, to push for dialogue with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin (the two are scheduled to talk on Friday.)

Russia’s ambassador in Ottawa, Oleg Stepanov, in the Globe and Mail this week, urged Trudeau to call Moscow, so that Putin could tell him there is “zero chance” of Russia invading Ukraine. The two men have never had an official bilateral, though the Canadian prime minister met the Russian president on the margins of the G20 in Turkey in 2016, when he told him of Canada’s opposition to Russia’s adventures in Crimea. It would be entirely within the traditions of Canadian foreign policy for Trudeau to make a call and explore the prospects for arms control and confidence-building measures. Why not even suggest the resurrection of open skies?

“Canada should be the voice of the adult in the room, saying ‘come on, let’s not engage in brinksmanship, let’s engage in constructive dialogue,” said Hampson. “If we don’t, we could have a crisis that could spiral out of control.”

Unfortunately, there are few votes in foreign affairs and the Trudeau government’s agenda has been driven by domestic considerations.

Arms control, confidence building and nuclear non-proliferation are not mentioned in Joly’s mandate letter.

“We used to have a lot of street cred in that game,” said Hampson.

With the perspective of 40 years, Axworthy says the impact of the elder Trudeau’s peace initiative should not be exaggerated but that it was helpful in the evolution of Reagan’s naturally-optimistic world-view.

He lamented Canada’s apparent diminution on the world stage. “We don’t seem to have made an impact on the world stage, even in a minor way in recent times,” he said, a decline evident from the failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council by both the Harper and Trudeau governments.

Canada’s ebbing influence has coincided with fewer resources (in relative terms) being devoted to diplomacy, defence and international development (defence spending has fallen from over two per cent of GDP in the mid-1980s to 1.4 per cent; overseas development aid has dipped from 0.5 per cent of the economy in 1987 to around 0.3 per cent.)

“It’s not surprising we’ve come down a rung, given we’re not investing enough,” said Axworthy. “The world doesn’t seem to be enough of a priority for us to invest in influence and capability in international affairs.”

The hard truth is that Canada doesn’t matter that much anymore.

jivison@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/IvisonJ

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